The transaction cost the Nets multiple assets and tens of millions in luxury taxes, with a single goal in mind: Win now, win big, whatever the cost. They declared themselves “all in”—a slogan echoed on billboards featuring Pierce and Garnett under the headline, “We’re in.”
It was a risky, expensive gambit, but with a certain romantic quality and just enough logic to seem reasonable. The two future Hall of Famers would join the Nets’ three existing stars and together they would launch an all-out assault on LeBron’s throne.
“All in” was exhilarating. “All in” was defensible. If it failed, it would fail spectacularly.
It just wasn’t supposed to fail like this, with the Nets losing their star center, their title hopes and perhaps an entire era to a single fragile foot.
The team learned Saturday that Brook Lopez had fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, an injury that will cancel his season and could threaten his career. Lopez broke the same bone two years ago, wiping out most of the 2011-12 season.
There is a long and sad history of 7-footers whose NBA careers have been cut short by chronic foot problems, and the Nets can only pray that Lopez avoids the fate suffered by Yao Ming, Bill Walton and Todd MacCulloch, among others.
This much is clear: The Nets’ chase for the 2014 championship is over, if it ever really began. Yet it is the future that should worry them most.
Lopez is the Nets’ youngest star and perhaps their most irreplaceable—a 25-year-old center with elite scoring skills both inside and outside the paint. He shoots a high percentage, draws double-teams and provides the fulcrum for the offense. He is a better defender than his reputation suggests: As of Friday, Lopez rated as the best rim-protector in the league, based on opponents’ shooting percentage, according to NBA.com.
Over the last two seasons, the Nets have gone 53-38 with Lopez on the court and 5-12 without him. He is vital to everything they do, and a key to their future.
Lopez is under contract for two more seasons, at $15.7 million in 2014-15 and $16.7 million in 2015-16, his paycheck taking up about a quarter of the salary cap. A diminished Lopez would sink their chances of becoming an NBA power anytime soon.
The promise of that first Brooklyn Nets team, the one that rolled up 49 victories last season, is already eroding before our eyes.
Williams, just 29, has been plagued by ankle injuries, dropping him from the ranks of the elite at point guard. When healthy, he is still capable of dominating a game. He just isn’t healthy enough to merit much confidence, and he is owed $63 million over the three seasons after this one.
Joe Johnson, the third member of the Nets’ core, is still a potent scorer and clutch shooter, but at age 32 his best years are behind him, and his contract is crippling. Johnson is owed $23.2 million next season and $24.9 million in 2015-16, the final year of his deal.
The Nets have no chance to create salary-cap room until 2016, and no first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. It will be difficult to replenish the roster.
If Lopez returns next fall and stays healthy, if Williams’ ankles stay strong and Johnson’s shooting stays true, the Nets could maintain a respectable edge. The expected arrival next season of Bojan Bogdanovic, a sweet-shooting forward now playing in Europe, could bolster the lineup. Mason Plumlee, the Nets’ rookie center, has shown some promise.
The future may be salvageable, if not necessarily glorious.
But the present is a disaster, and it could have dramatic repercussions in the coming months.
Pierce can leave as a free agent in July. Garnett is under contract through next season, at $12 million, but it is doubtful he would want to stay without Pierce. If they want another shot at the championship, it will probably have to be elsewhere.
Nets officials must now confront the same calculus: If the title chase is lost, is there any reason to keep Pierce? Is there any reason not to trade him by the Feb. 20 deadline?
Even at 36, Pierce could be valuable as a short-term rental for a contending team. A reunion with Doc Rivers in Los Angeles seems more than plausible, if the Nets and Clippers can work out the details.
This Nets season was predicated on five stars working in unison, an experiment that never really got a chance to work. The Nets might have overcome their slow start—the injuries to Pierce, Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry, the rookie mistakes by coach Jason Kidd—and still put together a respectable season. In a watered-down Eastern Conference, all things seemed possible.
Even at 9-17, the Nets were just two games behind Boston for the Atlantic Division lead on Saturday. A little luck, a little good health, a late kick next spring and, who knows, the Nets might have given Miami and Indiana the fight they promised them.
Mikhail Prokhorov’s bankroll and general manager Billy King’s boldness made the Nets an instant power last year. Perhaps they will double down now, make a play for Omer Asik or Spencer Hawes, sacrifice one more future asset for the chance to save the present.
But maybe it’s time for the Nets to confront the toughest question of all: Just how much more “all in” can they afford to go?
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.