Mere weeks removed from a painful exit in the playoffs, the Brooklyn Nets now must navigate the upcoming and complex offseason. Perhaps the biggest question is whether Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will return.
In each scenario, Brooklyn's control is quite limited. They can do nothing more than offer the soon-to-be free agent Pierce a new deal and await his decision. Meanwhile, Garnett's choice to either retire or return for a final season under contract is in his hands alone.
Most basketball pundits figure that Pierce and Garnett will come to the same conclusion about returning to Brooklyn. Either both will stay on the Nets, or both will leave, to a different franchise or to the comforts of retirement, in Garnett's case. While not a guarantee, this assumption seems reasonable: Pierce and Garnett have been teammates for seven consecutive seasons now. They play a similar style of emotional, gritty basketball, and at this point it's hard to imagine one of them staying in Brooklyn without his longtime counterpart.
The question for Brooklyn is whether the club wants the duo back in black (and white) next season, or would prefer to move on to different players. Here are three reasons why the Nets should absolutely hope that by the end of the summer, Pierce and Garnett are still on the roster.
Without context, one might advise the Brooklyn Nets to decline a pursuit of Pierce and cross their fingers for Garnett's retirement. Pierce, an established star and a crowd-pleaser, will fetch a significant payday in free agency and Garnett is owed $12 million next season. In isolation, those two financial commitments sound burdensome, especially for players far past their prime.
But the reality of the Nets' payroll makes it so that the team shouldn't think of Pierce and Garnett's fees as reasons not to retain them. Brooklyn is paying its superstar trio of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez almost $59 million next season. Throw in the $8.7 million owed to guard Marcus Thornton, and the Nets have already passed the salary cap and are approaching the luxury cap, and that's counting just four players.
As a result, Garnett and Pierce's salaries aren't going to push the Nets over the cap or disallow them from pursuing other impact free agents. Moreover, the Nets have Pierce's Bird rights, meaning they can offer him as much as a maximum salary despite already being over the cap.
Williams, Johnson and Lopez are all signed through at least 2016, which means the Nets' fate will essentially be tied to those three until then. After that summer, Brooklyn can begin creating the next version of its franchise, and by then Garnett and Pierce will be gone. Garnett's contract expires in 2015, at which point he will most likely retire. Pierce has stated that he'd only like to play one or two more years, making 2015-16 his projected final season.
The Nets have committed their next two seasons to the aforementioned trio, and have thus lost almost all financial flexibility. Therefore, the team should consider Pierce and Garnett only in terms of how much they can contribute, and not as strains on their already bloated payroll.
Pierce and Garnett each averaged a career low in points per game in 2013-14. Both, however, can still be positive contributors for Brooklyn next season.
First of all, a closer look at their statistics this past season shows that their decline wasn't that steep after all. Pierce may have averaged less than 14 points per contest, but he still shot 45 percent from the floor and 37 percent from beyond the arc. His effective field goal percentage of 53 was his third-best over his entire career.
He finished the regular season with a flourish, and his 16.8 PER, while not excellent, puts him in the same tier as guys like Kemba Walker and Monta Ellis. Pierce also proved to be quite valuable in the postseason. His two signature playoff moments—a late jumper in Game 1 and a block in Game 7—bookended the Nets' tight series victory over the Toronto Raptors in the first round. Plus, his ability to play either forward positions fits well into Jason Kidd's evolving rotations, and potentially gives Brooklyn flexibility with its lineups next season.
It's a bit harder to argue in favor of Garnett's remaining talent, since the big man had a more precipitous drop-off in 2013-14. Nightly averages of 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds are a bit thin for $12 million per year, especially since Garnett missed 28 games during the regular season.
Yet Garnett's value, if not as apparent as in his previous years, was still present. His Defensive Rating of 101 was easily the team's best, and his Total Rebound Percentage of 19.3 was far better than the likes of Mason Plumlee (14.5), Andray Blatche (14.4) and Lopez (11.5).
Brooklyn was a poor rebounding team last season, and will likely not be a very good one next season either, since they don't have the money to pick up an elite big man. But, without Garnett, they could be a truly awful team on the boards in 2014-15.
And, finally, Garnett also saved a few choice performances for the playoffs. His 25 points and 16 rebounds in Games 6 and 7 against Toronto might have saved Brooklyn from an early postseason exit.
No, Garnett and Pierce are not as potent as they were ten years ago, when KG was a league MVP and The Truth averaged 26 points per game. This team still needs another scoring option and a defensive anchor, though, and Pierce and Garnett can provide that.
When people mention the positive influence that Pierce and Garnett have on their teammates, it's usually in reference to their veteran leadership, their tenacity and their history of success. These aspects are important, as the two have the capacity to create a winning atmosphere for the players around them. More specifically, Plumlee will certainly appreciate Garnett's tutorship.
But, in this case, the two can have an effect without stepping on the court. Within the scope of the offseason, the duo's influence has more to do with attracting players to rejoin the Nets. Beyond convincing each other to stay, Pierce and Garnett could be magnets for other key Brooklyn role players, such as Andrei Kirilenko.
"You want to be on a team which is competitive, that’s the main thing," Kirilenko said recently, via NetsDaily, when speaking about his possible return to Brooklyn. Kirilenko won't star in many highlight reels, but his defensive efforts and solid basketball instincts make him a highly desirable asset.
Beyond Kirilenko, imminent free agents Blatche and Shaun Livingston may be more inclined to consider returning to the Nets if they know Pierce and Garnett will still be around. Both Blatche and Livingston are more likely to seek other teams with more money to offer, but it could only help Brooklyn's chances to have a few future Hall of Famers around to lure those guys off the market.
Pierce and Garnett have always been popular amongst their teammates, and would complement next season's existing roster to create a team headed for the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference. That may be enough to entice other players back to Brooklyn.
Pierce and Garnett very well may not be playing for the Nets next season. Pierce is rumored to have interest in his former team, the Boston Celtics, and his former coach, Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers. Garnett may be tired of icing his knees and choose to ease into retirement, already a legend of the game.
If the Nets are lucky, though, both will be back. In the present, they can help sew together a fast scattering roster. In the near future they can provide solid minutes on the hardwood. And in the distant future, their cost to the Nets will be inconsequential compared to Brooklyn's other commitments.
All statistics from Basketball-Reference.com.