NEW YORK — A reckoning is coming. A trade, maybe several, that will radically reshape the Brooklyn Nets as we have come to know and love (and/or mock, and/or disdain) them.
Deron Williams could be shipped out.
Brook Lopez could follow.
Joe Johnson will likely stay, but there's no guarantee of that, either.
The Nets—having spent wildly to chase a title only to find themselves stuck on a gold-plated treadmill—are now working to break the cycle of mediocrity. All they need is a willing trade partner (or two) to take their high-priced stars.
(We'll pause here until the snickering subsides.)
In truth, there never was much to love or respect about the Williams-Lopez-Johnson union, perhaps the least intimidating "Big Three" facsimile we have ever seen. Their statistics and salaries projected strength. Their play inspired shrugs, a collective "meh" from the masses.
A breakup is coming, and no one, not even the most devout Nets fan, will mourn the occasion. But it's worth looking back for a moment, too, to remember how they got here.
The Nets never set out to be the costliest mediocre team in NBA history. It just sort of happened that way, through a series of miscalculations, near misses and simple misfortune, all compounded by an owner's unbridled ambition.
• What if the Nets had obtained their primary target in 2011, Carmelo Anthony, instead of Williams?
• What if Williams had remained the elite player he was in 2010, when he rivaled Chris Paul as the NBA's best point guard?
• What if Dwight Howard had signed with the Nets in 2012—as he had intended—instead of waiving his right to free agency in a moment of panic?
Yet a greater "what if" underlies all of it: What if the Nets had built organically, methodically, instead of falling prey to the instant-gratification virus that afflicts so many New York teams? (Looking at you, Knicks.)
Would Brooklyn now be cheering a Damian Lillard-Derrick Favors tandem? Maybe.
The Nets front office never had that option.
From the moment the Nets were purchased by Mikhail Prokhorov, the swaggering Russian billionaire, the standing order was clear: Get a star. Any star. And get him now.
With the Nets moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012, the business and marketing folks ruled the agenda. Prokhorov needed a name to put on the Barclays Center marquee and a means to bump the Knicks off the back pages of the tabloids.
Prokhorov boldly predicted a takeover of New York. He erected a billboard of himself and Jay-Z, then a part-owner, across from Madison Square Garden, with the slogan, "The Blueprint for Greatness."
Prokhorov needed star power. He needed a foothold in the market.
The Nets "had to have something going to Brooklyn," a person familiar with the franchise's agenda said. "You only have one chance to introduce yourself as a brand."
Carmelo Anthony, who spent his early childhood in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, might have been that brand.
It's been forgotten now, but the Nets were the front-runners to acquire Anthony from Denver, until the Knicks ramped up their efforts. The Nets' trade offer included Favors, Devin Harris and four first-round draft picks, along with salary-cap filler.
Although reports indicated that Anthony would only re-sign with the Knicks, the Nets firmly believed otherwise. Anthony was so determined to sign a $65 million extension before the lockout that he would have ultimately accepted a deal with the Nets, team officials believed.
It all became moot when Knicks owner Jim Dolan commandeered negotiations and caved into the Nuggets' demands. Anthony became a Knick.
And the Nets—desperate for a franchise star—pivoted to Williams, who at the time was 26, a two-time All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist. He had just been named the league's top point guard, ahead of Paul, in an annual poll of team executives.
The Nets sent Favors and Harris, plus two first-round picks, to Utah. They had their man.
What looked like a blockbuster, fate-changing deal then looks like a spectacular misfire now. The moody, oft-injured Williams, while still a capable scorer and playmaker, is no longer a top-10 point guard.
Every major move the Nets have made since then has compounded the mistake:
* The trade for Gerald Wallace—a deal made to placate Williams—which cost them the pick that became Lillard.
* The trade for Johnson—a deal made to convince Williams to re-sign—which cost the Nets another first-round pick and payroll flexibility.
* The decision to give Williams a maximum five-year, $100 million deal the summer before they moved to Brooklyn.
And yet the Nets still might have secured a better fate if Howard had simply stuck to his guns back in 2012. Howard was heading for free agency, with an opt-out clause in his contract. He and Williams had quietly planned to join forces in Brooklyn. The Nets had ample salary-cap room.
But with controversy swirling around him, Howard signed away his right to opt out, killing the Nets' best chance for a true franchise star.
"That really was the turning point, him opting in," a Nets source said.
The Nets would also have kept Lopez, either pairing him with Howard in a massive frontcourt or dealing him later for help elsewhere.
There are no guarantees that a Williams-Howard partnership would have worked out any better than the Williams-Johnson tandem. And the Nets might still have made the deal for Pierce and Garnett a year later. It's the Prokhorov way.
But Howard would have provided a much sturdier foundation, with much less impact to the payroll and the draft-pick supply.
Having established their foothold and their brand, having built a fanbase (however flimsy), the Nets now can at last shift toward a sounder agenda, one ruled by basketball instead of marketing. Thus, the decision to make their three stars available in trade.
Team officials concluded months ago that they had gone as far as they could with this core, that a breakup was necessary. It will be challenging.
Williams is signed for two seasons after this one at a cost of $43.3 million, making him the toughest to move of the three. Johnson's deal expires sooner, in 2016, but his salary—$24.9 million next season—makes any trade challenging. Lopez is the cheapest of the three, with a $15.7 million salary this season and a $16.7 million option for next season.
Lopez's history of foot problems could scare off potential suitors. But assuming he opts out in July—as many executives expect—he would actually pose the smallest burden among the three stars.
The market might not be strong for any of them, but as we have learned many times over the years, there really is no such thing as an untradable contract in the NBA.
Nets officials are confident they can move Williams and Lopez, retool around Johnson and stay in the playoff hunt in a weak Eastern Conference. Come 2016, Johnson would be off the books, too, leaving the Nets with a bundle of cap room to pursue Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond or Al Horford among others in a stacked free-agent class.
Even if the Nets keep their three high-priced stars, they will have lots of room to spend in 2016, when the cap is expected to leap by at least $16 million.
The first-round picks in 2016 and 2018 are gone. But the Nets still have first-rounders coming in 2015 and 2017 (albeit subject to swaps with Atlanta and Boston). Payroll relief isn't far off. The Nets have promising prospects in Bojan Bogdanovic and Mason Plumlee. They have a respected coach, Lionel Hollins. They have the Brooklyn cachet to sell, a luxury they lacked back in 2011.
All the Nets need now is a little sanity in the owner's suite, a little patience and a trading partner or two.
We'll pause again to let the snickering subside.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.