11:36 am Jul. 5, 2012
For all the successes the Brooklyn Nets have tallied this week—and they are sizable, taking a roster that limped to a lottery finish last season and transforming it into a contender in just a few days—the plan to get the Nets to championship level continues to feel improvised, at best.
The Nets agreed to a deal on Monday with the Atlanta Hawks, trading a number of easily replaceable parts to acquire Joe Johnson, the six-time All Star shooting guard. On Tuesday, star point guard Deron Williams agreed to stay with the Nets, spurning a large offer from the Dallas Mavericks.
The ramifications of those two deals will help shape how the Nets operate for years to come. Both Johnson's max contract, with four years and nearly $90 million left to run, and Williams' new five-year, $98 million deal, locked into place one of the best starting backcourts in the N.B.A.
But those salaries, combined with the four-year, $40 million deal the Nets gave Gerald Wallace, mean the Nets have a rapidly diminishing window to contend for a championship with this group, even though it just began this week. And the collection of salaries means the rest of the roster has to be built through extremely creative accounting.
At 28 years old, Williams is the youngest of the three, with athleticism making up a hugely significant part of their games, particularly in the case of Johnson and Wallace (who are 31, and nearly 30, respectively). That should make for exciting basketball immediately, but doesn't bode well for the longer-term returns as the three players age.
As of now, their primary support would come from Kris Humphries at power forward, Brook Lopez at center, and Mirza Teletovic, a European import who can score extremely well.
The Nets agreed to pay Teletovic around $5 million next year, which would have locked them into a hard salary cap, and made it virtually impossible to acquire Dwight Howard, the Orlando center who still hopes his public desire to only play for the Nets will scare off other teams, and force the Magic to simply accept whatever the Nets can give them. But Howard's threat is essentially an empty one, since the Nets no longer have the cap space to sign him for close to the money he'd earn elsewhere. And, as of right now, it isn't clear that what the Nets have to offer beats Orlando letting Howard's contract expire after this year and preserving some cap space of their own.
All of this should have been clear to the Nets at the time, but apparently wasn't. The team went back to Teletovic to see if he'd take less money, around $3.9 million next year, so the Nets could preserve some flexibility in adding players next season.
That Nets management did not grasp this basic reality of the salary cap is an ominous sign for the team's long-term future. After all, even at their best, the combination of Williams/Johnson/Wallace probably isn't enough to contend for a championship. Whether it's by finding a way to add Howard, or some other means of acquiring talent, the Nets need more to get to the level of a Miami or Oklahoma City.
There are plenty of N.B.A. teams out there with both the knowledge of the salary cap, and the dexterity to move quickly to exploit those rules to their benefit. The Lakers and Rockets immediately come to mind.
Against that landscape, even a public desire from the league's best center to serve as the missing piece in Brooklyn might not be enough.