Where do the Nets go from here?
For the Brooklyn Nets, whose season ended Saturday night with a loss to an undermanned Chicago Bulls team at the Barclays Center, the obvious move came right away.
P.J. Carlesimo managed to coach the Nets to a 35-19 finish when he took over for Avery Johnson in December. But he didn't fix the fundamental problems with the team, from the extended power outages on offense to a generally poor defense. Really, what the Nets needed to contend in 2012-13 was a coach capable of making the Nets perform better than the sum of their good-but-not-great parts. That didn't happen.
So now the Nets face an offseason with a number of needs, but limited flexibility thanks to current contracts that exceed the salary cap before they even start.
Let's start with what the Nets will return with next year. There's Deron Williams, who played like the elite point guard the Nets thought they were getting when they traded for him back in 2011, but who only found that form, once healthy, after this season's all star break. And Brook Lopez's emergence as an offensive force at center gives the team an inside/outside combo that will be the envy of most other N.B.A. teams.
They're paying for it, though; both Williams and Lopez are on max contracts. Add in Joe Johnson's deal, and the Nets are right at the likely salary cap from those three deals alone.
In Johnson, the Nets got far less than they had reason to expect after acquiring him last summer. Johnson dealt with plantar fasciatis in his foot, which limited him for much of the season. But he struggled with his shot all year; and his Player Efficiency Rating dropped from a strong 18.4 to a below-average 14.1. Already 31, if Johnson's best days are behind him, that makes building a winning team more difficult for the Nets, since his contract, at max money for the next four seasons, makes him difficult to deal.
He could rebound next year, but for the moment, let's assume this is the new Joe Johnson. How else do the Nets manage to put together a roster to jump from 49 wins this season to an extended playoff run next season?
Their options this summer are limited via free agency, that cap issue keeping them to merely offering the midlevel exception to someone (last season, it was Mirza Teletovic), and filling the roster with veteran's minimum players (which general manager Billy King did, to great effect last year, with Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson).
The other major chip the Nets have to improve is Kris Humphries, or more precisely, Kris Humphries' expiring contract. Other teams who could potentially be under the salary cap next summer would love to put Humphries on their books, his expiring deal allowing them to fill the roster with a potential replacement. This is not valuable to the Nets, who will be over the cap no matter what happens with Humphries. But dealing him for a player with more than one year left on an expensive deal might just be their ticket to another vitally needed offensive contributor, or defensive game-changer, in the starting lineup.
Ideally, they'd find a way to package Humphries and Gerald Wallace for such a player in the frontcourt, but finding a taker for the three years remaining on Wallace's deal will be difficult. Moreover, Andray Blatche, who'd be the best possible offensive option at power forward, is a free agent. He's actually got little incentive to look for an expensive deal, with the Wizards paying him more than $15 million over the next two years to play for someone. The less he takes in salary next year, the more it costs his former team, and he seems to relish that idea. But Blatche could also make more than that much money to be someone's starting center next season, which will eliminate the Nets from acquiring him.
There's always Bojan Bogdanovic, a swingman who might be the small forward the Nets are looking for. But there are no guarantees that he's ready, or his game will translate. Consider Teletovic, more heralded, and not part of the rotation by the postseason.
Credit King for surrounding his frontline talent with useful depth this season. Now on a four-year deal, King has the leeway to bring in the coach he wants and make the best of what is a more favorable grouping of high-priced players than it might seem. A full season of health from Williams will likely mean a more favorable playoff position next year. A Johnson capable of moving around at all, let alone shooting better than 2-for-14 as he did in Game 7 against the Bulls, will make the Nets more potent. And finding a forward combination more lethal offensively than Reggie Evans and Gerald Wallace is a low bar to clear.
To beat the Heat will require some breaks. But there are no other Goliaths in the Eastern Conference, and nothing to stop the Nets from doing significant, smart reconstruction of their roster.
Also: there's no salary cap for coaches.