Brooklyn Nets: Between rock and a hard place in free agency

Brooklyn Nets Sean Marks. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Sean Marks. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Brooklyn Nets made the playoffs in 2019, but that might be a deterrent to building for the longer term. Such is life in the dreaded middle of the pack.

Finishing at 42-40 last season officially made the Brooklyn Nets a middle of the pack team in the NBA. This is technically the worst place to be because it does not place them in title contention, nor does it afford them the ability to tank and acquire draft picks for the future.

With Kawhi Leonard unlikely to sign with Brooklyn and after Kevin Durant’s devastating Achilles’ injury, combining two of the remaining stars on the free-agency market doesn’t figure to transform the Nets into title contenders.

More from Nothin' But Nets

This puts the franchise between a rock and a hard place in free agency.

The NBA is a copycat league where franchises attempt to emulate the success of other teams.

It’s no secret that coach Kenny Atkinson is in love with the 3-point line, but Nets general manager Sean Marks would be wise not to emulate the marginal success of the Houston Rockets.

One look at the state of the Rockets franchise, currently in a complete fire sale, should be enough to break the love spell the 3-point line has over Atkinson. But will it?

Marks would be even wiser to avoid emulating the success of the Golden State Warriors. That Warrior team was built organically by drafting Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Both players are top 3-point shooters and Thompson is one of the best two-way players in the league.

They added Durant in 2016 to bolster their budding dynasty. The Nets are in a completely different situation than the Warriors were, so trying to copy them seems foolish.

Prior to the Warriors dynasty, no team has won an NBA championship using the 3-point line as the focal point of their offense.

The argument can be made after this Warrior dynasty ends, no team is likely to win an NBA championship using the 3-point line as the focal point of their offense as well (in the foreseeable future).

In the same vein of copycatting, eight of the last 10 NBA champions were superteams boasting two to three top-tier All-Stars on their rosters with generational talents as their franchise centerpieces.

Unfortunately, the NBA landscape has changed and it’s not realistic to think the Nets could combine three top tier All-Stars this offseason in a bid for a superteam.

The Nets don’t have a generational talent on their roster and other than Kawhi, there is not one obvious generational talent available in free agency.

Despite the market still showing interest in KD it is likely when he returns, he will be a shell of his former self as Achilles’ injuries tend to have that effect on players over 30.

Anthony Davis is not a free agent and to acquire him in a trade would require giving up too many assets to keep any team in immediate contention for a title. That’s also assuming Davis is indeed a generational talent, which remains to be seen.

With Kawhi and KD seemingly off the table, the remaining stars are great players, but they are not in the same strata.

Add in the fact the Nets can only realistically sign two of them based on salary cap limitations, the idea of creating a superteam in Brooklyn appears far-fetched right now.

To compound the conundrum the Nets appear to be in, is the nature of the free-agency market itself. As deep as it is, it doesn’t have the star power at the positions the Nets need most.

The Nets desperately need a star at power forward, but the best free agents available at that position are Julius Randle or Tobias Harris.

It’s debatable whether either of these pieces would propel the Nets into title contention. Harris is seeking a maximum contract and Randle will likely command a nice contract as well, probably over $20 million a season for four years.

Does this mean the Nets should just spend their cap space on either or both, just because Harris and Randle play the position the Nets need the most help in at this very moment?

The cliche of “strike while the iron is hot” comes to mind regarding the potential acquisitions of Harris or Randle but is the iron really that hot? Should the Nets strike now? These are valid questions.

Yet another obstacle Marks has to contend with is the notion that a championship team in today’s era does need a star player the NBA can market.

The last NBA champion without an easily marketable star was the 2004 Detroit Pistons who, as underdogs, defeated a star-studded Lakers team with top-notch defense and a well-rounded roster.

Unfortunately, the Nets are nothing like that Pistons team defensively. Furthermore, that Pistons team did not have to contend with the majority of the league using stretch power forwards from beyond the arc.

They won in the bygone era where hand-checking was still legal and physicality combined with post play was important.

When the Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, they were led by Kobe Bryant, one of the NBA’s all-time best players, who they acquired shortly after he had been drafted by the Charlotte Hornets. The Lakers had an extremely well-rounded team too.

The Nets do not have a player like Kobe on their roster and no player on the free-agent market comes close to being the generational talent Kobe was.

When the Spurs won in 2014 they were anchored by an NBA legend in Tim Duncan, who was drafted by San Antonio. They also were coached by the legendary Gregg Popovich and had a highly potent supporting cast of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who are legends in their own right.

The Nets don’t have an anchor like Duncan nor do they have a legendary NBA coach like Popovich, with all due respect to Kenny Atkinson. They also don’t have a supporting cast like the Spurs did.

When the Dallas Mavericks upset the Miami Heat superteam in 2011 it took an epic performance from NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki combined with an amazing team effort by Dallas.

The Nets don’t have a player like Dirk nor is there one on the free-agent market. Again, Dallas also drafted Dirk, trading down with the Milwaukee Bucks to get additional picks plus the player they wanted.

The historical precedence of the composition of these NBA champions shows the current Nets team is really not that close to winning a title.

What many forget is just how many NBA teams exhausted all their cap space to compete with these NBA champions in past years only to ultimately fall short and then be forced to rebuild.

The Nets were one of those teams when former general manager Billy King made one of the worst trades in NBA history in 2013.

In that abominable deal, King traded Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph and first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and the swap rights for a 2017 draft pick to the Boston Celtics, in return for over-the-hill players in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry.

That trade sealed Brooklyn’s fate in 2015 after a first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks. This forced the franchise to face a slow and painful rebuild.

Shortly after, on Jan. 10, 2016, the Nets reassigned King. He was replaced by Sean Marks as general manager. So far, under Marks, the Nets rebuild is ahead of schedule, but the path moving forward to building a title contender is still quite murky.

Marks is unlikely to make the same mistake King made, but that doesn’t mean the Nets will necessarily be in position to be a title contender next season.

Marks is faced with a different scenario. Rather than looking at potential trades to create a title window, Marks is looking to create such a window through free agency or a combination of both.

King mortgaged the team’s future for a small window. Marks should be looking to build slowly to create a larger window. Signing Durant in lieu of his recent injury — factoring in his age and mileage — would not create a large window.

While the scenarios may be different, there are still inherent dangers of signing the wrong players to maximum contracts via free agency. This would exhaust the Nets’ salary cap and still not transform the team into a true contender.

Marks has already traded away this year’s 17th overall pick and next year’s lottery-protected first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks.

He did this prior to Durant’s injury. The trade looked like a plan to clear cap space to pair Kyrie Irving and Durant, but with Durant seriously injured and his future as a top NBA player in doubt, that plan looks perilous right now.

If Taurean Prince doesn’t become a top-60 player in the NBA next season and the Nets don’t re-sign him after next season as a restricted free agent, Marks could be heavily criticized for this trade, because it did mortgage a small portion of the Nets’ future.

However, if Prince does crack the top-60 in player rankings, Marks could be praised as a genius for making that deal. But even if Prince does make such a leap, Marks has put the Nets in an awkward situation as it pertains to the future of Caris LeVert.

If the Nets don’t extend LeVert to a team-friendly contract before the October deadline and LeVert plays to his expectations (or exceeds them), after next season Marks will likely face salary-cap issues trying to keep both Prince and LeVert.

He could potentially lose both if he spends too much of the team’s cap in this year’s free-agency period.

While Nets fans are in a frenzy over looming free agency, Marks has to tread carefully here.

Using two maximum contract slots on players who aren’t generational talents, and don’t figure to turn into generational talents, could transform the Nets into pretenders instead of contenders.

If the Nets are transformed into pretenders and their cap space is largely exhausted they could be looking at another rebuild in 2023. They would not be getting high draft picks leading up to that year as a presumed perennial playoff team either, unless they trade for them.

This could make a future rebuild even more difficult if the Nets move from a middling team to an upper-middling team.

Some might be satisfied with a pretender team because of the initial excitement it would bring, but realistically it could result in zero rings for the Nets for the better part of the next decade.

Because of this sobering potential outcome, a different approach may be needed to dislodge the current Nets team from being between a rock and a hard place in regards to upcoming free agency this summer.

The silver lining is with KD likely out for the majority of next season, the NBA could finally have competitive parity back in the league. However, that silver lining would still depend on KD’s free-agency decision.

If he leaves Golden State this summer, the Warriors would likely re-sign Klay Thompson and be able to rebuild their roster depth with the free cap space resulting from KD declining his option or signing elsewhere.

This could keep Golden State’s dynasty intact, which could potentially sour the prospective competitive parity of the NBA landscape. This parity would be good for the NBA and its fans, but it still all hinges on KD’s decision.

That scenario got more complicated still with Thompson’s torn left ACL in Thursday night’s Game 6 loss to the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals.

If competitive parity is brought back into the NBA next year and beyond, it would make more sense for Marks to gamble in free agency now, as it could make the Nets real contenders.

We will just have to wait and see what KD decides to do. Then we’ll have wait and see what Marks decides to do based on that decision.

Next. 10 best rookie seasons in Nets' history. dark

2019’s NBA free-agency period will prove to be an interesting, but scary, roller coaster ride for the Nets franchise. Buckle up and try not to scream.