The mantra has changed.
The Nets, who were the second oldest team in the NBA last season, are trying to get younger, faster, more flexible and more, as Billy King put it, "financially responsible." That's the upshot of the decision to let Paul Pierce go, which is also a signal that they'd like Kevin Garnett to follow. It's not (yet) a public concession that last summer's highly publicized moves were a mistake, but the youth movement they embarked on over the last two weeks is as inescapable as their desire to cut costs and are not mutually exclusive. Younger players are after all less expensive. And it first became evident on Draft Night.
At about 10 p.m. on June 27, the Nets held no picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, and had no second rounders at all through 2017!
In the middle of the second round, they made a deal with the Timberwolves and bought the No. 44 pick for $1.1 million and took Markel Brown. Then not long afterwards, they surprised everyone and bought the 59th and 60th picks, taking two other four-year players, Xavier Thames and Cory Jefferson. It was the most picks the Nets had ever purchased in a two-round draft ... and it should have been a signal to what was about to go down. Total cost: $1.9 million of Mikhail Prokhorov's hard cash.
Since then, they acquired two more second rounders in the compensation package for Jason Kidd, giving them picks in 2015 and 2019, the first one a pick they had given up while still in New Jersey. Then, earlier this week, they moved in earnest, using free agency to get two development projects who just happen to be swingmen.
On Monday, word got out that they agreed to give Bojan Bogdanovic, 25, a three-year, $10 million contract. The Nets had been trying to get him over almost since they drafted him in 2011. On Tuesday they traded for 20-year-old Sergey Karasev. The two European swingmen are talented ... and one could argue, first round equivalents if not Pierce replacements. Karasev was taken No. 19 last year. With Mason Plumlee, who's 24, and Brook Lopez, who's still only 26, they form a new and hopefully successful youth movement up front where Pierce played last year ... and complement the "core" of Deron Williams Joe Johnson and Lopez that they think can be "competitive" this season.
Now comes the word that they decided to pass on Pierce and let him go to the Wizards for the MLE, admitting it was financial considerations that drove the decision. It's not crazy to suggest their decisions to bring in two 6'7" swingmen, one of whom plays much like Pierce, and get younger in general were part and parcel of the thinking surrounding the Pierce decision.
But it's not all about money. They also realize they need to get younger. At the beginning of last season, eight players on the roster were 30 or older. Assuming the Nets sign at least one of their three picks, likely Markel Brown, to a guaranteed deal, eight of the 12 players under contract will be younger than 30, and two others, Deron Williams and Jarrett Jack, will be 30.
There's also a clear connection between their spending on young players and trying to move beyond the trade that brought them Pierce and Garnett. It has both real and public relations value. The Nets are looking for ways to specifically compensate for the those lost picks in 2014 (which has already become James Young), 2016 and 2018, whether by signing European stars (Bogdanovic), asking for younger players as add-on's in trades (Karasev), buying picks (Brown, Thames and Jefferson) or working with agents to find for hidden gems (Mirza Teletovic). If Bogdanovic turns out to be better than Young, you will hear Nets officials subtly but proudly beating their chests
Of the three big moves -- Brown, Bogdanovic and Karasev -- Bogdanovic is likely to make the most impact .. and be the most needed if they want to show the Pierce decision wasn't foolhardy. Even though he hasn't played a game in the NBA, his resume' is stronger, as is his body, than Karasev's and Brown's. He may be one of those rare players who will do better in the NBA than in Europe. Marc Gasol, who developed under Lionel Hollins in Memphis, is a classic case. One reason is his confidence, big game performance. Ask Mike Fratello who as coach of Team Ukraine has had to coach against him. Here's what he told us two years ago about facing the 6'8" Bogdanovic in Europe.
"Bogdanovic is really a good scorer. We were up 79-77 with four seconds left. He has the ball, our guy is in right spot, has his hand in front of the ball and Bogdanovic cocks it back a little, shoots it a little higher, makes the three and we lose, 80-79. He is very confident, he gets to the foul line. Fans are going to be happy when he comes over."
Karasev is going to take longer. To suggest, as some did on Sunday morning, that they're opting to develop younger forwards like Karasev, rather than pay Pierce, is a bit over the top. One reason the front office wasn't as enamored of him as (Russian) ownership was last summer: his development is going to take some time, maybe another year or two. He's still only 20. He has the skills, but neither he nor they have been developed. Hollins hinted at that on NBA TV Friday when he said...
"The young kid, Sergey, he's going to grow. He's only 20 years old. He's got possibilities in the future but he's got to get stronger. He's got to figure out how to play in the NBA vs. playing overseas."
As for the second rounders, they're okay, but not likely to replace the picks they gave the Celtics.
Markel Brown looked good, if not like Russell Westbrook, in his Summer League debut. He shot better than 50 percent overall, 40 percent from deep, but had some ball-handling issues and some fouling issues. He didn't appear to have a killer instinct, seemed reluctant to take over. At No. 44, the Nets will take that. Cory Jefferson looked like a legitimate steal, shooting 70 percent over five games on an array of post moves, short jumpers and floaters. He also shot almost 90 percent from the line in five games. Jefferson is likely to get a training camp invitation with a chance to make the club, depending on their final moves.
Still, going from no picks to two first round equivalents in Bogdanovic and Karasev and two solid second round picks is a nice start on finding replacements for the picks lost to the Celtics, especially since it cost them little. The Nets pressed for Karasev to be included in the big three-team deal. The rest was about money and the Nets have a lot of that. As for those who argue that it would have been better if the Nets still had the picks they sent Boston and made the moves they did. Sounds good, but there are only so many roster spots available for young players. And truth be told, no one yet knows how any of this works out.