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NetsDaily Off-Season Report #4

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Every Sunday, we’ll be updating the Nets’ off-season with bits and pieces of information, gossip, etc. to help take the edge off missing the playoffs, relying on the Nets’ beat reporters and others who have slipped interesting stuff into larger stories and blogs.

Watch what they do, not what they say

There’s been a lot of attention paid to Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe's recent comments to the media. Thorn said he would be "comfortable" if Richard Jefferson, Nenad Krstic, Devin Harris and Vince Carter were still Nets come October. Vandeweghe went even further, saying "we’d like to keep everybody".

Is that what Nets' fans want to hear after a 34-48 season and no playoffs for the first time in seven years? Hardly. But should anyone be surprised at their comments, considering the alternative--"we're going to blow it up and no one is safe"--would have done little but drive down the value of the team’s biggest assets?

So rather than read what the Nets’ brass has been saying, pay closer attention to what they've been doing since February. Every move the team—that is, Thorn and Vandeweghe—has made in the past three and a half months has been driven by one goal: to give the team more flexibility this off-season: to get younger, to get more picks, to increase cap space, to open up roster spots. Some of what they did was evident at the time, some is only becoming evident now…and there may be other things out there we don’t yet know about.

Let’s take a look at what we know the Nets have done:

---Trade Jason Collins for Stromile Swift. Both players needed a change of scenery. The two big men are mirror images of one another: Collins the outgoing, cerebral, gravity-challenged team guy; Swift the quiet, BBIQ-deficient, sky walking highlight reel. The Nets didn’t save much, if any, money on the deal, with both players making about $6.2 million next season. What they did is leave open the possibility of picking up some salary cap relief. Swift has a player option, exercisable before June 30. It is unlikely he'll opt out…unless some team (including the Nets?) offered him a multi-year deal with a reduced salary in the first year. There was no such flexibility with Collins. His contract is fully guaranteed.

---Trade Jason Kidd, Antoine Wright, and Malik Allen for Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, Keith Van Horn, two first round picks, $3 million in cash and, don't forget, two trade exceptions.

Aside from the obvious benefits on the court, we can now see some less obvious ones off the court, and—again, they were all tuned towards this off-season and beyond.

1. Stabilize one of the key positions on the roster: point guard. Harris has a very manageable, five-year deal, starting at $7 million next season, escalating to $9.9 million in 2012-13, when he will be…29!

2. Put the Nets comfortably under the luxury tax threshold for the first time in three years. We don’t have the internal Nets' numbers (although we would graciously accept any leaked us) so we’re going with what’s publicly available regarding the team's salary situation. Here’s what we think it is: Even if you count Van Horn’s partially guaranteed salary ($3.75 million) and Krstic’s qualifying offer ($2.9 million), the Nets’ payroll amounts to $50.5 million for 11 players, about $20 million under next season’s projected tax threshold. The Nets will NOT keep Van Horn and all but his partial guarantee—unlikely to be more than $500,000—will disappear either in a trade or with his release. Even if you assume that Krstic will sign a contract with a $5 million starting salary and Nachbar and Diop put their signatures on contracts starting at $4 million, the total is still only $57 million and change for 12 players. Three draft picks would add another $4 million. That would still leave the Nets $9 million or so under the tax threshold. All of that assumes little or no change in the roster and that the Nets will be picking players at #10, #21, and #40, and that all three picks would sign contracts. (The Nets could get lucky in the lottery, combine picks to move up and/or take a Euro with one of the picks and stash him overseas.)

3. By staying below the threshold, the Nets brass can feel more comfortable in offering their MLE and LLE. The MLE should be around $5.5 million this season, which can be divided, and the LLE should be nearly $2 million. The Nets have used most of their MLE every year since Thorn joined the team but haven’t used their LLE since signing Ron Mercer in 2004. Dave D’Alessandro reported this week that the Nets have the "green light" from Bruce Ratner to use their exceptions. Remember teams that stay under the threshold save in two ways: they don't pay the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax and after the season, they share in the tax pool, picking up about $2 to $3 million.

4. Speaking of exceptions, the Nets have a $3.3 million trade exceptions which doesn't expire til next season's trade deadline. Originally, the Nets said they had two…Thorn told the media in February there were two--"for Antoine we get one and for Keith". Then the league office ruled there was one. Since exceptions can't be combined, the ruling favors the Nets. One large exception is much better than two smaller ones. Thorn and Vandeweghe deliberately constructed the Kidd-Harris trade so that the team would get exceptions. Al Iannazzone had recently reported the Nets had two TE’s, each worth "at least $3 million". Then on May 15, he wrote there was one and it's worth $3.3 million. TE’s can’t be combined with a player, but they can be traded with a draft pick or draft rights in return for a player. They can also be used to pick up a player off waivers. (The rules permit a little wiggle room in deals. $100,000 can be added to the value of the TE to help make deals work.)

5. As discussed before, Van Horn’s contract was constructed as an expiring contract with limited salary protection. The contract, reportedly for $3.75 million next season, can be combined with other players or cash. Not to belabor the point, but you don’t do this kind of thing unless you want the freedom to make a deal.

---Market the draft picks. It's becoming increasingly clear the Nets think of the picks not just as potential rookies, but as trade assets. Here's what Vandeweghe had to say in comments that Al Iannazzone put up on his blog: "I guarantee you we’ll have calls," Vandeweghe said. "Having two picks in the first round, I think you have some very good players potentially in this draft. You never know until a couple of years down the road, but I do like this draft. Our picks will be valuable. You’ll definitely get calls on them (emphasis added).

"There are a lot of things you can do. You view your draft picks as assets. You view them different ways, along with cap space, along with good young players, on good contracts - these are all assets you use to improve your team whether you use them in trades or to pick one of the good young players that are going to come into the league. Those are decisions that will be made as we get closer to the draft. There’s still a lot of time."

Put your own house in order

If there is one theme running through the off-season so far, it's the need for internal improvement, that is better development of younger players. Thorn and Vandeweghe have harped on it. Over the last two years, through the draft and trades, the Nets have gotten a lot younger. When Darrell Armstrong and Van Horn move on--and barring the pick up of some aging veterans--the Nets are likely to become one of the NBA's youngest teams. Other than the 39-year-old Armstrong and the 32-year-old Van Horn, there is only one 30-something player on the team, Vince Carter who is 31. Six players on the current roster are 25 or younger: Harris, Krstic, Josh Boone, Ager and both Marcus Williams and Sean Williams. Add two or three picks--and perhaps a "fallen angel" or two, as Vandeweghe describes younger players looking for second chance, and it becomes readily apparent why development of younger players must be a team priority. (That age imbalance and the need to develop players you already have also suggests the Nets may not use all three of their picks.)

Thorn and Vandeweghe have tried to parcel out the blame for what they see as a team deficiency, noting it's the responsibility of players as well as coaches. But with contracts of three assistant coaches up for renewal, expect some changes. On any NBA staff, the job of player development falls squarely in the assistants' portfolio.

Diop Out?

At the time of the Kidd-Harris trade, the addition of Diop was viewed first as just another expiring contract for the Nets to take advantage of, then as the sleeper in the deal. We’ve since learned that the Nets "insisted" on Diop being included, as Mark Cuban told Dallas beat reporters. That’s a clear indication the Nets view him as something more than just an expiring contract. Since then, Thorn and Vandeweghe have repeatedly praised Diop and stated their hope something can be worked out so he remains a Net.

Now, in an interview with the Nets’ own website, Diop says he might want to return to the Mavs. It’s not that he doesn’t like it here…he’s "cool" with the players and the coach. He just liked Dallas.

The decision is likely to revolve around money. The Nets, as noted above, have some but other than Paul Allen of the Blazers and Stan Kroenke of the Nuggets, no owner has as much money to throw around as Cuban. The Mavs' problem is that the collective bargaining agreement makes signing Diop more problematic for the Mavs than it does for the Nets. The Nets can spend as much as they like to keep Diop. Cuban can only use the MLE to bring Diop back, but if he did, it would hamstring him on other moves. Dallas is so far over the luxury tax, it’s barely visible from the Garden. If Cuban uses all or most of the MLE to sign Diop, he'll have little money to rehab the Mavs roster in other ways this coming season. He'll need to do something.

Moreover, Cuban wrote in his blog last week that he had made the trade in large part to save money down the road: "In doing a deal for JKidd, we created a situation where Devin, Mo Ager, Hass and what we would have paid Ghana would no longer be on our cap" (emphasis added). That sounds like someone relieved that he didn't have to make a decision on how much to pay Diop. (In that same blog, he hints that the Mavs could be rebuilding in 2009-10, after Kidd's contract goes away and the Mavs set aside cap space for the big 2010 free agent signing. That's good for the Nets who hold his 2010 first round pick, not good for Kidd who wants an extension.)

Don’t expect the Mavs to be the Nets' only competition for the 26-year-old Diop. Heat beat writer Chris Perkins thinks Diop would be a great addition to Miami, and many bloggers around the NBA think Diop should be near the top of their team’s wishlists.

Isn’t he Love-ly?

Over the next three weeks, the NBA draft picture will begin to clear considerably. On May 20, the ping pong balls will finally descend in Secaucus and the draft order will be set. Five days later, the top prospects will gather in Orlando for the NBA's two-day pre-draft camp. Some like Kevin Love will only show up to be measured, from top-to-bottom, and side-to-side. Others will participate in drills and scrimmages, a veritable hoops meat market. Stars will be born, others will fall. True heights and weights will replace those on college roster sheets. Then, starting on May 28, players will begin showing up at NBA practice facilities for individual workouts. Vandeweghe, who will run the workouts, says he expects the Nets to bring in 30+ players for the Nets’ three picks. And Friday, we had our first report of who will be dropping by East Rutherford. Kevin Love of UCLA, who could be available at #10, has been contacted by the Nets and is likely to be among the earliest to show off his talents.

What goes on at the Nets’ individual workouts? Here’s how Daily News writer Filip Bondy described it in book, "Tip Off":

"At these auditions, team officials would measure the players’ jumping ability from a standstill position and with a step; measure their lateral quickness; test their ball handling skills; put them through a variety of shooting drills; and, finally match them with other players in one-on-one and two-on-two (and this year, three-on-three) situations."

With the lottery only a week away, most of the mock drafts are in a holding pattern, with little change…the same players are being touted as Net prospects: DeAndre Jordan of Texas A&M, Marreese Speights of Florida, Love, Robin Lopez of Stanford; Darrell Arthur of Kansas, etc. The only new addition to the mix is Texas point guard D.J. Augustin. Mock authors admit it's early and team needs aren't being considered.

(We played the ESPN Draft Lottery again this weekend and didn’t get lucky. Of the 25 times we hit the lottery button: the Nets selected 10th and took Jordan 15 times; they selected 10th and took Speights of Florida seven times and selected 10th and took Love twice. Of the 50 times we've tried it so far, the Nets have picked 10th 48 times, 11th once and 2nd once...just about what you'd expect.)

NetsDaily Draft Sleeper Pick of the Week

Greek Salad...one for the first round, one for the second...Kosta Koufos and Pat Calathes. Although both players are Americans and played at American universities--Koufos one year at Ohio State, Calathes four years at St. Joseph's, both are eligible to play for the Greek National Team in international competition because of their Greek heritage.

In fact, Koufos did play for Greece...at the FIBA U18 European Championships in 2007, where he dominated. Koufos has a history of being underrated and overlooked. In high school, he averaged better than 25 points a game his last two years, being named the top player in Ohio. Then, he had the unenviable task of replacing Greg Oden in Columbus. Still, he had a solid year, going for 14 and 7 and winning MVP of the NIT, just eight months after winning MVP of the U18 European Championships.

Calathes was MVP of the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in April, showing his game may be better suited in the pros than at St. Joe's. A 6'10" point forward, Calathes was praised for his basketball IQ and leadership. Every year, an unheralded player emerges at Portsmouth and this year it was Calathes.

Big Week for Brooklyn

Thursday will be a big day on the Nets' road to Brooklyn. Ratner, Jay-Z, Brett Yormark, architect Frank Gehry and no doubt a few players will be on hand for the unveiling of the Nets' showroom on the 38th floor of the New York Times building, 50% owned by Ratner. Some 200 corporate executives will be feted as the team begins marketing Gehry's 190 custom-designed luxury suites in the Barclay's Center. At the same time, the Nets are expected to announce the names of new sponsors for the Center, many of them recruited by Yormark on his recent European trip.

Emergency Room

Carter has begun his rehab at the Nets' practice facility. He remains on track to return for training camp. In August, Carter will be available to beat reporters during his Basketball Academy. Harris intends to spend time in Chicago rehabbing his ankles. How much time he will spend in New Jersey is unknown.

Final note

A knowledgeable poster reported last week that the Nets almost traded Kidd to Dallas in the summer of 2003, but Thorn "balked" at the last minute. In that deal, Kidd would have been sent south in return for Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison. Nash was in his contract year at the time.