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Postponing Joy

For a year and a half, the Nets have pointed their fans to a shining vision: the 2010 free agent class, saying in effect, there will be pain now, but in 2010, it'll all pay off. Team officials argued that trading stars for expiring contracts, young players and draft picks would conserve enough cap space to sign TWO maxed-out free agents in 2010..."if we so choose", as Rod Thorn said after the Vince Carter trade.

Then, earlier this month, Thorn surprised fans by casually stating during the Kiki Vandeweghe press conference that the team's strategy is not just about the 2010 free agent class, but the 2011 class as well!

Things certainly changed between the Carter trade and the appointment of Vandeweghe as head coach. Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the world's richest men, agreed to buy the team and Brooklyn is now closer than it's ever been. But at the same time, the Nets are 2-21 and wracked by division, a lack of direction and just a general malaise...and that's not just limited to the employees on the court. No one knows who will be GM or head coach next season...or even where they will be playing. Truth be told, the Nets are not, at least right now, an attractive destination for free agents...not that they've ever been one in the past.

With that in mind, we look at 2011 and wonder if it's not a bad thing to postpone the Nets' big ambitions for another year. There are big risks in doing so, but with all the uncertainty associated with the team, 2011 may make some sense...particularly if the team gets lucky in the draft and makes a couple of short-term moves to make the team at least competitive.

Let’s start off with some hopeful assumptions:

1) The Nets are sold to Mikhail Prokhorov who in his introductory press conference says something like, "I am in this to win. I won’t accept second place". He says the same thing in one interview after another, says it so often fans start to believe him. Bruce Ratner, the ghost of penny-pinching past, fades into the meadowlands mist.

2) The Nets sell the bonds they need to build Barclays Center and ground breaking takes place sometime in January, meaning the Nets should be playing in their new Brooklyn digs no later than October 30, 2012. Jay-Z and Alica Keys agree to open the arena with a stirring rendition of "Empire State of Mind". The Red Army Chorus is booked to sing the Russian National Anthem. The Cold War is over!

3) The Nets make a deal with the Devils (pun intended) and agree to move out of the NBA’s worst venue and into the Prudential Center. With the Nets as their tenant, "The Rock" becomes the NBA’s second newest arena. Only the Amway Center, scheduled to open next season, will be newer. It’s a far more attractive venue for 2010 and 2011 free agents than the IZOD Center. The move should help attendance and add some money to the Nets’ bare coffers.

4) The Nets finish this season with around $25 million in cap space (estimates now are $24.9 million). It could be more if the league’s basketball related income grows in the second half of the season. It’s more likely to be less. Still, that will be more than any other team, unless there is a GM dumb enough to take on Eddy Curry’s contract. Historically, the only GM who would do something that dumb is no longer in the NBA. The Knicks fired him.

5) The Nets finish last and win the lottery. Nets fans weep openly in front of their television sets…assuming of course there will be Nets fans left by May. The Nets do the right thing and take John Wall. Chances are 1-in-4 if the Nets finish last. Of course, the ineptitude of the Minnesota Timberwolves could ruin this scenario…but would the Wolves take Wall? They have Jonny Flynn and the rights to Ricky Rubio.

Now, let's deal with reality:

1) The Nets are 2-21. The Nets are 2-21. The Nets are 2-21. The team is riven with "division"--their words, not ours. The captain told the president of basketball operations that the head coach "doesn’t know what he’s doing out there." The rookie daydreams about what it might be like if he had drafted by another team, then says he has no regrets, trashes fans on his Twitter page and tells the media he doesn't want to talk to them. Meanwhile, the two back-up point guards debate in public about whether their teammates are supportive enough. Are we missing anything?

2) Prokhorov will have to make major decisions on the future of the franchise between whenever he takes over and July 1, the day free agency begins. Rod Thorn, Kiki Vandeweghe and Del Harris, as well as all the assistant coaches and other key front office personnel are working on contracts that expire June 30. Who will be the Nets' general manager, head coach, capologist as they try to lure a top free agent?

3) Critics will continue to do whatever they can to slow Barclays Center, with some suggesting they form human chains to prevent lawful evictions of the few remaining property owners and tenants. You can be sure there will be cameras there if that happens.

4) In the last decade, the team with the worst record has won the overall #1 pick twice. During the same period, the team with the worst record has wound up with the fourth pick...including the Kings last year. Quick, who's the fourth best pick in the 2010 Draft? Gotcha!

5) This is the Nets we're talking about. Good luck doesn't exactly follow the team around.

So, now what. First, we think the Nets’ future could turn as much on the Draft Lottery as anything else. Stay with us. Right now they have three picks: their own and the Mavs’ (unprotected) in the first round and their own in the second. If the basketball gods are good to the Nets in the lottery, that would give the Nets the #1, #26 and #31 picks. In a deep draft. Should the Nets get Wall, they will have the equivalent of a top tier free agent. Wall looks to be that good. Moreover, he will be on a rookie contract for four years, costing no more than $6 million a year.

The next issue is do the top tier free agents opt out. It’s not as simple as it seems. Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire and Chris Bosh must first exercise a player option in their contracts by June 30, then agree to listen to offers from other teams. They may not. Dirk Nowitzki has already said he won’t. It’s unlikely, but a couple of them could simply decline to exercise their option and become free agents in 2011.

Even if they do opt out, all four can make $30 million more by signing new deals with their home team. That’s a lot of cash to leave on the table. They can claim it’s not about the money, but most of the time it is about the money. Of the four, we think James is the most likely to leave his team, but how likely? Cleveland looks like the third best team in the East right now, barely ahead of the Hawks. Bosh keeps saying nice things about Toronto. Wade is an icon in Miami, where he did win a championship. While Stoudemire could finally get fed up with Suns’ ownership, Phoenix is playing well and he’s in a good situation.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that James either stays at home or joins the Knicks. (Don’t hate us for suggesting it. It’s increasingly possible, maybe even likely. Ask Magic Johnson.) Let’s also assume Wade stays in Miami and Bosh in Toronto. If you want, assume Bosh joins Wade in Miami. The Heat will have nearly $19 million in cap space come July, thanks to Jermaine O’Neal’s expiring contract so they could do it.

If that happens, the Nets will be faced with a series of choices. Do they try to (over)spend some of their precious cap space on second tier free agents like Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson or even Al Harrington, making long term commitments to players who are in their late 20’s? That assumes any of them would be interested in the Nets. Johnson, it’s been reported, longs to be a Chicago Bull. Why is beyond us. Utah could pay Boozer more than any other team, but are they interested in keeping him? Charles Barkley thinks not. The 28-year-old two-time All-Star and Olympic medal winner might be recruited by Miami, should their presumed efforts to lure Bosh fail. He does have a home in Miami. He also has one in New Jersey. He might be traded. Harrington, of course, is a native New Jerseyan, born in Elizabeth, raised in Roselle. But he likes the Knicks and will probably want to stay there.

Alternatively, do the Nets make a bid for Rudy Gay, who’s only 23 and having a very good (offensive) season. He's supposedly on their radar. Gay, who'll be a restricted free agent, wanted $65 million over six from the Grizzlies last summer. Memphis offered $50 million. It’s hard to believe Gay is going to want less than $65 million…but it’s harder to believe he’ll get it, particularly from the Nets. Gay may be the worst on-ball defender in the NBA. According to various reports, the Grizzlies are prepared to let Gay walk.

Or looking at those options—and not wanting to overpay, do the Nets simply decide to bag 2010 and save that cap space for 2011, when they could take a shot at Carmelo Anthony, who’ll be unrestricted, or bid on Kevin Durant, who’ll be restricted, or simply save the money to spend on their own young players while building slowly through the draft and trades. It’s an incremental strategy. That won't be popular.

There are reasons to think that the Nets will be a more attractive destination in July 2011 than in July 2010. By then, Barclays Center should be rising high in the Brooklyn sky. It will no longer be an architect’s model sitting on a dusty table somewhere. New ownership and new front office personnel should be in place and more comfortable in their decision-making. Players and agents should have a better understanding of Prokhorov...and whoever he chooses to run the team. The team itself should be better. It can’t be any worse. And barring significant roster changes, the Nets will have even more cap space in 2011 than they have now. They have $22,490,116 committed to seven players in 2011-12. They don’t have to pay big bucks to any of their valuable young players until July 2012. The economy should have improved, driving the salary cap a bit higher. It’s possible the Nets could have more than $35 million to play with along with the richest owner in professional sports and a brand new arena well under construction. Of course, the 2011 free agent class isn't going to be as good as 2010.

There are other risks to that incremental strategy. The biggest may be fan expectations.

Cap Space has never scored a point or grabbed a rebound in the NBA, never handed out an assist, blocked a shot or stolen an inbounds pass. Would whatever fans the Nets have left abandon them? Even with, Prokhorov, Wall and games in Newark, it'd be hard for Brett Yormark to market a "fourth big year of rebuilding". Prokhorov is committed to eat up to $60 million in Nets’ losses while the team remain in New Jersey. He could burn through that quite quickly. Also, the Nets' agreement with the Devils will reportedly require them to maintain a payroll close to the salary cap.

Are there things the Nets can do (beyond getting lucky in the 2010 lottery and draft) to improve the roster this off-season even if they can’t--or won't--become a player in free agency?

Here’s one possibilty: The Nets could make an early decision to opt out of 2010, believing it’s not going to work for them: Too much uncertainty and too few assets to attract a top tier free agent. That would be a tough and unpopular decision.

Instead, at the deadline, they trade a couple of their expiring deals to the Jazz for Andrei Kirilenko and his 2010-11 expiring contract. In addition, they ask for one of the Jazz’s first round picks, either the Knicks’ pick or the Jazz’s own pick. The Jazz are unlikely to give up the Knicks’ pick, but they might be willing to give up their own. Maybe they agree to a swap of picks. Maybe younger players are added to either side. It's just an idea.

Why would the Jazz do it? For a lot of reasons. At $17.8 million next year, Kirilenko is overpaid. If they decide they want to keep Boozer--or rebuild, they need to free up cap space. If they re-sign Boozer and keep Kirilenko, they would be looking at a huge luxury tax bill in 2011-12. Salt Lake City is one of the NBA’s smaller markets but the Jazz have one of the NBA’s biggest payrolls. They aren't going to win an NBA championship. It’s a business decision.

Why would the Nets do it? AK-47 is still only 27. He could be rejuvenated in a fast-paced offense...depending who the coach is, of course. He’s a solid defender, a terrific interior passer and one of the few players in the NBA capable of the elusive "5x5" game…five or more points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. There are health concerns, but he's a better all-around player than Gay. Prokhorov can afford him. They're friends and Kirilenko even advised him on the purchase of the Nets. It also helps Prokhorov with his Kremlin buddies. It makes the Nets even more of a global brand. And Kirilenko’s contract comes off the books in July 2011, making it a wash. He’s a cap space place holder. And if they can get another draft pick, all the better.

Would a core of Brook Lopez, Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Yi Jianlian, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Terrence Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and John Wall turn you on? Is there enough offense there to win 40 games?

What about Prokhorov's desire to win? Isn't he the kind of guy who will want to throw himself into the fray quickly, make a big impression? No, says Kirilenko, who played for him at CSKA Moscow.

"He's a very successful manager and he definitely wants to build the team rather than just start taking players," Kirilenko told an interviewer in Salt Lake City. Separately, he told an Russian interviewer, "I’m pretty sure he can turn New Jersey Nets into a contender...I think he can turn it into a great profitable operation."

Such patience could have another downside. A year from now, the NBA owners have the right to terminate the collective bargaining agreement on June 30, 2011. Will they do it? Considering their financial problems, they might. No one knows what a new CBA will look like so planning for the 2011 free agency is fraught with uncertainty. You can expect tough negotiations, particularly over the salary cap. With a hard salary cap, billionaire owners like Prokhorov, Paul Allen, Mark Cuban and Chuck Dolan would lose a lot of their freedom to remake rosters outside the salary cap. Also, there could another lockout or strike. It's that uncertainty that may drive 2010 free agents to opt out and seek a more lucrative, long term contract from either the home team.

We never bought into the idea that the Nets were cutting salaries to make a bid for the 2010 free agents. They were cutting costs, prepping for a sale. Piling up cap space was an ancillary benefit, not a goal. Stars and their big contracts were traded, a third of the non-basketball staff was laid off, assistant coaches were initially forced to take pay cuts, lower paid employees had to take Fridays off without pay. It all had one purpose: to make the team attractive to an investor. Luckily, for all concerned, Prokhorov was "geeked" enough to want the team.

Bottom line, waiting until 2011 to make the big move may make sense. It's may take at least that long to rid the Nets of their stink.