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Money To Burn...or Not

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It’s no longer about free agency in 2010 for the Nets. It’s about "flexibility".

Quietly, Nets brass have shifted the rationale for their cost-cutting efforts…from the free agent bonanza next summer to increased "flexibility" to go in different directions with their roster.

One possibility is free agency, but another raised this weekend is not signing big time stars but using all that cap space on younger players, their own included. No one will commit to either. In fact there has been a studied avoidance of any financial commitment beyond "flexibility" since the Vince Carter trade created the windfall.

The Nets certainly will have a lot of cap room next summer—somewhere between $25 to $27 million--if they don’t add to their payroll, and they’re not likely to.

In his email to season ticketholders announcing a Monday conference call for season ticketholders, Rod Thorn was vague:

"On Thursday, we made some critical personnel decisions to secure financial flexibility for player moves now and in the future in order to give you the best product on the court," he wrote, adding later, "the rest of the summer will be dedicated to preparation and building team chemistry"…not spending money.

In his interview with WFAN’s Mike Francesa, Thorn said only, "Our thinking was, Let’s clear cap space if we can get a good young player."

Kiki Vandeweghe said a bit more, but he wouldn’t be pinned down either.

In his interview with WFAN’s Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts Friday, Vandeweghe alluded to the possibility of using it on younger players rather than star free agents.

"We’ve got a long of young players that are really good and some veterans that we think are excellent basketball players," said Vandeweghe. "If we don’t get the big free agents that everyone’s talking about, you continue to build from within, you continue to add young players that are good. That’s a way to do this also."

At another point in the interview, Vandeweghe noted the amount of money the Nets would have at their disposal starting this year and said, "So to us this move created a ton of salary space an additional $17 million that you can spend on free agents if that’s your direction next year and possibly this year." (emphasis added)

No doubt, the Nets have to make a lot of financial decisions on younger players over the next four summers, and if players progress, re-signing them could get quite expensive. It’s the downside of having such a young roster. Between 2010 and 2013, the Nets will have to make contract decisions on Josh Boone, Sean Williams, Yi Jianlian, Jarvis Hayes (Vandeweghe included him in the list of "young players"), Brook Lopez, Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas Roberts, even Devin Harris at one end of contract length and Terrence Williams at the other. Of course, giving the money to the kids would stretch things out unlike signing a star free agent.

Vandeweghe also noted that the Nets have been "stockpiling" draft picks, which will turn into still more young players. The Nets do have six draft choices over the next two years: four first rounders: their own in 2010 and 2011, the Mavs unprotected pick in 2010 and the Warriors lottery-protected pick in 2011, plus their own second round picks. And at least next year, their own pick is looking like it will be quite high, which will mean a bigger financial commitment than they're use to.

Vandeweghe wouldn’t be pinned down on how the Nets would use their flexibility…not that he was hard pressed by Benigno and Roberts. One answer was particularly vague and somewhat rambling, offering up every virtually every possibility for using the space without saying which he or the Nets preferred.

"You look at our team and you say this is not our finished product," he said. "So you’ve got to continue to improve whether that means we continue to improve internally or…we have a lot of expiring contracts, we have a lot of young pieces that people like, we have a lot of really good players. And whether you mix and match in a different way, whether you add free agents. We have a lot of flexibility. I mentioned the trade exceptions. Those are very valuable right now. We have some extra draft picks in the future that we’ve stockpiled.

"So to me, you’ve got a lot of different ways to improve. And we just got to find the right way and we have to do it as quickly as possible."

How long is quickly as possible? Again, it was hard to tell.

"For where we’re going and when we believe we’re going to be good, over the next…maybe in a year or so, you had to look at this type of a deal," he said.

There's nothing wrong with waiting to see how things work out, with the free agent market or your own roster. If Lee follows Harris' arc and takes off next season, you'll want to gauge how much he'll have to be paid in 2012-13, when the bill for Lopez's services also comes due.

Of course, there’s also another possibility: that the Nets won’t spend lavishly and just continue to conserve what they have. They’re losing, depending on which accountant you believe, between $35 and $77 million a year, more than half of which is being picked up by Bruce Ratner’s corporate parent, Forest City Enterprises in Cleveland. FCEA has its own problems. The team’s ownership also has the carrying costs associated with Atlantic Yards...the land they have already acquired for Barclays Center, specifically the interest on various mortgages and refinancing packages

The Nets CFO recently said that "everything changes with Brooklyn" and certainly, long term that's true. The arena would be owned by the Nets and they would reap the profits from booking the non-sporting events like concerts and family shows. But that's unlikely to happen until the middle of the 2011-12 season.

The question is how much money will they spend--and on whom--between now and then.