Now comes the reckoning.
The five year plan for a championship failed, despite the enormous expenditures, the enlistment of stars, the move to Brooklyn with its great arena. A new plan has to be devised and carried out. And it begins now.
It was, by no means, a complete failure and those parts that succeeded --Brooklyn, Barclays Center, ownership's commitment-- remain the team's biggest and best assets. Ownership and management will likely be (mostly) intact. There are rumors one or more members of the coaching staff may not return. But Mikhail Prokhorov is likely to retain control, Dmitry Razumov will likely still call the shots in basketball operations and Billy King and Lionel Hollins will likely retain their positions for at least another year.
The buzz for 2015-16 is that it will be a "bridge year," moving from the Big Three and Brooklyn's Backcourt to the 2016-17 TV rights bonanza. Publicly and in small meetings with season ticket-holders, executives say the goal is to rebuild while still winning enough games to get into the playoffs again. King is on the record saying one move can change things, but that move will be difficult to achieve, what with the lack of draft picks ... and without a commitment from the team's MVP and most popular player, Brook Lopez.
Everything starts with Lopez. The senior Net and one of only two who played in New Jersey --Deron Williams being the other-- has a player option for $16.7 million next season. Almost everyone thinks he will opt out and seek the best offer for his services. He is now and will be a max player. He survived a year without any significant injury to his reconstructed right foot and is looking more like Ilgauskas than Ming. He almost single-handedly got the Nets into the playoffs with one dominating performance after another, his confidence growing, it seemed, with every game.
The Nets can certainly offer him the most money, a five-year deal that would take him to age 32. But does he want to stay? There are indications his love affair with the Nets, a mostly one-sided affair, has cooled. The Nets badly wanted to deal him at the deadline, part of a plan to overhaul the team with three interconnected deals that would have sent him to Oklahoma City for Reggie Jackson, relegated D-Will to some netherworld of dowager point guard and dispatched Jarrett Jack to the Wizards. It also would have gotten the Nets under the luxury tax threshold, saving them $20 million and permitting them to use the full MLE and BAE and acquire players in sign-and-trades.
Not to mention his odd relationship with Hollins, who benched him, then lauded him. Does Lopez trust his head coach?
Mikhail Prokhorov has said he wants Lopez back. "Brook is very important for us and Lionel told you maybe 20 times that we do want him back. And that’s up to Brook to decide. We need him. I think the Brooklyn Nets, it’s his home."
The most telling sign that he's not committed, other than his uncharacteristic no comment after Game 6, was something Devin Kharpertian captured Friday as the teams left the court. "One Nets assistant coach made an impassioned plea to Brook Lopez, asking him to stay in Brooklyn."
So what happens if he wants to leave and gets an offer he likes. He could walk away, with the Nets getting nothing in return or he could agree to a sign-and-trade, which would no doubt be lopsided in his new team's favor.
And if he stays? He would no doubt want a commitment beyond money, to be the centerpiece of the team. Is that something the Nets want? Is he the "strategic fit for the future," as one person in management wondered during the season?
And what of Brooklyn's Backcourt, the duo once so appreciated that the Nets trademarked the term. The Nets will likely try to deal both, but Game 4 aside, D-WIll had his worst season as a Net, worse season since he was a rookie in Utah a decade ago, and time seems to have taken an increasing toll on Joe Johnson. Teases like Game 4 aside, Williams performances kept getting worse. His relationship with Hollins improved so much that in the post-game, he said, "I don’t think Lionel’s going anywhere, so that’s definitely reassuring,"
The Nets tried to move Williams early in the season, but the Kings wanted Mason Plumlee who at that point looked like a future star. So Billy King said no to a deal that would have brought four lesser lights --Jason Thompson, Darren Collison, Derrick Williams and maybe Nick Stauskas-- to Brooklyn but rid the Nets of D-Will's remaining two years. Could a deal like that be reconstituted? Doubtful. Could the Nets buy him out or stretch him, as Zach Lowe suggested this week? Sure, but it would crimp their cap and get them nothing. Stretching Williams would mean a $9 million cap hit, without any production, through 2020.
Johnson turns 34 in the off-season and as we've noted, other than LeBron James no NBA player has racked up as many minutes in the regular season and playoffs over the past dozen years. He admits to bouts of tendinitis and this season arrived 20 pounds lighter. He didn't have the year many expected after this great effort in the post-season a year ago. His numbers were the worst he's put up since his second year. And he will make $24.9 million next season. Some think he'll be easier to move than D-Will because he's an expiring contract, citing Charlotte's interest. We are not among them. The Nets would have to take on a worse deal or two.
Then, of course, there's the lack of picks. Aside from the lost opportunities to pick up good young players for little money, first rounders could be used to entice other teams to take on the Nets unwanted contracts. Forget that. The Nets would like to be in the acquiring mode on picks. The cupboard is bare.
The repeater tax looms, too. Without going into the gory details, the Nets decision-making has to be affected by their exposure to the add-on tax. Prokhorov has said it won't be a factor and Billy King has said if the Nets are a little over, it won't be a big deal, but every deal the Nets made this year reduced salary. It was a priority. More so now.
There are some positives. The trade for Thaddeus Young looks brilliant although he did not play as well as we hoped vs. Atlanta. He can opt out and seek a long term deal or wait a year and go for broke in the brave new world of the TV rights bonanza. He was non-committal in his comments post-game, but his wife, Shekinah, tweeted "We love Brooklyn." Alan Anderson has a player option. He will opt out and could get more money but Nets have his Early Bird Rights and thus an advantage. The guy is a gamer, a leader and a survivor.
Bojan Bogdanovic played well (on offense) and showed signs of being a big game player. His 28-point effort vs. Orlando on the last day of the regular season ensured the Nets made the playoffs. Overall, he played well enough in the playoffs, certainly better than any other rookie. He'll be around. Markel Brown did well for a 44th pick, starting 29 games and on occasion showing that he could do a lot more.
But it's hard to find great potential elsewhere on the roster. Jarrett Jack is who he is, a good guy who can win you a game or lose it, sometimes both. He has another year at $6.3 million. Mirza Teletovic? He recovered from his blood clots but was hit-or-miss before he developed the condition. He's a restricted free agent. Best guess is that if he accepts the $4.2 million qualifying offer, he'll be back. If not, best wishes.
Mason Plumlee appears to be a mess. From December. 12 to January 16, he averaged 15.5 points (shooting 67.8 percent), 9.4 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. From March 8 to April 13, he put up 5.1 points (shooting 50 percent) and 4.8 rebounds in 16.5 minutes. In the playoffs, Plumlee’s minutes were, to be kind, limited. His free throw shooting became more than an issue. It was a cause celebe. Fans turned on him.
Sergey Karasev? He's still only 21 but that injury is serious and while he started 16 games, based on his offense, his defense was dreadful. The others --Jerome Jordan, Earl Clark, Darius Morris and Cory Jefferson -- are as likely to be trade ballast as returning veterans. Jordan is a free agent, the others have either no or partial guarantees.
Maybe they'll get lucky in the draft. They have two picks at Nos. 29 and 41 and enough money --$2.3 million-- to buy another or move up. Who might they target in the draft and free agency? They have lists. We don't but expect there to be a priority on youth, athleticism and defense, something to attract free agents in 2016.
And what of the coach? Lionel Hollins at times seemed stubborn and vindictive, at others cleverly manipulative. He didn't seem to care he was liked, and he wasn't. He grates. All part of the job description. He is, however, the constant. He will be back. So will his boss, Billy King, who will get a chance to turn things around. His contract has a year to run and he remains in the good graces of Prokhorov and Razumovv. That's not likely to change.
Nor is ownership and that's probably a good thing. Watching Mikhail Prokhorov watch a game up close tells you everything you need to know about his commitment to the team. Every good play gets applauded. EVERY good play. And the bad ones? You will learn Russian curses. His focus is laser-like. He doesn't come to many games, which is more a function of the current difficulties between Russia and the US, but he says he watches all of them. Could he sell, sure? Will he? Unlikely. As he has told people, his old business strategy of having great pools of cash is no longer smart, not with sanctions and currency restrictions. Instead, the strategy is now all about investments.
So what's the bottom line? It's going to be a long and probably very difficult summer, followed by what's likely to be an even longer and more difficult season. The Nets cast their dice and lost. Now comes the reckoning.