The Nets rebuild took a dramatic turn Thursday with Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe signing massive contracts so onerous that their current teams will have to make painful decisions whether to keep the two 24-year-olds of let them join Brooklyn.
These are not superstars, not household names. The casual fans may have had to google their names after gasping at the numbers. Johnson, undrafted, played only 36 games last season, averaging 8.7 points per game and shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc. Crabbe, taken in the second round three years ago, averaged 10.3 points in 81 games. Both are very good defenders, both athletic.
The strategy behind the signings --and that of Jeremy Lin-- is simple: use Mikhail Prokhorov's ample fortune to make up for the previous regime's plan, which was to trade picks for a win-now roster. Now, as one league source noted, that lack of picks has forced the team to get young talent in unconventional ways, specifically offer huge, player-friendly contracts to those who they believe will grow into those contracts. Johnson and Crabbe may not look like $20 million a year players now, but in three or four years (when both will make that figure annually), they may very well be.
It's risky on any one of a number of levels. Miami and/or Portland could match the Nets deals and the team would be left with gaping holes in the lineup and $33 million in cap space with no one to spend it on. Johnson has had shoulder issues and needed surgery this past season to clear up nagging issues. Crabbe's nickname is "Cool Breeze" because of his laid-back ways. Or they simply may not be worth the $125 million the Nets would invest in them, not now, not ever, a new way to waste money.
The strategy is bold, even breathless. Sean Marks and ownership believe they have the perfect coach and coaching staff to develop the young players, the perfect facilities to help in that development, the perfect market to showcase their rise. It will get the Nets noticed and if it works, it will make for an intriguing team, aye, an intriguing experiment in team building.
It will not win their friends in front offices around the league. Pat Riley, already reeling from the loss of Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng, now has to make a decision on whether to pay Johnson $38.5 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20. The Crabbe offer sheet would have landed on Neil Olshey's desk as he and his staff were celebrating the signing of Festus Ezeli to a very cap-friendly $16 million over two years. You're on the clock, fellas. it's the kind of brash move Marks' mentors, R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich, make all the time, but Sean and Kenny aren't R.C. and Pop. Yet.
There is also a subtle message here to players and their agents: the Nets, bereft of picks, are willing to overpay to get what they want. Both offer sheets are very player-friendly. Besides the big bucks, they both contain player options in year four. They both contain provisions that will prove beneficial even if their current teams match --and their current teams will have to match ALL provisions of the deal, including performance bonuses and trade kickers. Also, Crabbe will get to start, something he could never do in Portland whose backcourt is populated with players his age: Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Johnson will be able to step out of Hall of Famers shadow in Miami.
It should be noted that the Nets telegraphed their plans on Draft Day, by trading a solid, character guy in Thaddeus Young for another risky piece in Caris LeVert ... and more than $10 million in additional cap space. Without that trade, there would have been no way for the Nets to do both of Thursday's deals. As Kenny Atkinson told writers Thursday before flying west to the Las Vegas Summer League, the team is happy taking risks to go young. LeVert was projected as a second rounder but the Nets took a risk there too.
"And it’s not always the big, splashy headlines. I think where we are and our stage right now, I think we’re very happy with how things have gone so far," said Atkinson. "I like the place we’re in."
Jeremy Lin is a risk, too. He has had some spectacular runs, some heady play. At times,he's also looked mediocre, but again the Nets are banking on his relationship with his old mentor, Atkinson, to get the most out of him. Pundits think his deal --$36 million over three years (again with a player option in the last year)-- is reasonable. But it IS a lot of money.
Will it all work out? Will this new collection of 20-somethings be any more successful than the Hall of Famers the Nets got three years ago? Is this strategy going to produce some wins now or in the near future? Do they have a back-up plan if they lose one or both? We shall see. But so far, it sure has been fun to watch.