And we’re back! Took a while, but our weekly off-season report is back for its 13th big season. Almost a year ago, we ended the Off-Season with this line, “This is it, the end of the greatest off-season in Nets history.” That’s still true but the rest of the report is replete with optimism that simply wasn’t justified. So, we’ll try, try again.
Big changes coming ... or not?
In the past week, two the media’s most trusted capologists took a look at the Nets roster and pointed out possible routes to a title, what the Nets front office could do (or not do) to win the Nets first championship since 1976.
Bobby Marks of ESPN (and formerly the assistant GM under Rod Thorn and Billy King) and Danny Leroux of The Athletic peered deeply into Brooklyn’s roster to see what options the team will have when free agency opens sometime in the fall.
The Nets roster is built for stability not flexibility. They are currently over the cap and will likely be well into luxury tax, depending on how well the Nets treat Joe Harris who is as Sean Marks said recently the top priority. How much into the tax? Here’s Bobby Marks math (and remember he was the assistant GM when Mikhail Prokhorov had to pay out $90.6 million back in 2014.)
If the luxury tax comes in at $132.7 million, the Nets would start the off-season $9.9 million over the threshold and with a $15.9 million penalty. A Harris contract starting at $12 million would push the Nets’ tax bill to $49.9 million — a combined $46 million in 2020-21 to retain the 28-year-old.
While a $50 million tax bill is substantial, Durant and Irving did not commit last summer for ownership to now go into cost-cutting mode.
Still, that would be a near record tax bill and that assumes that Harris doesn’t command more or that there are little to no other changes in the roster, like making a big trade for another star or two or using the $5.8 million room exception. More significantly, the NBA is facing a double whammy of a loss of revenue from China and the shuttered arenas, the result of COVID-19. Might the salary cap and tax threshold be lower?
Leroux and Marks both think that if he wants to, Harris can use his considerable leverage in negotiations. Not only would his departure be a huge loss but finding a cheaper replacement with anywhere near his skills is unlikely. Here’s Leroux’s take...
What makes those negotiations so interesting is that Harris has leverage because Brooklyn cannot create cap space and has full Bird rights on him, meaning it is difficult, if not impossible, to replace him. At the same time, it will be exceedingly hard for Harris to find suitors above the $9 million Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception this summer since so few teams have cap space, even though 6’6 shooters are scarce this off-season and almost every off-season.
Will Tsai be willing to pay the luxury tax ... and at what levels? Back in January, albeit before COVID-19, both Marks and Tsai acknowledged the team had planned for the luxury tax. And Tsai said publicly that not only would he be willing to pay, that he in fact he’d be “comfortable” doing so.
“We’re going to be a tax team,” Sean Marks told ESPN’s Malika Andrews. “We are married to that. There’s a limited amount of times and ways you can continue to add to your team. You better do it now. You’re gearing up for a run.”
“I think the fans expect that we win a championship,” said Tsai in an interview with Ian Eagle. “And the good thing is I do believe we have the pieces in place. Now, we have some injuries and people are coming back, but the fundamental pieces are in place to perhaps go all the way. So, I am absolutely comfortable that if we pay the luxury tax, that’s fine.”
As we’ve noted things have changed —and Tsai has said he wants to get more involved in his sports franchises’ business operations— but Tsai is among those billionaires who’ve benefited during the pandemic, unlike colleagues on the Board of Governors who’ve seen their net worth drop by a third or were willing to pay up to 15 percent interest on junk bonds to keep their shuttered businesses afloat. (More on that later.)
And just this month, Sean Marks hinted on YES that not much has really changed. They’ve known all along what signing Harris to a big deal means financially.
“Priority No. 1,” Marks said. “It’s that simple, yeah. I think we’ve talked about [it] plenty of times. We’re obviously very proud of where Joe has come from.” (Emphasis added.)
Harris, of course, has signaled his willingness to stay a Net not just for this contract but for his whole career.
But as Bobby Marks and LeRoux note, there are other issues out there that could factor into the Nets cap —and roster— situation. The Nets for example could extend Jarrett Allen before the opening of next season and Spencer Dinwiddie is also eligible for a new deal.
Start with Allen. The Nets can, as they did with Caris LeVert and Taurean Prince, extend Allen’s rookie contract, or give him a qualifying offer and postpone a decision for a season when they would have the right to match any offer or trade him this offseason.
Allen’s value to the Nets (and other teams) was shown during the “bubble.” Not only did the 22-year-old become a walking double-double, but his passing and court sense showed dramatic improvements. He also looked stronger. Moreover, he is the most durable Net. If he hadn’t rested in the “bubble,” he would have played every game this season. However, with DeAndre Jordan on the payroll for another three years and $30 million, would it be smarter, at least in the short term, to market Allen? As Leroux notes, the Nets could probably find a replacement in this off-season’s bargain basement.
Moving current players like Jarrett Allen and/or LeVert would open up new spots in the rotation and thus change who Marks looks at with the MLE. There are a ton of centers on the 2020 market, with Aron Baynes and Robin Lopez standing out as the most interesting as potential Jordan backups.
The Dinwiddie situation has similarities. Will the Nets want to pay their three combo guards top dollar ... and dramatically increase the luxury taxes? Bobby Marks explained the Nets dilemma.
Starting in December, the Nets can offer a four-year, $62 million extension with a starting salary of $13.7 million in 2021. Dinwiddie does have Bird rights, and Brooklyn can offer him more years and money when he does become a free agent. However, is the front office comfortable paying Dinwiddie and starting point guard Irving a combined $50 million-plus per year in salary?
On the court, there is only a 20-game (8-12 in those games) and 305-minute sample to evaluate whether the Irving-Dinwiddie pairing works.
Factor in the emergence of LeVert, and Dinwiddie is a sixth man. Will he sacrifice in a contract year?
The answer is probably no. So will the Nets move him for the “third star” or at that deadline? Dinwiddie is the player most mentioned in trade rumors over the past year. There have been offers on the table for him. He’s 27, averaged 20.6 points a game along with seven assists and has a personality that would make him a fan favorite no matter where he wound up (other than the Garden, of course.)
Bobby Marks thinks that despite that resume’, Dinwiddie will not command a lot of offers or, we should say, good offers this year.
Would a team give up a player and draft assets for someone it can sign with cap space? Or does a team that doesn’t have cap space sacrifice assets without knowing if Dinwiddie will commit in the long term after the season?
Of course, the Nets can do nothing with a player as talented as Dinwiddie, and that’s my recommendation: Let the 2020-21 season play out with a healthy Durant and Irving surrounded by the best possible roster.
So what about Caris LeVert? The “third star” debate boils down to whether he’s that star or whether he can be traded for one. The names most mentioned are Bradley Beal, Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo, all of whom are paid more and have had durability issues.
Bobby Marks thinks trading for any of those three —even if possible— is a needless risk.
I’m making the argument that the third star Brooklyn wants already resides in their own locker room.
If the 51-point performance against Boston in early March was not confirmation, the play of LeVert in Orlando cemented why Brooklyn should not search externally for the third star to complement Durant and Irving. In the games in Orlando, including the playoffs, LeVert averaged a team-high 25.0 points, while grabbing 5.0 rebounds and handing out 6.7 assists.
He notes as well what Kevin Durant said of LeVert last week, about how much he’s been pleasantly surprised by the 26-year-old.
Leroux thinks it’s better to move now since a season of figuring out a difficult fit isn’t going the help the Nets title aspirations.
Waiting into the season or even next off-season and then eventually coming to the same conclusion brings a real opportunity cost since the Nets need to make the most of the next few seasons.
Leroux and Bobby Marks both have thoughts about the Nets new coach. Leroux thinks the Nets will have to face the reality that their two superstars have had contentious relationships with previous coaches.
That may lead Marks to Tyronn Lue, who has experience and success with Irving on the Cavs, first as an assistant and then head coach of the 2016 championship team. However, there are a multitude of other options and it is exceedingly important that Marks makes the correct choice considering the personalities involved and narrow timetable of contention.
Bobby Marks on the other hand thinks Jacque Vaughn has a good shot.
GM Sean Marks needs to evaluate if Vaughn is the right fit for a championship roster.
Durant, Irving and emerging star Caris LeVert will likely elevate the Nets to a top-four seed. That is a far cry from the roster Vaughn coached in his 2 1/2 seasons in Orlando, Florida.
There’s a lot more in the analyses including a breakdown of who may return and under what circumstances. Neither mentioned the Nets’ interest (pursuit?) of Gregg Popovich. So we will take a short look.
POP goes the coaching search?
Now that Stefan Bondy, Dan Woike and Shams Charania have reported that the Nets have an interest in Gregg Popovich and that Joe Tsai wants a broad search for a new head coach, is there anything new to add? Well, yes.
We’ve all parsed out Sean Marks comments about how Pop “already has a job,” while noting that there are nine Nets staffers and coaches who’ve worked for him, including the GM. one of the assistant GMs, the current head coach and his lead assistant, and the capologist.
We don’t know much if anything but we found some tweets by Irina Pavlola on how things might work interesting. Mikhail Prokhorov put her in charge of the GM search (and to a lesser degree the head coach search) back in 2016. So she knows how this works.
In comments gleaned from back-and-forths with Twitterati, both the informed and otherwise, Pavlova thinks that if we hear that the Nets have asked “permission” to speak with Popovich, the deal is done. But she also notes that the Spurs don’t have to give their permission. They might very well, but it’s not a given.
“‘Permission to interview’ is just a technical term,” she noted in one tweet. In another, she wrote, “That’s the point I’ve been trying to make, perhaps not very eloquently. If Pop says he’s open to it, it’ll happen. Period.”
She also noted that seeking permission “means the deal is in the works. If Pop informally indicates there’s no way/no how he’s leaving the Spurs, there won’t be a request to interview and therefore no ‘pursuit’”. And you’ll hear no more of it.
On the other hand, the former head of ONEXIM Sports and Entertainment says there are other things outside the public view that may effect Pop’s future.
“The Spurs are under NO obligation to grant it,” she said of “permission.” “The unspoken rule in the NBA is to always allow it only for a promotion (e.g. Sean Marks).”
Bottom line for her: “So a LOT of stars would have to align...”
One other point in the coaching search, assuming Popovich doesn’t say, “Get me the real estate listings for Brooklyn Heights, Dammit!” Expect it to be broad and possibly far beyond the rumored names like Vaughn, Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, etc. We wouldn’t be surprised if Will Weaver, the former Nets assistant, Long Island Nets head coach and now head coach of the Sydney Kings, is a candidate. Nor would be surprised if Mike Brown, Kyrie Irving’s first coach, got a call. Not to mention international coaches. Bottom line, though, we expect the next head coach will be someone with a lot of experience and a lot of success at a high level. This is it, after all.
And you can say what you want about other openings in Philadelphia, Indiana, Chicago, and maybe Houston. but none of those situations feature KD and Ky and Caris; a stable and very rich owner committed to spending; a GM with a great track record and the bright lights and big city.
Joe Tsai’s higher net worth ... and profile
Because primarily of the pandemic, the NBA’s owners are breaking down into the mega-rich and the less so. None of them are poor. About half are billionaires and three of them are worth more than $10 billion. There is, however, a growing disparity in wealth —and therefore resources — to spend on their teams. At least one team — Minnesota— is for sale and other ownership groups are rumored to be considering sales of a majority or minority stake. Also, don’t be surprised to see rumors of teams wanting to move from smaller markets to larger, underserved markets.
The divide is fairly easy to discern. Those owners with interests in leisure activities like cruise lines (Heat) and restaurants and casinos (Rockets) have been devastated. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a daily estimate of the world’s 500 richest men, Micky Arison of the Heat has lost $2.12 billion of his net worth since January 1. Tillman Fertitta of the Rockets isn’t on the Bloomberg list but it was reported he was offering corporate bonds with 15 percent return to get him through the current difficulties. Robert Pera of the Grizzlies who had huge jump last year with the growth of his tech company is down nearly $3 billion, to a little more than $8 billion, this year because of a variety of issues.
On the other hand of the scale, (most) owners with investments in technology are thriving as everything from stock in teleconferencing to e-commerce has jumped.
Steve Ballmer of the Clippers is now worth nearly $90 billion mainly because of his Microsoft stock, up nearly $24 billion this year. Dan Gilbert of the Cavs just took his online banking/mortgage business public and is now worth $44 billion, up $37 billion (not a typo) this year. The Blazers ownership, held by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s estate, is also doing fine.
Joe Tsai, while not in the same class as Ballmer and Gilbert, has seen an increase of more than 20 percent in his net worth. He’s now at near $15 billion, having seen his fortune grow by more $2.7 billion since January, mainly on the rising stock price of Alibaba, the giant Chinese e-commerce company he co-founded. (His net worth may have jumped a bit this week based on another investment he made in XPeng, China’s Tesla whose stock went public this week.) After Ballmer and Gilbert, he’s the NBA’s third richest owner.
Moreover, Tsai has become a leader among NBA governors, not a group known for being introverted. During the pandemic, Tsai became a bit of a hero for his efforts in getting essential equipment from Chinese factories to New York, New Jersey, California and Michigan. The 2,000 ventilators he was able to get to New York at the height of the pandemic in April came at a cost of $7 million.
And of course, this week, he and his wife Clara Wu Tsai, announced a $50 million Social Justice Fund to help Brooklyn communities. His position as one of China’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen may very well become critical in bringing the NBA and Chinese authorities closer to some arrangement that would return the league to Chinese television.
Then, there’s this footnote to the Social Justice Fund announcement. Clara Wu Tsai took top billing in the press release and for the first time, she was officially listed as an “owner” of the Nets. She has long been listed as a co-owner of the Liberty. Wu Tsai, who has often described herself as a philanthropic investor, is also a founding partner of Meek Mills’ REFORM Alliance. We can’t recall another instance where a husband and wife were co-owners of an team, but we will note that Clara Wu Tsai attended more Nets games this year, often with her children, than husband Joe!
Whither the Substitutes?
The Nets signed six players just before the return to play ... one free agent, Tyler Johnson, and five substitute players: Jamal Crawford, Lance Thomas, Justin Anderson, Donta Hall and Michael Beasley who never suited up because he tested positive for the coronavirus.
So what happens to them once free agency opens up later this fall. It was supposed to begin October 18, but the league is likely to move that date and the date of the Draft back.
Jamal Crawford and Tyler Johnson have indicated they’d like to be back. Asked if he wanted to return, Crawford responded, “Why not?” citing what the Nets roster migh look like next season. Johnson said he was “ecstatic” to finally join the Nets. “Moving forward, it’s one of those things you continue to stay confident, and obviously we have some time to regroup and we’ll know a little bit more as free agency hits and everything, but as far as me seeing myself on this team, I definitely do.”
The Nets have non-Bird rights with the Nets, giving them some wiggle room in terms of pay. The Nets have no rights to any of the others.
We have no idea what’s going on but we can see a few possibilities. Hall could fit into the Nets two-way plans. They have two two-way slots and Jeremiah Martin has another year left on his two-way deal signed in January. Anderson is someone who the Nets have given multiple chances to, as 10-day, as a member of the Long Island Nets, then as a substitute. If he’s not signed elsewhere, he’s likely to be in training camp.
Thomas didn’t distinguish himself in the “bubble” although he did have some moments on defense, but he’s a F.O.K. (Friend of Kevin) and that helps. Beasley is not just an F.O.K.. He’s the original F.O.K., the two having been friends for 20 years, going back to Prince Georges County. He could get a camp invite as well.
Best bets remain Johnson and Crawford, probably in that order. TJ had some solid games and clutch moments in the “bubble,” the seeding games in particular. And like we said, the Nets can play some games with their non-Bird Rights if they want to. (Also, he owes us!) Crawford, of course, didn’t get a real chance, playing only five minutes in one seeding game. We’d expect him in camp, but with what kind of contract?
Draft Sleeper of the Week: Aleksej Pokusevski
Who you might say!?! In mock drafts we’ve tracked, a small number of players are almost ways linked to the Nets: potential 3-and-D types like Saddiq Bey of Villanova and Patrick Williams of Florida State and Jalen Smith, a 4/5 out of Maryland. There have been others like Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton, but those seem more like pipe dreams, end-of-the-lottery picks.
But Pokusevski, a 7’1”, 18-year-old has increasingly been attached to Brooklyn. He fits one Nets profile. They have a history of drafting international players like Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs in 2018 and Aleksandar Vezenkov in 2017. In addition. they acquired Isaia Cordinier, a Hawks stash in a 2019 Jeremy Lin trade, then added a couple more in the DeMarre Carroll salary dump. (And if you want to get really technical, Nicolas Claxton played for the US Virgin Islands in FIBA competition. )
Moreover, assuming the Nets keep the pick, they very well could be looking not for a player who can help immediately but one who they can take time to develop. They could in theory stash a Euro like Pokusevski overseas although that would prove costly. As a first round pick, Pokusevski would count on the cap no matter where he plays. And the No. 19 pick carries a cap hold of $2.7 million. Add more if the Nets are over the tax threshold.
All that aside, the big Serbian stands out for two reasons: he is very, very skilled for a big man and he is a bean pole. He weighs, last we checked 195 pounds. Pokusevski, who mainly played for Olimpiacos junior team last season, can shoot from deep, run the floor, and really pass the ball from the low or high post or on the break. And he is not unathletic. In fact, he uses his ample timing and athleticism defensively.
Here’s some video of his Greek League and FIBA highlights...
There are defensive concerns away from the rim and some criticism of his motor, but on a team like next year’s Nets, he’s likely to get a crash course on the NBA in Long Island ... and big courses at the training table. He will need to bulk up. That’s a given. Moreover, like a lot of big men, he has had knee issues.
He will be the youngest player in the Draft and as Jonathan Givony of ESPN pointed out, if he had born six days later, he wouldn’t have been eligible until 2021. Here’s Givony’s take...
Standing over 7 foot with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Pokusevski has unusual dimensions for a player who spends much of his time on the perimeter. He is a highly adept ball handler, passer and shooter, giving him significant potential to grow into as his lanky frame continues to fill out. He also shows intriguing versatility defensively, often tasked with guarding smaller players on the perimeter. His narrow frame is a sticking point for some NBA teams, as he missed nearly three months of action with a knee injury that prevented him from being scouted extensively by talent evaluators.
Still, if you don’t need immediate help (the Nets don’t) and you don’t have a high pick (they don’t), taking a skilled 7-footer who’s the youngest player in the Draft seems like a move with little risk. Fun fact, if the Nets take Pokusevski, their camp this fall could include the oldest (Crawford) and youngest (Pokusevski) Nets ever.
This year has been a horror. Death stalked New York, with Brooklyn as the worldwide epicenter during the early spring. Then, racism reared its ugly head over and over, leading to Nets players, staffers and fans to protests. Caris LeVert said he protested “four of five times.” Jarrett Allen and Nicolas Claxton also talked about their experiences. There no doubt were others.
The Nets will have an opportunity next season to raise awareness about both those issues in a number of ways. Joe and Clara Wu Tsai’s Social Justice Fund is one, but another might be to dedicate the 2020-21 season to all those Brooklyn residents who lost their lives to COVID-19. As of Sunday, more than 5,000 Brooklynites have died of the disease. Close to 60,000 have been infected ... including a number of Nets players. So they share the fear, the anxiety. It would be fitting to have Brooklyn’s team bring home the Larry O’Brien Trophy next year.