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Time to rebuild? Nets nearing crunchtime on big decisions

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Over the next two weeks, it’s likely that the Nets season will be made or lost. Among the opponents: the Grizzlies, the 76ers, the Raptors, the Blazers again, and the Celtics. They have five games in seven days stating Sunday. With a 7-9 record, Brooklyn needs a breakout. If not...

“With Kyrie Irving returning on Sunday against Memphis and Brooklyn, I think the clock really starts for this Nets organization about whether they can keep this group together,” said Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN Friday. “What the rest of the league is looking at is how long before perhaps Kevin Durant asks out again in Brooklyn.”

Woj is not the first to suggest that time is of essence for Brooklyn. A week ago, his colleague, Brian Windhorst suggested the same thing. “I want to be clear this is just something that league executives are talking about and, frankly, the Brooklyn Nets’ front office has to seriously start considering. And that would be a potentially nuclear option of beginning a blow-up to this roster this season.”

Even, Kendrick Perkins got in on it.

‘It is unfair, at the moment, to waste Kevin Durant’s greatness,’ Perkins said on ESPN’s NBA Today Wednesday.

‘Right now, he’s not on a team competing for a championship. Sean Marks needs to do Kevin Durant a favor and trade him to a title contender, where we can watch him.

The big win over the Western Conference leaders in Portland Thursday made fans forget the 153-121 drubbing at the hands of the Sacramento Kings two days earlier. But the Nets roster was built — and is paid — to be a championship contender, not a sixth seed or a play-in candidate like they were last season.

Indeed, The Athletic’s Alex Schiffer and John Hollinger wrote Friday in a more extensive piece that they too think that Nets are going to have to decide soon what direction the organization should take: continuing in their belief that the roster is a championship contender or, in a word, rebuild.

For The Athletic writers, the latter option seems closer to reality. They are pessimistic. Decisions for Sean Marks and Joe Tsai will continue to pile up until the February 8 tradeline. For Schiffer and Hollinger, the big win in Portland and Irving’s return, expected Sunday vs. the Grizzlies at Barclays Center, are unlikely to change things. The two write:

Despite the win and Irving’s pending return, over the course of the trip, some of the team’s shortcomings have been exposed, either down low or in terms of depth and there are limited ways to upgrade the roster. In a sense, the Nets are in a form of NBA purgatory, as they don’t appear close to contending, but don’t have the upcoming draft capital to tank. Was Thursday a turning point in the season or an outlier?

Hollinger, who spent time in the Memphis Grizzlies front office is pessimistic about the Nets future, suggesting that Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons are 1) likely to leave after this season and 2) not likely to live up to his contract that has three years, including this one, to run.

The Nets have two max players, one of whom (Irving) they can’t count on and might not even want to come back, and the other (Simmons) is basically a defensive specialist off the bench at this point, even when healthy, because he is so allergic to shooting. The Nets are one of the league’s most expensive teams, so overachieving their way to .500 while Irving and Simmons give them close to zero on max deals wasn’t the plan here.

Tanking isn’t in play, not when they owe their next five drafts to Houston, but it’s hard to get excited about a future beyond this season given Durant’s age, Simmons’ boat-anchor of a contract and Irving’s likely departure.

When Schiffer asked “has this been enough of a disaster to where you’ve seen enough and have begun debating ways to properly blow this up and get every last asset at the yard sale once the trade options expand in December?”

In this case, more time equals more information. We’ve only seen a few games of the Nets under Vaughn, and Irving has been in the lineup for zero of them. I’ll believe Warren is capable of playing when I see it, but obviously getting him on the floor would add additional information as well. Maybe Simmons can get going, Curry can unlock some more offense as his minutes increase, and Harris can use his Virginia erudition to spread knowledge throughout the organization.

Even then, I doubt this team is a contender, which means the other elephant in the room shows up: The Nets are $34 million into the tax, which would yield a nine-figure payment to the league if they don’t shed some payroll. Making deals with one of the two teams below the cap (Indiana and San Antonio) to dump salary (Harris or Patty Mills, for instance) would save the Nets tens of millions of dollars. Dropping Irving’s expiring contract and taking back a lower salary number would have a similar impact.

And if anybody calls about taking the remaining $115 million on Simmons’ contract, the Nets have an Uber on standby ready to take him to the airport.

In fact, much of Hollinger’s analysis is about money and saving salary and luxury tax for a rebuild. Unless the Nets make some moves, they’ll be paying the repeater tax on their payroll next season. Hollinger notes for example that if the Nets can make the right kind of deal for Irving, the team could save $25 million.

As for trading Durant, things get more complicated. Durant has trade value but again, like this summer, the same issues stand. KD has a four-year deal including this year which is good from one angle, but bad from another, that he’ll be 38 when the contract ends. Hollinger says the smart move is to move him at the deadline, not wait for the off-season.

The big risk of waiting til the offseason for the Nets is that Durant could get injured in the meantime, and he certainly will get older. Durant’s value is likely greatest at the upcoming trade deadline, where a contender could immediately plug him in and get four playoff runs, rather than the three they’d get by acquiring him this summer.

The Nets’ looming issue is that they owe their next four drafts to Houston as well, and have an aging Durant and a lot of meh on the roster beyond this season. If this is a lost season anyway, maxing out their Durant trade value and reaping a high draft pick might be the best fallback position.

Trade partners for KD? Hollinger lists all the players offered for Durant last summer, adding the Hawks. Hollinger suggests and Schiffer agrees that a deal centered on Durant and Seth Curry for Dejounte Murray and John Collins and some picks might be an ideal exchange.

Don’t expect any big decisions for another month. Not only did the Nets have a tough schedule, but a third of the NBA rosters aren’t eligible to traded until December 15. Doing anything before that isn’t likely. Any big trade would be complicated, so the more pieces available, the more likely a deal can get done. Then, it’s seven weeks till the trade deadline. As Hollinger says, more time equals more information but crunchtime has arrived for the team and the organization.