It will take a while, maybe a long while, for the full consequences of the last two weeks of deal-making to be known, but since February 10, Sean Marks and his front office remade the Nets roster ... and future.
In that time, with a blockbuster trade, a buyout deadline signing and the release of two players who’d recently been rotation players, Brooklyn has become a different team. They have reconstituted their “Big Three” (at considerable risk), added a veteran with more than 50 games of post-season experience as well as two other players, both of whom have played well, even in a small sample.
Think of it as sort of a three-team deal.
The Nets received:
Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, Goran Dragic, two first rounders: unprotected in 2022 and protected 1-8 in 2027, two new trade exceptions of $11.3 million and $1.7 million.
The Sixers received:
James Harden, Paul Millsap.
The Bucks received:
DeAndre’ Bembry and Jevon Carter.
It was (at least) a good recovery from the dissolution of the Harden “Big Three.” Assuming they are healthy, assuming they can gel in 22 games and assuming City Hall relents on the vaccine mandate, it’s a top-notch roster, the “most exciting team in the NBA ... “on paper,” as Shaquille O’Neal said Thursday on TNT. But those are assumptions, not certainties. The Nets went into Thursday’s Celtics game with five players missing and, predictably, lost again.
There are positives: if there are minutes to be had when the rotation is intact, a number of young players who wouldn’t normally haven’t gotten significant minutes did. Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe, Kessler Edwards and to a lesser degree David Duke Jr., have excelled. All have double-doubles to their credit and two have 20-point games. They have 37 starts among them, led by Edwards with 20.
The reality though is that the Nets have lost 13 of their last 15 and the Road to the Ring will be long, treacherous, unprecedented and almost certainly through the play-in tournament. As Kenny Smith said, “I’m not sure you can win a championship with 20 games. If they do that, those are three of the best players in the history of basketball.”
For Smith and others — like Zach Lowe and Kendrick Perkins, the issue is chemistry and continuity. Not to mention how long it’s been since new and returning players have taken to the hardwood. Joe Harris, if he returns, hasn’t played since November 14, Goran Dragic since November 13 and Ben Simmons June 20!
So, the other reality is that the last two weeks worth of moves is as much about the future as it is about this year, a hedge against a failed attempt to win it all in this unfortunate of a season. Maybe more so. Marks may have told season ticket-holders on Tuesday night that the “expectation” remains a championship for Brooklyn this season, but is that just optimism in the face of daunting odds?
At this point, it’s probably best to look at ALL things through the prism of the next several seasons ... beyond this one. It’s a hard thing to consider, but not necessarily a bad thing. Sustaining a winning tradition is fine (particularly since the Nets need to win to keep those pick swaps from getting ugly as they did in the Boston trade. (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were taken with Nets swaps and they combined for 48 points Thursday.)
The Nets may not be able to admit that the last two weeks have been about the future but there’s evidence they wanted to make sure the blockbuster protected the out years as well as helped this year’s prospects (particularly considering how much of their future they sent out to in bring Harden in.)
“So, obviously, we’re trying to keep Tyrese Maxey and (Matisse) Thybulle out of the deal and, obviously, my job is to keep track of the future,” Sixers GM Daryl Morey told Collin Cowherd a couple of days ago. “They ended up insisting on two first-round picks if we didn’t include them and they were pretty steadfast. At the end of the day, you have to either decide to make a deal or pass.”
Again, the hedge. So what can fans look forward to ... beyond this season? How should they view all the moves as they wonder what went wrong in this one?
The most obvious future assets picked up were those two first rounders. Before the trade, the Nets had no firsts in 2022, 2024 and 2026 and have to swap their picks in 2023, 2025 and 2027. Moreover, before the trade, they couldn’t trade any firsts until 2028.
There are other long-term aspects to the deal. As things currently stand, the Nets have Simmons, Durant, Harris and rookies Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe all under contract through 2023-24; KD, Simmons and the rookies through 2024-25; Durant all the way through 2025-26. They will also have qualifying offers on Thomas and Sharpe. And assuming the Nets extend Kyrie Irving either this summer or next — he has a player option this summer — the Nets will have a very stable contract situation.
That stability will also be reflected in the Nets luxury tax situation. Last August, the Nets had a projected tax bill of $130 million, per Hoopshype’s Yossi Gozlan. By training camp, it was down to $110 million. Now, it’s around $95 million.
Gozlan, assuming that Irving signs, tells NetsDaily that the Nets tax bill will probably remain stable through next season. Then, in 2023-24, Brooklyn will be in repeater tax territory with a projected bill of $132 million. The numbers would be dramatically higher if the Nets had signed Harden to an extension. That year, Harden would have made $49,7 million (and is likely to earn that much in Philly) while Simmons will make nearly $12 million less, $37.9 million. With the repeater tax, that difference would meant tens of millions more added to Joe Tsai’s bill in 2023-24 and beyond. Nets officials insist that the savings can and will be used elsewhere.
Tax exceptions are often not used but still Brooklyn now has four: two at $1.7 million, one at $3.6 million, one at $6.3 million and the big one at $11.3 million. That last one and one of the two smaller ones were generated in the Philly trade. (While many TPE’s don’t get used, the Nets used part of the $11.5 million exception they had left over from the Spencer Dinwiddie trade to take on Seth Curry’s $8.2 million contract.) Without salary cap space — and limited draft picks, the TPEs give Marks some flexibility in free agency past the draft, past free agency.
There remain a lot of questions. Will the Irving take his $36.9 million player option and hold off on an extension? That would be ideal for Brooklyn. Will Nets extend Curry this summer? They can. Will they be able to keep Drummond who they’re obviously auditioning? They can only give him the taxpayers MLE. How about Patty Mills, as big a bargain as there is in the NBA? He has a player option. Will they do anything before April 11 to preserve Edwards NBA rights or wait till the summer when he’s a restricted free agent?
While Simmons is seven years younger than Harden and Drummond nine years younger than Millsap, not every move is about the future. Signing 35-year-old Goran Dragic for the rest of the season is all about this season. Still, the now overwhelming impression has to be that the trade itself is about looking forward.
Maybe fans should lower expectations while still rooting for the Nets to make it through June but understand that what’s happened over the last two weeks. As Dodger fans used to say, “Wait till next year.”