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EMERGENCY ESSAY: No, sports fans, they are not tanking

Brooklyn Nets v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Nets social media is starting to sound like a conversation at an embalmers’ convention. It’s all about preparing the dead for burial.

“They’re tanking! they’re tanking!” goes the chorus of battered Brooklyn fans following the trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving for four good, if lesser, players and enough draft capital — five unprotected first rounders plus a swap of firsts and four seconds — to choke an NBA scouting department.

Sorry, they’re not. That’s not the plan anyway.

Other than comments from team insiders both on the record and anonymously after the Clean Sweep era ended, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the organization wants to win, wants to make a go of it in the post-season. Here’s a few points, drawn from what they did — and mostly didn’t do — at the deadline, to support that notion:

  • Much to the surprise of pundits, the Nets did not go under the luxury tax threshold at the deadline. Yes, they went from a projected luxury tax bill of $108.2 million to $6.9 million, saving Joe Tsai nine figures of his personal wealth. They certainly could have gone further depleting the roster and chances at post-season play, but they didn’t. They stopped just short. Why is that important? Because even if they are $1 over the threshold at the end of the regular season, they will fall into the dreaded repeater tax next season. The CBA dictates that if you pay luxury taxes three years out of four, the repeater tax with its much more draconian penalties kicks in, making any moves this off-season more expensive. Tsai presumably decided that he’d rather try for the post-season this year. Yes, it is possible that the Nets will not pay any luxury taxes next season, as some have suggested, but to be sure, they decided not to take the chance.
  • They could have taken up other teams’ offers for Mikal Bridges and Dorian Finney-Smith. According to Mike Scotto, they were offered four first rounders for Bridges by the Grizzlies and according to Brian Lewis, they were offered two first rounders for DFS by an undisclosed team. That would have given them 17 first rounders through 2029 the 11 they currently have plus six more, just two short of Thunder’s legendary haul, and maybe even putting them under the cap as well as the tax threshold, depending on what else they would’ve gotten back. That’s what tanking looks like.
  • They could have bought out Seth Curry, their biggest expiring deal, saving even more money. Assuming Curry would have taken a little less than his $8.5 million deal, that too could have dropped their payroll, maybe erased the luxury tax, etc. They didn’t. Or they could have gone even more tankish and bought out the two-year deals of Joe Harris and/or Patty Mills or offered some of those newly acquired picks, along with trinkets and baubles, to get Ben Simmons off their hands.
  • They signed Jacque Vaughn to an extension rather than waiting till the off-season. In effect, Vaughn’s deal is five years, this season plus four more. That’s a vote for stability if there ever was one. And considering that Sean Marks made the announcement of the long extension, we have to assume he’ll be back as well.
  • Then on Saturday morning, following their signature win over the Celtics, the Nets signed Nerlens Noel, to back up Nic Claxton.

There’s also evidence they’d like to move quickly to get back in contention. For starters, the Nets turned the KD trade from a two-team deal to a four-team deal on the afternoon of the trade deadline. And why is that important? It generated an $18.1 million trade exception, the biggest in franchise history and the biggest in the NBA by a long shot. It has to be used with a year from February 9. As John Hollinger of The Athletic noted at the time, that’s “one of the rare exceptions large enough to do some real damage in the offseason.”

In the original configuration, as reported by Shams Charania, they would have turned Jae Crowder into five seconds from the Bucks instead of the two they eventually wound up with. Five seconds sounds nice, but that would have limited the exception to $7.9 million. They even sent Indiana $1.5 million cash to make the four-team deal work. (And yes, the Nets have a history of using big TE’s. Last year, they traded the worse of their two picks in this June’s draft to Utah for Royce O’Neale, using most of the exception they got from the James Harden trade to Philly.)

There’s a lot of reasons to be skeptical — if not downright depressed — about the current situation. They are 2-6 since the deadline, 1-6 since the KD deal was completed and Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson joined the team. Simmons situation remains, at best, uncertain. We don’t know how the loss of two superstars — three, if you go back a year — or Kyrie’s claim of “disrespect” will effect free agents’ views of the organization. (And really, Kyrie, they disrespected you.)

Yes, they might wind up in the lottery this year anyway but even if they lost every one of their remaining games, they’d still wouldn’t move into the top 10 the night of the lottery. Why bother? (The best they can do on May 16 would be the second pick since if they get the overall No. 1, Victor Wembanyama would go to the Rockets ... and NYPD would have to post extra cops on the Brooklyn Bridge to prevent a mass suicide.)

So, tanking is not part of the plan and players don’t tank. They are mentally and physically wired to win every time they take the court. So sit back or forward, curse whoever you want or scream whatever at clouds. Just root, root for the home team and if they don’t win it’s a shame because that’s the plan.