It’s still very fluid on the third day of free agency. So, by the time this reports posts, it may be outdated, perishable.
On one level, the Nets accomplished three things through Sunday morning: re-signed Cam Johnson to a surprisingly generous $108 million over four years, one of the top five signings in free agency, signed Dennis Smith Jr. to a low-risk, high-reward one-year vets minimum with $2.53 million, and remade their payroll if not their roster.
They dumped almost $27 million in cap space by dealing away two popular (if declining) players in Joe Harris and Patty Mills. They will also lose another $8 million when Seth Curry signs with Dallas In doing so, they got well below not just the luxury tax threshold but the salary cap as well and they generated two trade exceptions: $19.9 million for Harris, $6.8 million for Mills. By getting under the tax threshold, the Nets have the full MLE, worth $12,4 million and the bi-annual exception $4.5 million (neither of which they are likely to use.) One reason: there are very few free agents still out there that would command big salaries. They could be used in a bigger deal, perhaps a multi-team deal for Damian Lillard. Of course, we remain highly skeptical of that happening. And for that matter, we can’t get any traction on the rumor that the Nets could be a third team in a Lillard deal, supplying the picks Miami would need while getting Tyler Herro in return.
The Nets still have the same first rounders they had on February 9 — their own in 2025, 2027, 2028, 2029 and 2030 plus the Mavs first unprotected in 2027, the Suns picks unprotected in 2025, 2027 and 2029 as well as a swap, also unprotected, in 2028 from Phoenix and finally the 76ers protected 1-8 in either 2027 or 2028. They did use two seconds, the 2027 Dallas pick and the 2029 Milwaukee pick, both acquired at the deadline, to cushion the Harris salary dump ... and may have had to do the same with Mills. We don’t know yet. Still, even with the two lost picks, they have the Heat second rounder pick, protected top 37, in 2025; their own second rounders in 2026, 2028 and 2030, as well as the Mavs and Bucks seconds in 2028, (They don’t have anything in 2024 and that’s fine by them. The 2024 Draft is seen as that bad and with 18-year-olds on a very young roster, that’s fine.)
So, a lot of flexibility going forward. But, again as of Sunday morning, they have lost a ton of shooting in Harris, Mills, Seth Curry and Yuta Watanabe, all of whom shot better than 40% last year and two of whom, Harris and Curry were both top five all-time. To be fair, all four also didn’t play a lot last season with injuries. So the Nets will be left with Johnson and Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith (hopefully better after his shooting hand surgery), Royce O’Neale and maybe some improvement from Cam Thomas and Spencer Dinwiddie, both of who can shoot but aren’t as consistent as those who left. They have been healthier, though. Maybe, Daryl Whitehead can join the fray at some point in the season but let’s not get to excited about the possibilities of an 18-year-old playing a big role in his rookie year.
They have also lost two cultural touchstones in Harris and Mills, selfless vets and simply great guys.
The Nets did solve one glaring roster issue Saturday. Dennis Smith Jr., fresh off reviving his career in Charlotte last season, is now their new back-up point guard. Still no back-up big yet. Ben Simmons who will not play for Australia, as we reported last week, is still rehabbing and he could help both at the point and in the post. The Nets are reasonably confident Simmons will return to form or close to it ... but he still has to prove it in front of 18,000 howling fans.
Assuming Simmons and Smith Jr. continue to get back on track after several up-and-down seasons (to be kind,) the Nets could be a defensive juggernaut. You have to go deep into the rotation to find anything close to a slacker on D. Bridges and Simmons were Defensive Player of the Year runners-up in 2021 and 2022 and Nic Claxton finished 10th last year. Finney-Smith and O’Neale are regarded as 3-and-D for a reason, etc. Defense was always Smith Jr.’s calling card.
Bottom line though is this: Those who thought the Nets were going to try to get back in immediate contention for a championship, make the big moves, have to be sorely disappointed despite all the warning signals put out by the front office (and us.)
As we’ve noted, the word of the day has been “patience” or if you prefer, “incremental” since the end of a disappointing season. We noted after Sean Marks’ post-season presser, he didn’t use another word, “aggressive.” Over and over since April, they have said it, then taken actions to prove that they meant what they said: refine a coaching staff to make it more about development; take two 18-year-olds in the Draft; re-sign Johnson: dump salary: get younger overall: add peripheral pieces and flexibility to stabilize the timeline, et cetera,
If you’re looking at the next inflection point, you might have to squint into the sun and look to the summer of 2025 when the next batch of superstars is on the market. The Nets haven’t changed their strategy. They know teams need superstars to win. They did it once. In the meantime, they will try to win as many games as they can, fondly remembering what they did in 2018-19 with a lot of young players. Nostalgia doesn’t win games, but the model can. (Who’s Jared Dudley in this iteration.)
And yes, they were burned by what happened to the “Big Three.” They trusted KD, Kyrie and James to get them to the mountaintop but won only one playoff series. As one insider told us this week: “We made all the preparations to get to the top of Everest, but only made it to the base camp.” Next time, better sherpas?
All kidding aside, here’s what we feel comfortable saying: The Brooklyn Nets are keeping their powder dry, waiting for the next chance to go for it. That chance could come at the deadline or over next summer. It’s unlikely to happen this week.
The Game within the Game
Continuing in our “I told you so” mood, let’s look at the Cam Johnson re-signing and how Sean Marks & co. scared off teams from bidding for the 27-year-old. Because of rules on unrestricted free agents, teams could have tendered Johnson an offer sheet, then waited 24 hour to see if the Nets would match. That scenario was all the rage among pundits. Who would try to be outbid the Nets, who would be that “irrational actor,” as one league source put it, out there who might bid $100 million over four years, an average of $25 million a year, and get the Nets to sweat a bit? Some suggested the Nets were going to offer Johnson $87 million, maybe $90 million, over four, the same deal his “twin,” Mikal Bridges, got last summer from Phoenix.
Marks and the Nets had let everyone know they were prepared to match and in the end, it was they who sacred off the Houstons and Detroits of the world, particularly the Pistons, not the reverse. Detroit was regarded by the pundit class as the prime competition (despite Johnson’s comments about how he intended to go house hunting in Brooklyn after free agency and his proclivity to wear Nets gear whenever seen publicly.) Monty Williams, the new Pistons coach, had been head coach in Phoenix and admitted he cried when he and Bridges, aka “The Twins.” were sent to Brooklyn for Kevin Durant. But no threat materialized and Marks proved he was a man of his word. He got out in front of everyone else and became the “irrational actor” again himself, ultimately offering C.J. four years and $108 million, an average of $27.5 million if he meets unlikely individual and team goals, not yet described. (Marks of course has experience at being an “irrational actor,” having offered Tyler Johnson $50 million, Allen Crabbe $75 million, Donatas Motiejunas $37 million and Otto Porter Jr. $108 million.)
In the end, there was no bidding war. Like last year when pundits warned that the Nets might be outbid for Nic Claxton, they cleared out the competition with warnings, then paid what was needed to avoid all the anxiety of matching. It may even have a long-term effect. Don’t even think about going up against us. The Nets are not going to wait, not going to be reactive.
Moreover, the Pistons, faced with no chance at Johnson, turned tail and accepted Joe Harris and two second rounders from Dallas and Phoenix in return for, as Omari Sankofa II of the Detroit Free Press tweeted, “nothing,” aka $110,000 in cash considerations. The Nets and particularly Marks would have liked to keep Harris around maybe through the trade deadline but even Harris had spoken about the deterioration of his skills back in March. Harris and the two picks were the Pistons’ consolation prize.
There are those who think the Johnson money was an overpay. The Nets do not think so and point to his improvement in just the last season, After averaging 13.9 points and shooting 47/46/82 in Phoenix, he topped that in his 25 regular season games as a Net (all starts) with a 16.6 average on 47/37/85. Then, in the four post-season games vs. Philly, he did it again, jumping to 18.5 on 51/43/86. Not to mention his personality and character. The Nets aren’t just in a rebuild/retool. They are also re-establishing their culture following the “Big Three” debacle and he fits.
And what is an “overpay” in a league where team valuations are rising by 10 figures in a matter of years, as the Nets have? Everybody is getting “overpaid” in the NBA nowadays and that’s a good thing.
At this point, the Nets have only a few roster spots open. Expect them to still try to move Dorian Finney-Smith or Royce O’Neale. According to several reports, the price will be high. As Mike Scotto Hoopshype reported Sunday...
The Nets have been unwilling to move O’Neale without the equivalent of a first-round pick in return or Finney-Smith without the equivalent of two first-round picks, league sources told HoopsHype.
What’s interesting is that the return has been delineated in each of these reports as draft capital. The Nets would like to add a pick, but they are not opposed to using either to bring back a player that fits their needs. If you hear the Nets are willing to take seconds for either player, don’t be surprised to next hear that a player is headed to Brooklyn in return.
There are still other decisions that have to be made. The first is this Wednesday. That’s D-Day for guaranteeing Edmund Sumner’s second year at the minimum. Sumner put out this video a couple of weeks ago pointing out that it can take a while to recover from a torn achilles...
Knew it would take 2 years to get over the injury and trust it fully. Excited to show all this work I been putting in. Healthy summer pic.twitter.com/3gT7O77MUA— Edmond Sumner (@EdmondSumner) June 22, 2023
Then, two days later, the Summer League begins in Las Vegas. Trevor Hendry, the Summer League coach and Nets veteran, will oversee 12 players, none of them currently on the 15-man roster. Two of the three draft picks will be on hand — Dariq Whitehead is still in a walking boot — as will RaiQuan Gray who signed a two-year two-way deal.
The big news out of Summer League will be the competition for the other two two-ways. After they signed Alondes Williams to a two-way on Draft Night in 2022, they quickly realized he wasn’t going to cut it and in January dropped the NBA part of his two-way deal (teams can do that) and replaced him with Dru Smith So, lesson learned. As we noted this week, six of the 12 players on the Summer League roster have NBA experience, including David Duke Jr. who wasn’t extended a qualifying offer to stay in Brooklyn but seems to be willing to at least show his wares in Vegas. Would he accept another two-way?
Several others on the Summer League roster could fit the Nets needs and have some experience. Jordan Hall, the 6’8” wing who was a two-way for the Spurs, and Kennedy Chandler, the 6’1” Grizzlies point guard who had the most NBA experience all the players on the roster last year (36 games), are 21 and 20, Chandler having been drafted at 38th by the Grizz in 2022.
If the Nets should want more experience, there’s Armoni Brooks, a 6’3” shooting guard who has played 74 NBA games, 16 of them starts with the Rockets and Raptors, or Jamorko Pickett, a 6’9” forward, played 12 games for the Pistons in 2021-22, averaging 3.8 points. Both are 25.
It is also possible that the Nets could give Jalen Wilson, the 6’8” Kansas wing taken at No. 51, a two-way deal instead of a standard one. That’s what they did two years ago with Kessler Edwards. Under the new CBA, a two-way player can be active for 50 games so he could contribute just as Edwards did in his rookie season. There’s also nothing to stop them from signing someone who isn’t on the Summer League roster. (As for Alondes Williams and Dru Smith, who replaced him on a two-way, they’re both on the Heat Summer League roster.)
After Summer League there is one more trigger date on contracts. If he is still with the team a week from Monday, Royce O’Neale’s contract goes from partially guaranteed, $2.5 million on $9.5 million, to fully guaranteed.
Also, Summer League doesn’t necessarily mean the end of free agency. The Nets didn’t fill their final roster spot till August 28 of last year when they signed Yuta Watanabe.
Regrets, they could have a few
Back after the end of the 2021-22 season, the Nets had the opportunity to extend their “Big Three.” At the time, Sean Marks was uncharacteristically definitive in saying the three were “signed, sealed and delivered.” Kevin Durant did agree to a $198 million extension but Kyrie Irving and James Harden ultimately declined and now will have to live with some very expensive consequences. We all know the back story, they asked for a trade, played out their contracts without an extension. No need to go into those gory details.
Neither player will wind up with deals anywhere near what the Nets offered them two years ago. Irving is getting $126 million over three from Dallas. The Nets had offered him $245.6 over five. Wherever Harden lands, he won’t get the $258.6 million Nets offered him. He already took a pay cut last season.
Did the Nets dodge a bullet? History will be the judge and we are nowhere near the denouement. (Look it up.)
Getting younger all the time
It’s not just that the Nets drafted the two youngest players in franchise history. They have also dumped their two of their oldest players, Joe Harris and Patty Mills and watched another 30+ player, Seth Curry, who turns 33 before next season, move on.
Their oldest player now is Spencer Dinwiddie at 30 years and 87 days old, followed by Dorian Finney-Smith, 30 years and 59 days old and Royce O’Neale at 30 years and 27 days. That’s it for 30 somethings. Next up is Cam Johnson, 27 years, 121 days. They have four players 21 or younger.
World Cup participation goes from five to two
Last week, it looked like the Nets could have five players participating in the FIBA World Cup: Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson for Team USA, Patty Mills and Ben Simmons for the Boomers, Australia’s national team, and Yuta Watanabe for Japan.
Since then, Mills has been traded, Simmons has officially dropped out of because he still has work to do on his rehab and the Nets (and he) felt it wasn’t worth the risk, while Watanabe is signing with Phoenix. So we are left rooting for the “Twins.” USA, USA, USA.
The Nets are more than mildly encouraged by Simmons work in Miami where he has been joined by Royce O’Neale and David Duke Jr. as well as others. His physical and mental health is growing. Of course, he will also have to do it at some point in front of 18,000 fans.
The Nets seem remarkably cool, detached and yes, disciplined, in what they’re doing. You can (and most of you will) find fault with it, but they believe they can remain competitive this season while waiting for the next opportunity to go for it, rebuilding while winning which is normally very difficult.
They might even pick up some additional draft capital before things are done. IF they can avoid injuries to key players, IF Ben Simmons returns to even near his pre-surgery levels, IF they can find some more offense, IF new leaders evolve, IF players like Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe develop their full games, and IF Jacque Vaughn and his mostly new staff can coax some unexpected wins out of them, they could be a playoff team, should be a playoff team. They understand defense is their ticket out of mediocrity and have been pushing it.
In the meantime, we have no other choice but to wait.