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NetsDaily Off-Season Report - No. 20

Every weekend, we’ll be updating the Nets’ off-season with bits and pieces of information, gossip, etc. to help fans get ready for ... whatever.

Sacramento Kings v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

On Sunday, in the hours before dawn in New York City, few televisions will be tuned to the FIBA World Cup bronze medal game in Manila. Those who do get up early for Team USA vs. Canada will likely be limited to a few Nets fans, a few Knicks fans and Canadian expats.

Both American and Canadian basketball fans had hoped for a gold medal game featuring Anthony Edwards and Mikal Bridges vs. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and R.J. Barrett, but the German and Serbian national teams took care of that dream two days ago.

There’s been a lot (too much) hand-wringing and clickbait over how and why Team USA didn’t just roll over Germany. The usual arguments are made, as laid out by AP’s Tim Reynolds Saturday.

  • Same sport, different game, as Boki Nachbar, former Net and head of the Euroleague players union, said this week. FIBA play is more physical, there are some other subtleties and FIBA officials don’t call the game the way NBA officials do. They’re only 40 minutes long.
  • International teams, particularly the European teams, play together for years and years, the roster based on a core of players — and coaches — who can not only finish each other’s plays but sentences as well.
  • The game is getting better everywhere, a trend that started in 1992 with the Dream Team which inspired young basketballers to want to be like Mike ... or Larry ... or Karl, etc. etc. So we shouldn’t be surprised when a kid who had posters of MJ on his wall becomes more than just a fan.

But the semi-final loss to Germany was more than all that. It was about defense or the lack of it. The numbers are all there for everyone to see. Team USA had gone 97-0 when scoring 100 or more points in FIBA play until last week when they went 1-2.

ALL that — including the disappointment of flying around the world and coming back without gold — will be (mostly) forgotten when in 46 days, those Americans and Canadians change jerseys and play in the NBA’s 28 cities.

For Nets fans, though, there is one redeeming grace emanating from Manila. Mikal Bridges has cemented his place as one of the game’s best two-way players. His shooting splits alone — 67/57/87 going into Sunday’s game — showed what he can do on the larger stage. It wasn’t just shooting splits and his 12.9 points scoring average. He played great defense throughout the seven games. The rest of the Cup’s media darlings — like Austin Reaves and Jalen Brunson — were sieves for whatever reason. Teams literally hunted for matchups with them. Bridges was even ranked above Edwards on some efficiency lists. We didn’t expect that.

As Brian Windhorst wrote in putting Bridges on ESPN’s FIBA World Cup All-Stars:

The steadiest American player over the past three weeks, Bridges was the point-of-attack defender who always took on the toughest assignments, even against smaller and quicker guards. Bridges also displayed his blossoming offensive game when needed, especially against Italy (24 points in a win) and Germany (17 points in a loss).

Cam Johnson was a different manner. He dropped off during the USA Basketball magical mystery tour, going from starter to bench warmer, then out of the rotation altogether fairly quickly. Johnson is not one to complain and his biggest life accomplishment this summer will not be a bronze medal but his new, four-year contract which will pay him somewhere between $94.5 million and $108 million depending on bonuses. He’ll be fine. Again, same sport, different game and he is smart enough to understand that.

So as a fan of USA Basketball, you can be a bit crestfallen and mull why the U.S. doesn’t dominate, but as a fan of the Brooklyn Nets, having Bridges show — again — where he’s at in the NBA game has to be seen as a positive, a big positive. Now, all we have to do is hope for bronze and an otherwise uneventful finale and restful flight home. (We’re Nets fans; we worry.)

Reason to watch

Getting up at 4:30 a.m. ET on Sunday will certainly qualify as being above and beyond the the call of duty for any fan. Still, as noted, there will be local interest with five New York NBA players on the court: Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson for Team USA as well as the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart. And from across the border, there’s R.J. Barrett of Team Canada.

But if that wake-up call is too daunting (and it is the NFL’s opening weekend), what about the 8:30 a.m. gold medal game? It starts at 8:30 a.m. ET and Nets fans can get a look at the team’s most valuable stash,

Nikola Milutinov, the near 7-footer who mans the middle for Serbia, was drafted by the Spurs in June 2015 at No. 26 in the first round, but never signed by San Antonio. In the August 2021 multi-team trade that sent Spencer Dinwiddie to the Wizards, Milutinov’s rights were a throw-in to make everything work when all five GMs got on the phone with the league office.

Milutinov who at 28 is only 15 months older than Cam Johnson is a prototypical European center. He does not aspire to scorch the nets from deep. He is a big strong and very traditional back-to-the basket center. In Cup play, he is now ranked fifth by efficiency, the top non-NBA player on the list, and ESPN put him on their All-World Cup second team along with Bridges. Brian Windhorst wrote of him:

A 2015 first-round draft pick of the San Antonio Spurs, Milutinov has long been highly regarded for his blend of force and skill. The Brooklyn Nets traded for his rights two years ago, but he’s not coming as the center just signed a multiyear deal to play in Greece. He averaged 13 points and 9 rebounds in powering Serbia to the championship game.

He has four double-doubles, the most recent in Serbia’s big win over Canada Friday when he scored 16 points and grabbed 10 boards. Here’s some highlights from his dominant game vs. China...

As one NBA scout put it when talking to NetsDaily not that long ago, his skillset doesn’t match the new NBA.

“He’s a traditional big who’s continued to get better,” said the insider who’s familiar with Milutinov’s game. “I thought when he first started taking that step in Europe — I believe in Serbia for Partizan — I thought he had some interesting tools in the way of (former Spur and Nets assistant) Tiago Splitter had: that old school, back-to-the-basket game, could pass. I do think he adds a level of rim protection.”

But the scout added that there’s the issue of money, fit, minutes ... and stature.

“I don’t think he would make the money he is making overseas over here. I think that’s the very reason why if I were him, I’d have to make a decision, ‘what do you want out of your career’ because here, I think he’s a back-up center.

“People don’t throw the ball down low the way they did back in the 90’s, This is more of a handoff, shoot threes. rim roll, lob threat (league). He’s a big guy but he’s not an elite athlete. Of course, he can catch a lob but he’s not playing above the rim. He’s not a Clint Capela, an athletic big.

“I do think he’s capable of being an NBA player. I just don’t know if he plays the minutes and has the stature that he does in Europe that he would have in the States,” he added.

Last season, Milutinov earned $2.5 million a year, his third season at that level. It put him behind only two former NBA players, Nikola Mirotic and Shane Larkin and just ahead of Mike James who played a few game with the Nets in 2021.

Then, things changed after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. He was playing for CSKA Moscow, then part of the Euroleague. The league expelled its three Russian teams and even though he stayed loyal to CSKA and played out his final season with them, he needed to find a new home.

So he signed this summer with Olympiakos of Greece, a team he played for before leaving for CKSA, winning two national championships there. He seemingly took a pay cut, inking a two-year deal for $4 million. There was no indication he wanted to try the NBA and the Nets have had “no serious discussions” with him since acquiring his draft rights, according to another league source. (Any NBA team that would be interested in Milutinov would have to first acquire his rights from the Nets.)

As for the money, it’s like we keep saying, same sport, different game. Of course, no one in Europe is going to make the astronomical sums NBA players make. Those numbers are reserved for soccer players. Besides that, NBA salary numbers are gross, meaning before taxes, etc. European numbers are net, after taxes. European players also get housing expenses, a car, etc. That is not going to significantly cut the disparity between the NBA and Euroleague, but it does mean the bar for NBA teams to match or beat a European offer is higher than one might think. So teams would have to think twice before spending more than a vets’ minimum.

Then, as the scout noted, there’s the “stature” thing. In Europe, Milutinov is a hero, the continent’s best big or close to it . Olympiakos fans were thrilled he returned to the big red fold. In the NBA, he’d just be one of 30 back-ups, a journeyman.

Apparently, the scout’s assessment is shared by many in the NBA. Even though he was drafted by the Spurs at the end of their “Big Three” era, there was no real interest, he said in an interview with Eurohoops in 2020. Milutinov didn’t mince words.

“To go there, I need to be invited to go there. I never had something official from them. It was only just talking. They were never serious about taking me, and I cannot go there by myself,” he said. “They need to show me their will to take me and they didn’t in the previous years. I don’t regret it.”

The Nets appear to have seen him in the same way. At this point, at age 28 and with a two-year deal that will take him to age 30, it would seem unlikely that Milutinov would give up what he’s got reportedly including two homes on Greece’s sunny Aegean islands. If he wins the gold Sunday, he’ll have added another honor to go with national championships in four different countries. That’s a hell of a resume’ even without a listing for the NBA.

Repeater tax hell

The Nets are currently $8.0 million under the luxury tax threshold. That’s where the Nets would like it to stay, under not over the threshold. If they do go over, they would fall into the repeater tax territory, dramatically increasing costs.

Here’s how it works. If a team goes over the luxury tax threshold three times in four years, it becomes a “repeat offender” and must pay additional taxes, complete with an escalator. Per HoopsRumors, here’s what Joe Tsai would wind up paying...

  • $0-5 million above tax line: $2.50 per dollar (up to $12.5 million)
  • $5-10 million above tax line: $2.75 per dollar (up to $13.75 million)
  • $10-15 million above tax line: $3.50 per dollar (up to $17.5 million)
  • $15-20 million above tax line: $4.25 per dollar (up to $21.25 million)
  • For every additional $5 million above tax line beyond $20 million, rates increase by $0.50 per dollar.

Teams are assessed the tax based on their payroll on the final day of the regular season. This year that’s April 14. Taxes are then calculated and a bill presented to the team which must pay by the first week of July. Beyond the money, there are other sanctions that would make doing normal business difficult. (We are not taking about the dreaded second apron. For the Nets to reach that level, they’d have to add $28 million in salary beyond what they’re already paying That ain’t happening.)

And the problems wouldn’t end there. As Yossi Gozlan, Hoopshype’s capologist told us, the Nets are already in the luxury tax for 2023-24 ... and 2024-25.

“They’re in it for 2024-25 no matter what,” said Gozlan. No matter how low they go. It’s the three years out of four thing.

If in the unlikely event, they go over the threshold in either year, they will extend their repeater tax liability to 2025-26 and that would not be good. It’s big free agent summer.

So, what’s a GM to do? Just what Sean Marks & co. is doing: taking chances on fallen angels, banking draft picks ... and avoiding temptation ... all while competing if not contending. Indeed, things could get dicey next summer. They will have to make a huge decision on Nic Claxton, assuming he has another stellar season. They will have a few expiring deals, starting with Spencer Dinwiddie and Royce O’Neale as well as the players they’ve signed to minimums. That could clear some space, but it will be tight. It would also mean all those exceptions — the full MLE, the bi-annual and the seven trade exceptions, two of them over $18 million — would likely go unused or small pieces used to facilitate deals.

Of course, there’s always the Ben Simmons issue. If he is as good as he was in Philly, a longshot, his contract would be reasonable even if he’s getting paid $37.9 million in 2023-24 or $40.3 million in 2024-25.

The Nets brain trust feels confident that Tsai, who has paid out $323 million in luxury taxes since buying into the Nets, will add to his largesse IF a move would mean a legitimate chance at contention. That, too, seems like a long shot.

How’d the Nets get into this situation? Easy, they spent and spent and spent on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden and now they are paying for it in so many ways.

For example, Irving and then Durant’s trade demands so close to the deadline limited the Nets options in trying to make a deal that would have gotten them out of the tax in 2022-23. As ProfessorB, our analytics guy wrote:

No one other than the Spurs had the cap space necessary to absorb extra salary, and they weren’t playing along (with any of the teams attempting to dump salary at that point). The Nets would have had to made a series of unbalanced trades, rearranging the whole roster, all in less than 24 hours between the KD trade and the deadline. Not happening. Marks did very well to get what he got for Kyrie and KD in difficult circumstances (thanks in large part to an over-enthusiastic rookie owner, and Cuban being Cuban).

They apparently tried, holding up the Irving-for-Dinwiddie trade more than a day while reportedly seeking suitors for Dinwiddie. And in between the Kyrie and KD trades, they did move Kessler Edwards in a salary dump which saved them some money.

Gang’s all here... almost

As Billy Reinhardt tweeted on Saturday after gleaning images put out by Nets social media, most of the Nets are already in Brooklyn...

Wait, there’s more...

Some players have even attended New York Liberty games, rooting in place of Mikal Bridges who was the Libs’ most loyal fan before heading out on the FIBA road...

It’s still three weeks before Media Day on October 2, training camp the next day and a month before the first preseason game, October 9, in Las Vegas vs. the Lakers. But they’re busy.

The players can work out, scrimmage, etc. as long as the team’s coaches aren’t directing them or something like that.

There’s news this weekend out of HSS as well. Dariq Whitehead posted a still of him taking shots at HSS Training Center, three months after his June surgery on his foot...

Dr. Martin O’Malley, the Nets foot/ankle specialist, told Adrian Wojnarowski back in early June that he believed the Duke wing would be ready for NBA training camp. However, the Nets are more cautious than that. Presumably, Whitehead has been cleared for court work, but between now and then, he will no doubt be brought along slowly in that progression from 1-on-1 to 5-on-5, then maybe get a tour on Long Island. The junior Nets open their season on November 10 at Nassau Coliseum. So is mid- to late November a good guess for his debut? Sounds like it. For the record, Caris LeVert, who had three foot surgeries, made his NBA debut on December 7. Whitehead’s surgery was nowhere near as complicated as LeVert’s

A few players have yet to join in the fun. Spencer Dinwiddie has the best excuse. He spent Sunday watching his Colorado Buffaloes crush the Nebraska Cornhuskers as football’s most dynamic pairing, Deion Sanders and son Shedur, continue to rout all who enter Folsom Field in Boulder...

We didn’t spot Din in this scene, but wouldn’t be surprised...

Final Note

As we noted in our obituary of Judy Reznick, Mrs. Whammy, she was not just the wife of a fan icon but an avid fan herself. She was someone players from around the league respected and could have fun with. Here’s a selection from the archives of Doug Bearak, both a family friend and a leader in the Brooklyn Brigade...

Again, may her memory be a blessing.

In a tweet Sunday, Doug Bearak, a family friend and a leader of the Brooklyn Brigade wrote of Bruce Reznick’s plans for the upcoming season...

Mr. Whammy confirmed that he will return to Barclays on October 12th. The Nets are hosting Maccabi Ra’anana for a preseason game. He doesn’t intend to miss a home game this season.

Good for him and for us.