After Dwight Howard ended the Nets’ dream of pairing him with Deron Williams next season, the Nets have apparently gone to Plan B: mortgaging the future, at least a bit, in an attempt to please Williams by constructing a mid-level playoff team next season and chasing a star free agent again in the summer of 2013.
New Jersey will acquire Gerald Wallace from the Trail Blazers in exchange for Mehmet Okur’s expiring contract, Shawne Williams and New Jersey’s first-round pick in the loaded 2012 draft, according to Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.
A key detail here: The Nets’ pick is only top-three protected, which means the Blazers receive the pick if it falls in the No. 4 slot or lower. The Nets currently have the sixth-worst record in the league, and it will be borderline impossible for them to finish below Washington, Charlotte or New Orleans in the standings; an upward push for the 8th seed would seem more likely now that Wallace is a Net. The protection allows the Nets to keep the pick if they exceed expectations in the lottery, but they will mostly likely send the Blazers a pick in the 5-10 range.
That’s a solid return for a Portland team in free-fall this season, and it allows it to slot Nicolas Batum in as its present and future starting small forward. Batum has been starting as the team’s nominal shooting guard of late, and that has created a log jam, given the presence of Wesley Matthews, Jamal Crawford and explosive second-year player Elliot Williams.
Wallace has a $9.5 million player option for next season, which he’s very likely to exercise; his deal expires after that.
Exchanging Wallace for Williams saves the Blazers about $6.4 million in salary for next season, and if Jamal Crawford declines his player option, Portland could have enough cap space to re-sign Batum at market price and have between $15 and $20 million in cap space left over. That’s not a bad place to be, especially if a certain max-level free agent point guard becomes available. The Blazers will have that cap space, plus a franchise big man in LaMarcus Aldridge, two solid wings in Batum and Matthews, some decent young pieces and (assuming Portland and New Jersey both miss the playoffs) two 2012 lottery picks. Again: Not bad.
For the Nets, the deal is all about whether they can convince Williams to at least exercise his $17.8 million player option for next season, instead of entering free agency and listening to offers from a group of potential suitors that would surely include his hometown Mavericks. If they can do that, the Nets can rightly consider the deal a success, because it does nothing to impact their anticipated cap space for next summer, when Howard can enter free agency again. The Nets, as of now, have $0 in guaranteed money for players in 2013-14, though they will exercise their cheap rookie deal player option on MarShon Brooks for that season — if he’s still a Net by then. And it’s worth noting the Magic were reportedly interested in Wallace earlier this season as part of a potential three-team deal that would have sent Howard to New Jersey.
In the meantime, New Jersey should be able to build a mid-level Eastern Conference playoff team around Williams, Wallace, Brook Lopez (a restricted free agent this summer), Brooks, Anthony Morrow and whatever else is left here. The Nets also have a form of Bird Rights on Kris Humphries, and if he’s willing to return on another high-priced one-year deal, Brooklyn will have itself a very solid starting five.
It won’t be a championship-level starting five, though — not in a conference where the Heat and Bulls rule now and for the next half-decade. And if the prospect of peaking as a second-round out is not enough to keep Williams in town for next season, the Nets will have surrendered a valuable lottery pick in exchange for an aging small forward who can lead them back to the lottery in 2013.
That’s not a shot at Wallace. He’s a fierce two-way player, and it would be wonderful to see him paired with Williams in Brooklyn next season. Wallace has never played with an elite point guard, and as such, he’s often had to do too much with the ball from the perimeter and in the post. Wallace is at his best when he can cut like a maniac off the ball, freeing himself for quick-hitting catch-and-shoot chances around the paint. He can also post up overmatched small forwards — ask Kevin Durant — and drive past slower defenders, but a team using Wallace as an off-the-dribble creator from the perimeter is either lacking in good options or facing the end of shot clock.
Teaming with a star creator like Williams would unleash Wallace to do what he does best and minimize the number of possessions where he has to stretch his skills too far. And even when Wallace does have to overextend himself a bit, he still represents a giant upgrade over whatever “scoring” creativity the Nets have received this year from their crop of wings. That New Jersey has managed to score at a league-average rate this season is a tribute to Williams, Avery Johnson’s staff and the importance of having good three-point shooting at multiple positions.
Playing a third-fiddle role behind Williams and Lopez is ideal for Wallace, because he’s about to turn 30 with a game built on speed, athleticism and effort. The effort will always be there, but the other stuff will decline, and Wallace’s numbers are already dropping. He’s getting to the line less than ever before, and his rebounding numbers have plummeted this season. Some of that has to do with the amount of court time he shares with Marcus Camby, a rebounding machine, but he has also played a lot of power forward alongside a so-so rebounding centerpiece in LaMarcus Aldridge.
Wallace would fit well on an interesting playoff team holding the (tenuous) fort in New Jersey for another season-in-waiting. But until Williams signs that paper, this is all a theoretical discussion, and worrying about that draft pick will keep some folks in Jersey up at night.