Nets’ future still filled with options after Gerald Wallace opts to test free agency

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Gerald Wallace averaged 15.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 16 games with the Nets after arriving at the trade deadline this season. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Nets traded a top-three protected pick to Portland for forward Gerald Wallace, with the team’s front office declaring publicly (and sort of ridiculously) that there were only three truly impactful players in the 2012 draft anyway. They badly wanted the ping-pong balls to  bounce them up from the middle of the lottery into the top three so that they could keep their pick; it didn’t happen, and so the Nets ended up trading the No. 6 pick in the draft for Wallace.

And Wallace on Wednesday confirmed to the Charlotte Observer‘s Rick Bonnell that he will decline his $9.5 million player option for next season, meaning the Nets, on the surface, dealt a fairly high lottery pick to have Wallace play two months on a team that probably should have just tanked.

This is true in the literal sense. But Wallace’s decision doesn’t necessarily change much about the Nets’ current cap situation — or mean that he won’t be on the team next season. The Nets are still right where they were two days ago: stuck between hugely different scenarios, with the cap and roster flexibility to embrace any of them immediately after one or two key dominos fall.

Wallace, who turns 30 next month, is a fine complementary player. He’s likely to transition from second/third option on a good team into a third/fourth option on the same level of team as his athleticism declines. Given that reality, he may be angling here for a multiyear contract with about the same annual salary, and he could get that from Brooklyn more easily than from most of the realistic or semi-realistic contenders for the title next season. The Mavericks, Celtics, Clippers (should they use the amnesty provision on guard Mo Williams) and Pacers (as an admittedly expensive third big man/smallish power forward) all stand out as potentially solid teams for whom Wallace could fill a need. But none are true title contenders at this second, and a few have to make serious roster choices before dealing in other teams’ free agents.

And Wallace is still very much Brooklyn’s free agent. His decision, if and when it becomes formal, does not wipe away Wallace’s place on the Nets’ cap sheet. The Nets are in a funny position that way; they have only about $9.5 million in salary guaranteed to be on the books for next season, but they will nonetheless enter free agency over the estimated cap of $58 million and change. That is due to artificial charges linked to the Nets’ outgoing free agents and based upon the 2010-11 salaries of those players, a group that includes Wallace, Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez (a restricted free agent) and potentially Deron Williams. The charges exist as a way of accounting for the Nets’ right to exceed the cap by re-signing their own free agents via Larry Bird rights.Brooklyn can make those charges vanish by renouncing its rights to those free agents, a swift act requiring only a phone call to the league office and some paperwork. And poof! Brooklyn could have as much $42 million or so in cap room, or about $24 million if Williams changes his mind and exercises his own player option for next season — or opts out and re-signs with a five-year, max-level deal that only the Nets can offer.

That’s the biggest domino for Brooklyn, obviously, now that Dwight Howard is off the free-agent market (but not the trade market, at least once the Magic sort out their front-office situation). The Nets can keep all these free agents on the books as long as possible and just wait to see what happens. If Williams sticks around, the Nets may want to bring back some of these players, especially if they are willing to take deals that don’t affect their rosy long-term cap situation. You could do worse in the Eastern Conference than running out a top six of Williams, Humphries, Lopez, Wallace, MarShon Brooks and Anthony Morrow. You won’t win the conference, but you could do worse. Keeping everyone on the books also puts the full mid-level exception in play if the Nets want to get frisky.

The unrestricted free agents — Wallace and Humphries — can force the issue by signing wherever they’d like. Another team with cap space can sign Lopez to an offer sheet, forcing the Nets to match or lose him. Every scenario is in play, and the Nets are primed to respond to all of them quickly.

If Williams bolts, the Nets can renounce everyone and clean house, though they’d probably like to keep Lopez and would need to at least meet the minimum salary threshold.

If Wallace follows through and opts out, that would  introduce a bit of uncertainty for Brooklyn. But the Nets have already been living with the most uncertainty in the league — outside of maybe the Magic. Wallace’s decision doesn’t really change all that much about their short- and long-term picture, and it doesn’t make a bad trade any worse than it already is.

  • Published On 2:11pm, Jun 14, 2012
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