Few teams have had as many different franchise-altering outcomes at stake over a 48-hour span as the Nets do right now. And that’s even after agreeing to re-sign forward Gerald Wallace with a fully guaranteed four-year, $40 million deal that will constitute an overpay at the back end — especially because the Nets gave up the No. 6 pick in the draft to get him at the trade deadline when they could have simply chased him in free agency.
Of course, pursuing Wallace in free agency without the familiarity gained from a month of actually playing for the Nets is more of a shot in the dark than going the route that Brooklyn did. Still, Wallace’s numbers have been in decline for two straight seasons after his career 2009-10 season in Charlotte, and he’s going to turn 30 later this month. And it’s unclear who exactly the Nets were bidding against here because the only team with cap space and an apparent appetite to spend it on a small forward (Minnesota) is prepared to tie up that cap space with a rather large offer sheet to Nicolas Batum when the free-agent signing period opens on July 11. The Raptors have a need at the position, but they have committed their cap space to point guard Steve Nash for now. The Suns are visiting with shooting guard Eric Gordon, forward Michael Beasley and others.
But enough about Wallace: The Nets are meeting Monday with point guard Deron Williams, their primary free-agent target and the player on whom they have based their plans — and the competitive health of the franchise — for the next three or four seasons. If Williams has a near equal in those plans, that player is rehabbing from back surgery, denying allegations that he claimed the Magic blackmailed him into opting in for the 2012-13 season and vowing that he will re-sign with only one team next summer that might trade for him before then. Dwight Howard won’t actually identify that team, and his denial of the blackmail allegations is limited so far to the use of the term “blackmail,” which, of course, is not a full rejection of the charge that he went to the players’ union to see if there were some legal means of forcing his way into free agency.
The Nets, of course, are the team with which Howard will re-sign if traded there. But Brooklyn, watching all of this nuttiness from afar, has a lot of balls in the air, including its meeting with Williams and in-depth trade talks with Atlanta for shooting guard Joe Johnson, according to several published reports.
Williams has said he would like to choose between the Nets and Mavericks before heading to Las Vegas this week to train with Team USA. So in the next 48 to 72 hours, the path of the Nets’ franchise could turn in several directions:
• The Nets could re-sign Williams to a five-year, max-level deal, renounce their rights to free-agent power forward Kris Humphries and have $7.5 million or so of cap space to spend on free agents. They could fill up that space, re-sign center Brook Lopez using Larry Bird rights and then try to use the $2.5 million exception for teams that start under the cap and spend up to it to find another player.
• The Nets could re-sign Williams and agree to trade for Johnson (who has four years and $89 million left on his contract) in one of two ways. The first is to go about $7.5 million under the cap, as explained above, and use the cap space to absorb Johnson’s gargantuan contract in a trade that sends out four players — Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar and Jordan Williams — whose salaries add up to about $7.3 million less than Johnson’s $19.75 million salary for 2012-13. The math is very, very tight on this and may turn on the exact amount of Wallace’s 2012-13 cap number.
As an alternative, Brooklyn could just stay over the cap (by keeping Humphries’ cap hold on the books) and construct a similar deal for Johnson that may include Humphries as a sign-and-trade chip. Any deal in this over-the-cap scenario would have to include more outgoing salary. This path has the benefit of keeping the full mid-level exception, worth more than $5 million per season, available as a way of luring a better free agent. The Nets are reportedly interested in Bosnian star forward Mirza Teletovic as a mid-level candidate.
• The Nets could stay over the cap and try to work a trade for Howard in which they would swallow several unfavorable Orlando contracts. It’s unclear if the willingness to do that, combined with Lopez, MarShon Brooks and a first-round pick, would really be enough to sway the Magic.
• Deron Williams could announce his intention of signing with Dallas, leaving Brooklyn (before any trade for Johnson or anyone else) with as little as $33.5 million or so in committed salary and nearly $16 million to spend before hitting the league’s new, higher payroll minimum for next season. Spending that much wouldn’t be difficult, considering Humphries’ cap hold could soak up a lot of that gap in the interim, but it would be a disaster for Brooklyn and could inspire some sort of panic trade for Johnson as a means of acquiring a “big-name” star with an expensive deal.
• There are, of course, many other scenarios. The Nets reportedly have talked with Houston about a deal centered on power forward Luis Scola, and Brooklyn presumably has dozens of contingency plans at the ready.
The end game of a Williams/Wallace/Johnson/Lopez/Brooks core would seem to represent one emergency contingency plan, because it would nearly take Brooklyn out of contention to sign Howard (or Lakers center Andrew Bynum) as a free agent next summer. Assuming Lopez makes something close to $10 million in 2013-14 — and that’s probably underselling things, given that Houston just offered Omer Asik $8 million per season — the Nets would have about $59 million committed to just four players a year from now. Add in charges for empty roster spots, and the Nets would be over the cap, left with the mid-level exception and assets that likely wouldn’t be enough to interest Orlando in a sign-and-trade.
That five-man core would make the Nets interesting and fun, but in a conference with the Heat as a standard-bearer, being interesting and fun has a ceiling. Then again, being interesting and fun — and potentially a conference semifinalist — is better than being uninteresting and awful, at least from the perspective of a Russian tycoon set on making an immediate splash in the team’s new home. It would be a versatile core, with Johnson (shooting guard/small forward) and Wallace (small forward/power forward) capable of swinging between positions depending on how the Nets might fill out the roster. And if Mikhail Prokhorov’s Nets somehow nab Nash, a New York resident during the offseason, they would shift Williams to shooting guard for extended minutes in lineups with huge scoring potential. Williams has played more than spot minutes at shooting guard in both Utah and New Jersey, and he’s big enough and well-versed enough in moving without the ball to make it work.
But there are a lot of players in this scenario who need the ball. Johnson is capable of posting up and coming off screens, but he has spent much of his seven seasons in Atlanta running pick-and-rolls and dribble-dribble-dribble isolation plays. He has been only a slightly above-average three-point shooter for his career, meaning it’s unclear how effective he’d be as a spot-up weapon.
And then there are the rather important matters of defense and rebounding. The Nets ranked 28th in points allowed per possession last season amid a pile of easy baskets near the rim. Among all the players mentioned in this potential core, only Wallace has a track record of clearly above-average defense. Johnson is a worker who can defend both wing positions, but he’s not a stopper, and he just turned 31. Lopez is a fantastic offensive player who has proved essentially nothing on the other end of the floor.
The Eastern Conference is, as always, in flux. Boston is aging. The Pacers have a decision to make on center Roy Hibbert, though it would seem unfathomable that they wouldn’t match Portland’s max offer after all they have built. Orlando and Atlanta obviously could enter major rebuilding phases. The Bulls could be missing point guard Derrick Rose and possibly small forward Luol Deng for a large chunk of next season, and they may be about to lose a key bench cog in Asik, one of the best big-man defenders in the league. Chicago’s future potential tax issues are so daunting that power forward Carlos Boozer may be an eventual amnesty casualty in 2014 or 2015. (But let’s be clear: A healthy Chicago team is miles better than this Nets nucleus.)
Even with all of that fluidity, though, it’s hard to see this theoretical Nets team as anything more than expensive and intriguing club with a 50-win ceiling.