This wasn’t the most elegant process for the Nets. They sacrificed what turned out to be the sixth pick in the draft to acquire Gerald Wallace in March and agreed to trade for the player with the league’s most onerous contract, Joe Johnson, on Monday. But the end result is that they’ve managed to persuade Deron Williams — the league’s preeminent free agent and one of the three or four best point guards alive — to re-sign, after gambling to get him in February 2011 by surrendering promising big man Derrick Favors, two first-round picks and point guard Devin Harris.
Williams is a Net, for the cool price of $98.8 million over five years. The Mavericks, Williams’ hometown suitor, could offer “only” about $74 million over four years, though he could have made up much of the $25 million difference on his next theoretical contract in Dallas. Regardless of the machinations that got us to this point, Brooklyn’s having an elite point guard locked up for his prime years is a very good thing.
The key questions, going forward:
• What is Brooklyn’s payroll situation, and how does the team fill the roster?
The Nets now have about $54 million committed to six players, though we won’t know the precise salary figures until after July 11. The six players are Williams, Wallace, Johnson, shooting guard MarShon Brooks (still here!) and two other acquisitions from Tuesday: power forward Reggie Evans, who was acquired in a sign-and-trade from the Clippers, and Mirza Teletovic, a jump-shooting power forward from Bosnia whom the Nets have agreed to sign.
The Nets are over the cap because charges linked to their remaining free agents — mainly center Brook Lopez and power forward Kris Humphries — are still on the books, rocketing them over the $58 million salary ceiling. And because the Nets have apparently agreed to use the full mid-level exception on Teletovic, the new collective bargaining agreement bans them from spending more than $74.3 million in total payroll as they fill their roster via signing their own free agents and other permitted spending tricks. (That $74.3 million figure represents the so-called “apron,” set $4 million above the actual tax line, which teams cannot cross if they use the full mid-level. It is meant to discourage spending at the high end.)
That leaves $20 million to fill six spots. It is not ridiculous to suggest that Lopez and Humphries would get that much, or more, combined on the open market. That leaves the Nets in a tricky spot. The Nets could retain both by persuading one to take less than he might believe he’s worth, and then fill the rest of the roster through minimum-salary contracts. They could sign-and-trade Lopez or Humphries for a player who makes less, freeing up more money for the end of the rotation. But if Teletovic is really getting the full mid-level, they can’t cross that $74 million barrier no matter what they do.
• Can they trade for Dwight Howard?
Unless there is some cap magic of which I am unaware, it would be borderline impossible, at least without sending one of their new, high-salaried acquisitions to Orlando or a third team. All reported versions of a Howard/Nets deal over the past 24 hours have involved Lopez, Humphries, Brooks and draft picks, and not any of these new acquisitions, some of whom cannot be traded alone or together for several months under league rules.
Howard is set to earn $19.5 million next season. Combine that amount with the money earmarked for Williams, Johnson, Wallace and Teletovic, and you end up at $70.5 million for five players. That does not include Evans or Brooks, both of whom would be easy to move if need be. But that $70.5 million figure puts the Nets so close to the $74 million hard cap that the only way to fill a roster would be to sign seven players to contracts at the rookie minimum salary level. That is doable in theory, but not as much in reality. The Howard ship appears to have sailed, and with the Nets now capped out next summer, the notion of Brooklyn’s hoarding future cap space for the star center also looks moot.
Note: All of this could change between now and July 11, when deals can become official. If the Nets can talk Teletovic into taking the “mini” mid-level exception, worth $3 million instead of $5 million, that hard cap at $74 million goes away. Wallace’s four-year, $40 million deal reportedly includes a 2012-13 salary of less than $9.5 million, and it was always possible Williams might take less than the full max in order to help Brooklyn on the Howard front. But Williams’ deal appears to be for the whole enchilada, and Wallace’s Year 1 salary can only go so low in order for the deal to reach $40 million over four seasons via the maximum permitted annual raises.
• What happens to the Mavericks now?
In a loaded Western Conference, they would appear headed to the lottery. Shooting guard Jason Terry, by far the Mavs’ second-best offensive player last season, has a deal in place with Boston. Point guard Jason Kidd is a free agent, and in fast decline even if Dallas does re-sign him. Power forward Dirk Nowitzki is a genius, but he’s only getting older. Guard Roddy Beaubois’ three-year career has consisted mostly of waiting, with an occasional explosion.
With Terry reportedly gone, the Mavs need an infusion of scoring and/or passing talent to prop up an offense that fell off the rails last season. That was to be Williams’ job, and now Dallas could have something (via a few housecleaning moves) like $12 million in cap space to chase someone else — perhaps old friend Steve Nash, still a fantastic offense player, and the kind who could right this flailing offense. Dallas could acquire more space by using the amnesty provision on center Brendan Haywood, a move that appears inevitable at some point, but that would leave Brandan Wright (on a non-guaranteed deal) as the only non-Dirk big man on the roster. Dallas could re-sign Ian Mahinmi to beef up the front line, too.
This is a brutally thin team right now. It’s heartening that Dallas maintained a top-10 defense last season even without center Tyson Chandler, but forward Shawn Marion, a linchpin of that defense, is 34 and will show his age at some point.
Owner Mark Cuban gambled by letting Chandler leave in free agency, breaking up a champion in order to chase cap space. It was a risk, but one that few criticized at the time without any qualifiers. Chandler was 29 then, with a slightly scary injury history admittedly receding further into the past, and the Mavs’ core was aging fast even then. It was hard to watch the impact of last season’s compressed schedule on everyone from Kidd to Nowitzki and envision this team with Chandler toppling Oklahoma City and Miami in the playoffs, even if it gave the Thunder an honest run in the first round. And it was impossible to predict how badly forward Lamar Odom would flame out as Cuban’s solid-on-paper attempt to find a one-season stopgap.
It didn’t work, but the great thing about flexibility is that it doesn’t have to go away. Dallas could sign players to cheap contracts or one-year deals this summer, maintain cap space for next summer and be right back in the thick of every rumor. Players generally like Cuban, and Dallas has a well-earned reputation for being on the cutting edge of luxury, training methods and analytics — stuff that appeals to all sorts of players.
• How good will the Nets be?
I tackled much of this earlier, so I’ll be brief here: I would expect the Nets to be a top-four seed in an Eastern Conference going through some flux from top-to-bottom, at least outside of Miami. If the Nets bring back both Lopez and Humphries, they will be a formidable offensive team, with three very good perimeter players flanking an efficient low-post scorer and pick-and-roll player in Lopez. Humphries can pitch in with the occasional pick-and-pop (or roll) and otherwise be left to do the dirty work of cutting, rebounding and dunking. Johnson can work off the ball more, bullying smaller guards in the post, running off screens for catch-and-shoot chances and working the backdoor cuts that he used well in some of Atlanta’s pet sets. Williams can control the whole show, and when Johnson wants to run things, Williams is perhaps the league’s best point guard at shifting into shooting guard mode — cutting away from the ball, posting up on the block and setting picks. Thank Jerry Sloan for that.
Brooklyn can play big or small, with both Johnson and Wallace able to swing between positions. Wallace moved to power forward in small-ball lineups that scored well in Portland.
Defense will define whether the Nets are a fun second-round out or something more. On paper, this is a shaky defensive team, especially inside, where Lopez has zero track record of rebounding, protecting the rim and defending in space against the pick-and-roll. Humphries can block shots and rebound like a beast, but he struggles at containing things above the foul line. Williams is about average for his position. Teletovic is known in Europe as an offense-first player. Evans is a force on the boards and defended in the post better against Memphis in last season’s playoffs than he has in a while, but he has a longer track record of poor positioning and general defensive lunacy. Wallace and Johnson are solid defenders, but they do not have the kind of LeBron James/Dwyane Wade athleticism that can engineer rim protection from the wings.
The Nets will be fun, and they will be good. But this is their challenge: Can they build a defense that is anything better than average? I can’t wait to find out.