There is simply no way around it: The Nets are going to wildly overpay for power forward Kris Humphries, in terms of per-year salary, under the two-year, $24 million deal to which the two sides agreed on Tuesday. Humphries will make roughly as much (or more) in annual salary as Tim Duncan, Al Horford, Josh Smith and Kevin Garnett, all proven two-way players. He’ll be paid almost as much as Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge, franchise centerpieces in their primes, and significantly more than players such as Paul Millsap, Ryan Anderson and Ersan Ilyasova.
It’s obviously too much, especially given that the only competition for the 27-year-old Humphries at this point — and at this salary level — appeared to be the Bobcats. Yahoo! Sports reported that the Bobcats offered Humphries $28 million over three years, while the other teams with cap room (Cleveland, Houston) seemed uninterested and/or had that room devoted to offer sheets and other priorities.
But there are other variables in play here, namely that the short length of Humphries’ deal could soon put him back in play as a potential Dwight Howard trade piece. The Nets also needed another big man, and they had to outbid Charlotte for the best one still available.
Brooklyn has done well to upgrade its roster, but it could not afford to go into the season with a big-man rotation consisting of Brook Lopez, Mirza Teletovic, Reggie Evans and borderline power forward Gerald Wallace. Evans is a nonentity on offense and an erratic defender. Teletovic is unproven in the NBA. Wallace prefers to play small forward, and the Nets, who are a bit thin on reliable wing players, will need him there for heavy minutes. Humphries is no franchise difference maker, but with the big-man market whittled down to minimum-level players and options outside of the Nets’ price range, there weren’t many other choices. As a technical matter, Humphries remains in the Nets’ price range only because of Larry Bird Rights, which allow teams over the cap to spend even more in re-signing their own free agents.
Humphries is a shaky defender in space and was overextended as a second option in the Nets’ offense last season, but he’s a quality player who fits the bill as an ideal third big man. He’ll begin the season as a starter, and thus the Nets’ “second” big, but the combination of Wallace and Teletovic may end up pushing him for minutes. The Nets’ starting lineup is also so loaded with offensive weapons that the team’s second big man can afford to serve as its fifth option.
The big question remains whether Brooklyn can defend staunchly enough to seriously compete against the league’s best teams. As I’ve written repeatedly, I’m dubious. Barring major improvement from Lopez, the Nets are lacking in quality interior defenders, and while their wing players are solid, especially Wallace and Joe Johnson, they are not game-changing wing defenders in the mold of LeBron James or Andre Iguodala.
The Nets are way, way over the cap and the tax line, and they will remain there for the next four seasons, barring a total roster shakeup. In a way, that also justifies the Humphries overpay, particularly because it’s clear that Mikhail Prokhorov, the team’s heli-skiing billionaire owner, cares little about tax penalties. With the Humphries deal, the Nets now have about $80 million in committed salary for next season, which means they will pay $10 million in dollar-for-dollar tax penalties. And with the escalation of the salaries tied to point guard Deron Williams, Lopez, Johnson and Wallace, Brooklyn was looking at a $70 million payroll for next season before factoring in any money for Humphries or the players required to fill out the second half of the roster.
In other words: The full mid-level exception, a key piece of bait that capped-out teams use to lure outside free agents, would’ve been out of play for the Nets regardless of Humphries’ contract. Teams that use the full mid-level, worth about $5 million per season, cannot spend more than $4 million above the tax line. Even though the tax line will jump to somewhere around $72 million or $73 million for the 2013-14 season, using the full mid-level and bringing a hard cap into play were going to be no-gos for Brooklyn even before this Humphries deal.
The league’s harsh new tax rates kick in for that 2013-14 season, the last one on Humphries’ contract. The Nets have made something of a deal with Humphries: We’ll overpay you as compensation for dangling you endlessly in futile Howard talks, and in exchange, you’ll accept a short deal that will make you usable if we manage to restart those talks on Jan. 15. That’s when the Nets can trade Lopez again, and if the Magic still view Lopez as a potential centerpiece at that point, they could add Humphries to the deal and be comfortable that he’ll represent an expiring contract to peddle soon enough. Add some young players to the Lopez/Humphries package, and Brooklyn could take on at least two unwanted Orlando salaries in addition to obtaining Howard and sending out every first-round pick that they can find.
It’s not the best possible package, but we’re not far removed from the Nets’ trying to talk Humphries into a one-year deal or find a third team willing to absorb a four-year contract. Brooklyn has struck a decent middle ground, even if the per-year salary total is nothing short of ludicrous.