By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The most expensive roster in NBA history faces questions this summer. And it doesn’t have the flexibility to find all the answers.
The Brooklyn Nets have hit the offseason with a five-game conference semifinals defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat. Their $102 million dollar payroll and $90 million luxury tax bill got them just five playoff victories.
In a press release on Thursday, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov called it a “crazy season.” Every team has its ups and downs, but Brooklyn’s were rather unique.
On Jan. 1, the Nets were 10-21 and had lost their best player, Brook Lopez, for the season. Then they went 34-17 over the final three and a half months, thriving with a smaller and more skilled lineup. They beat the Heat four times over the course of the season, had fourth-quarter leads in three of the five playoff games, and were within two points in a fourth. With Joe Johnson carrying the load, their offense became pretty potent in the postseason.
If the Nets were a young team, they’d have something strong to build on. But only three players from their 11-man rotation will be under the age of 29 when next season begins, and one of those could choose to sign elsewhere this summer. Andray Blatche said Thursday that he will decline his $1.4 million player option for next season.
The Nets’ most important free agent is Paul Pierce, who will turn 37 in October. He wants to keep playing, but gave no indication of where he might want to be next fall.
“When I get a chance to sit back, really put my thinking hat on, I’ll figure out what’s next,” Pierce said after Game 5 on Wednesday. “I think I still have something in the tank I can give a team. So maybe one or two [years] at the most, and see where I’m at.”
Kevin Garnett has some thinking to do as well. As part of the trade that brought him from Boston, the Nets guaranteed Garnett the $12 million on his contract next season. But he averaged just 20 minutes per game, was an offensive liability, and missed all of March with back issues.
Garnett turns 38 years old on Monday, ranks fifth all-time in minutes played, and just finished his 19th season. That’s exactly how many seasons Nets coach Jason Kidd had played when he decided to retire and walk away from $6 million a year ago.
Garnett would be giving up twice that amount and can still make an impact on defense. But he’s a prideful dude and may not want to see his skills diminish any further.
“He’s done it for a long time at a very high level,” Kidd said Thursday. “The biggest thing and concerns that I’ve talked to him about is you don’t want to leave with someone carrying you off the court.”
Garnett didn’t speak to the media after Game 5 or at the Nets’ practice facility on Thursday. Nets GM Billy King said that he spoke with Garnett on the plane ride home from Miami.
“Get away, spend some time and talk with your family then we’ll talk again,” King told Garnett. “There’s no need for an answer now.”
The Nets could lose three starters this summer, because Shaun Livingston is also a free agent. After a breakout season, he’ll be coveted by several teams, and the Nets can only pay him with the tax payer’s mid-level exception (a three-year contract starting at $3.3 million per year).
The Nets could have Lopez back at full strength, and they could not. He’s had three surgeries on his right foot in the last three years and an additional repair on his left ankle in March. His team, meanwhile, changed their style and played their best without him.
But Kidd and King have little choice but to bank on Johnson, Lopez and Deron Williams, who are owed a total of $121 million over the next two seasons.
King has little flexibility in improving the roster beyond his high-priced stars. He doesn’t have any draft picks (to use or to trade) and nothing beyond that tax-payer’s mid-level exception to offer free agents (including Croatian guard Bojan Bogdanovic, whose draft rights they own), though Pierce can be brought back (and handsomely compensated) via Bird rights.
What King has to hope for is a better and healthier Williams (who may undergo surgery on one or both ankles this summer), a healthy Lopez, and a Johnson that plays more consistently like he played in the postseason. The chances of all three of those situations going their way seem slim.
Maybe the most solid thing the Nets can build on is Kidd’s development as a coach. He’s got a great feel for the game and, after those early-season struggles, found an identity for his team. He managed a deep rotation about as well as you could this season. And with the respect of players around the league, the Nets will find free agents who want to play for him. If Livingston stays, loyalty to Kidd may be the biggest reason.
It’s not like the Eastern Conference is passing the Nets by. If they bring most of their veterans back and avoid the slow start in their second year together, they can be right back among the best teams in the conference. Every other East playoff team has its own questions to answer this summer.
“Our goal is to try to bring as much as the core back,” King said, “add to the core and go at it again.”