Trading stars won't be easy for Nets
After a mere 19 games, the bell has tolled for the Nets. There have been signs of distress during their 8-11 start, but none as significant as a report from ESPN.com that the team's highly paid stars will now be available for trade: Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Drafting a deal amenable to Brooklyn and a potential trade partner will be challenging, but the franchise's apparent interest in such deep, constitutional change suggests that every option will be explored.
Brooklyn's preference, according to the report, would be to make moves that allow it to remain a playoff team. That's a low bar to clear. Even in their current, messy form, the Nets still sit eighth in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of the Magic and Celtics. If Brooklyn intends to shake up its roster and maintain postseason position in a pitiful conference, that much might be doable.
If the Nets aspire to more, though, their prospective makeover could hit a snag. Williams, Johnson and Lopez are useful players, but their talents are intertwined with their respective salaries. Unloading those players is not merely an exercise in finding another franchise with genuine interest and reciprocal pieces, but also the financial structure to accommodate hefty, multiyear salary.
From this perspective, Johnson's contract may be the most cumbersome of all. The smooth-shooting swingman is owed $48.1 million through next season, a max-level salary for a B-level player. If not for his astounding pay, the 33-year-old Johnson would be the most movable of the bunch based on possible fit around the league. Instead, so few clubs can afford to absorb his $23.2 million salary this season without surrendering some essential piece in return. Johnson's deal is a genuine oddity in a league that is collectively smarter and more cautious than even only four years ago, when he signed a six-year, $123.7 million pact. Such contracts are increasingly rare for all but the inarguable elite.
Williams, like Johnson, is not in that category either, and the 30-year-old point guard is on the books for $19.8 million this season and a combined $43.7 million in the subsequent two. The three-time All-Star's decline is self-evident and his injury history -- most recently addressed through offseason surgeries on both ankles -- doesn't help. There will be no rush for his services and certainly no bidding war. A rival's pursuit of Williams likely would be fueled by a desperation matching that of the Nets.
That trade partner might not yet exist, save if the Lakers throw caution to the wind for a swing at mediocrity. Otherwise, the market for Williams might register best in delay, once teams have no choice but to confront their weaknesses deeper into the season. Williams' reputation as a big name and a known quantity could at least stir conversation, even though the point guard position is well stocked across the NBA.
Lopez, more than Johnson or Williams, will be subject to complications of fit. Brooklyn's experiences with Lopez have been telling. A healthy Lopez is worth building around and capable of stabilizing a top-10 offense. But any club structuring its attack around Lopez becomes especially vulnerable to his frequent injuries (he has had four foot surgeries in three years). That post players are tricky to integrate casually into an offense makes this a compounding problem: How can a team best benefit from what the 26-year-old Lopez offers when doing so requires a reliance on a player whose availability is an open question?
To complicate matters further, the acquisition of Lopez is also the acquisition of a particular style. His size and foot speed mandate drop-back-style coverage in the pick-and-roll, which some teams eschew. He also clutters the paint on his scoring opportunities, which should come in volume if his value is to be maximized. This can be a problem for those free-wheeling, drive-and-kick teams that need the interior cleared for their system to breathe.
Provided the right factors align, Lopez might still be a catch for a team looking to bolster its low-block scoring. After all, he remains a productive 7-footer, a subset of players with market dynamics all their own. Still, I'd expect caution and strategic concern to stand between the Nets and a promising trade for Lopez, who is in the third season of a four-year, $60.8 million contract.
The Nets lack the incentive to deviate from the track they established with last year's trade for Kevin Garnett and the since-departed Paul Pierce. There is no reward in dissolution because Brooklyn must relinquish its first-round pick or swap selections in every draft through 2018. The Nets are left then to their own devices, albeit subject to the repeater tax penalties that will assuredly kick in next season. There is no clean way out but only hard swings at the trade market and perhaps eventually in free agency, provided Brooklyn escapes from its mountain of commitments to the point of clearing cap room.
The damage done by that trade, then, is not merely weighed in the players and picks surrendered. In making that exchange (and a similar one a year earlier to acquire Johnson), the Nets also willingly stepped into a cycle whereby a needed rebuild is sidetracked for its logistic inconvenience. This is a win-now team whether or not it has the talent for it. Moving a star or two might pull Brooklyn closer to what it aims to be, but the Nets appear to be a franchise holding only depreciating assets without the means to easily create better ones.
Salary data courtesy of Sham Sports.