The New Jersey Nets did everything they could. For seven months they doggedly pursued Carmelo Anthony, wooing the Nuggets with every asset they could scrape together. They wooed Anthony, too, sending their billionaire owner and his (almost) billionaire rap mogul partner to Anthony's (Los Angeles) doorstep, where, in a 40-minute meeting, they laid out a meticulous plan to return the Nets to relevancy.
It didn't work, of course. Anthony wanted to play for New York, and in the end, the Nuggets talked the Knicks -- owner James Dolan, in particular -- into offering them a deal they could stomach. There was no question Denver's basketball brass favored the Nets' package, preferring the promise of Derrick Favors over Danilo Gallinari and the hope represented by the four first-round picks New Jersey was offering. But the Nuggets didn't want a showdown with Anthony. They didn't have, as a rival executive put it, "the guts to stand there and tell Carmelo he was going to New Jersey."
It's OK, though. Really. Because even though the Nets didn't get a franchise cornerstone to carry them into Brooklyn in 2012, they have the kind of flexibility teams drool over. The Nets have $37.4 million committed to payroll next season, less if they can find a taker for Devin Harris ($9.3 million), who, according to sources, is being shopped around the league. Yes, the failure to acquire Anthony likely killed any chance of New Jersey's luring Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Dwight Howard to the team in 2012. But that cap flexibility will be enticing to other potential free agents (such as Glen Davis and Nene) looking for money in a collectively bargained, wallet-tightened world, as it will for teams looking to push a bloated salary into the Nets' cap space.
Then there are the picks. Five first-round picks, to be exact, spread over the next two years. As my colleague Ian Thomsen pointed out, the 2011 draft isn't exactly rich in elite players. But there is some talent there. In eight of the last 10 years, a cornerstone-caliber player has been taken in picks 3-6, where New Jersey will likely find itself drafting in June. In some years, there has been more than one. The question isn't whether the Nets draft a player they can build around. The question is, Will they draft the right one?
Of course, New Jersey will have to be smart. Giving $35 million to Travis Outlaw last summer was a mistake. Giving $10 million to Johan Petro was a blunder, too. Just because general manager Billy King has money in his pocket doesn't mean he has to go out and spend it, and certainly not on contracts that stretch out three or four years. A rumored deal that would have sent Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov to Denver for two first-round picks made sense, but Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri quickly scuttled that talk. The Nets still have desirable assets (Harris, the expiring $12 million contract of Troy Murphy) to move over the next two days, but a knee-jerk reaction for being dumped for your cross-river brother won't make the team considerably better.
No, New Jersey has to do things the old-fashioned way. The San Antonio way. The Oklahoma City way. The Atlanta way. The Nets need to draft well and supplement those picks with free-agent talent. King isn't Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford or Sam Presti. Not yet, anyway. But over the summer King spent a lot of Mikhail Prokhorov's money building the scouting department, a group of talent evaluators that now must prove its worth.
Losing out on Carmelo was a blow, but not a crippling one. There is hope in New Jersey, hope that the new $900 million Barclay Center will soon be populated by top talent and the Nets -- or whatever they will be called after their move -- will one day compete with the Knicks for New York's attention. It will take time, sure. But it still could happen.