When Brooklyn Nets’ General Manager Billy King traded for Atlanta Hawks swingman Joe Johnson last summer – pairing him with newly re-signed Point Guard Deron Williams – he had visions of a championship team.
Fast-forward nine months, and the Nets were a 49-win team, the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference, and a first round casualty at the hands of the depleted Chicago Bulls. What’s perhaps worse than losing a first-round series to a Bulls team that did not have their best player all season in Derrick Rose, or backup Point Guard Kirk Hinrich and starting Small Forward Luol Deng for most of the series, is the fact that King has little room to improve the team this summer.
The Nets have three expiring contracts in Power Forward Andray Blatche, Guard Jerry Stackhouse (who is expected to retire) and swingman Keith Bogans, who can be afforded to let go. Backup Point Guard CJ Watson has a player option around the $1 million mark, and they do have a trade chip in Power Forward Kris Humphries — although this $12-million-dollar-expiring contract after next season could be a lot for a team to digest for a guy whose production dipped significantly the last two seasons.
King’s dilemma with this team is, however, that the team is tied to its biggest contracts for the foreseeable future.
Johnson came to Brooklyn with a steep price tag at $89 million for 4 years – which is remaining from the preposterous six-year $110 million dollar deal that he signed with Atlanta in the summer of 2010. Williams signed a five-year $98 million dollar deal prior to this past season (player option for 5th year), and Gerald Wallace re-upped as well (four-years $40 million). Add onto that $60 million for All Star big man Brook Lopez, and that’s nearly $300 million dollars in salary dedicated to four players over the next nine years. This hardly leaves room for roster moves. Lopez, though, is an emerging player who was due for a big payday. Johnson, while a solid player who has shown himself capable of leading a team (he led the Hawks to the playoffs in each of his five years there), is nowhere near worth the $68 million that he is due to make over the next three seasons.
Needless to say, the Nets are binded to a volume-shooting two-guard who, although he came up clutch during the regular season with big shots, fizzled down the stretch in the Nets game 7 loss at home to the Bulls – going just two-for-14 in the game and one-for-nine on three point attempts. Johnson is also 31 years old, meaning the Nets could be stuck with him for the remainder of his career.
Then there’s Williams, a perennial all-star who, during his time in the NBA, has been considered one of the league’s top point guards. Williams was 12th on the NBA’s list of highest paid players, ahead of position counterparts Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo. Williams is a very good player, but I don’t see him as a good backcourt fit with Johnson. Williams has a scorer’s mentality, and Johnson would be better suited playing alongside a pass-first backcourt mate, especially given his propensity for shooting the ball. Williams would probably be better suited as the main scoring option – like he was when he played for the Utah Jazz – and would benefit from playing alongside an intangible two guard, someone who doesn’t need the shots that Johnson does. This is where a guy like Andre Iguodala – the Denver Nugget who will most likely opt out of his $16 million player option, would have come in handy for the Nets. Iguodala is not the chucker that Johnson is (career 12 shots per game versus 15 for Johnson), is better defensively and shoots a higher percentage from the field (46% versus 44%). Unfortunately, the Nets’ cap situation doesn’t allow for them to chase after free agents like Iguodala.
Instead, they will most likely bring back Blatche, could trade promising guard Marshon Brooks and Humphries and squeeze in room for a shooter off of the bench. But because of their ties to their hefty million-dollar contracts, they are severely limited in their offseason flexibility. So don’t expect much changeover from this year’s version of the Nets to next year’s.