There’s no need to dance around the obvious - the Brooklyn Nets are a disaster and there’s no clear path for them back to respectability anytime soon. They fired their head coach and their GM in the last few weeks, but they might as well be re-arranging deck chairs for all the good that it’s going to do. The Nets are one of the worst teams in the league, they have no young talent on their roster and they don’t have control of any of their first round picks until 2019.
If there’s a bright spot on the horizon, it’s all the cap space they will have in the offseason now that Joe Johnson’s contract is coming off the books. The problem is that just about every team in the NBA will have cap space thanks to all the TV revenue coming into the league and just about all of them will present a more plausible path to contention than Brooklyn. As we saw last offseason, when player after player spurned the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, playing for a viable contender trumps playing in a big market for most prospective free agents in the modern NBA.
If they go after any free agents, they will likely have to overpay heavily for the privilege of signing them. That’s not as big as an issue as the fact that most unrestricted free agents are signing their 3rd NBA contract, which means they are already on the downside of their career. Only the best of the best can delay the aging process long enough to make their 3rd contracts worthwhile and there’s nothing short of an act of God that’s going to convince guys like Kevin Durant, Al Horford and Mike Conley to come play in Brooklyn.
When guys have been in the league that long, the main thing they are concerned about is winning. They have already made a bunch of money and racked up a bunch of individual awards and the prospect of carrying a bad team over the brutal grind of an 82-game season only to lose in the first round of the playoffs doesn’t sound all that appealing. There’s nothing the Nets can offer except a boatload of money and an older player who is going to take the money might be looking more for a golden parachute than anything else.
By the time the Nets are good again, anyone they sign in their late 20’s will probably be on their way out of the league. They are undertaking a rebuilding project as large as any the NBA has seen in recent years so they need to sign guys who can commit for the long-term and who can conceivably be better players in 5+ years than they are now. That means going after guys in their early to mid 20’s, which means diving head deep into the restricted free agency market.
Most NBA teams don’t like to chase restricted free agents because the assumption is that if they are any good the team will match anyway and it will tie up your cap space from doing something more likely to succeed. However, there are situations when they do change teams and those are the type of players - young guys looking to prove their worth in the league and wanting more shots and minutes than they can receive if they stay put - who might be interested in what the Nets have to sell.
The blueprint for what Brooklyn should be trying is what the Dallas Mavericks did with Chandler Parsons. The Mavs aggressively targeted Parsons on Day 1 of free agency in 2014 and they sold him on being their franchise player rather than a cog in the supporting cast of the Houston Rockets. That meant signing Parsons to a 3-year $45 million contract that raised eyebrows around the league, but the only way to acquire an RFA is to overpay him relative to his production and hope that he still has room to grow if he’s put in a situation to maximize his skill-set.
After spending a season sharing the ball with Monta Ellis and Rajon Rondo, the Mavs made featuring Parsons more of a priority in Year 2 and he’s starting to like a player worthy of that type of contact. They found out he’s more successful playing as a small-ball 4 in the modern NBA and he’s started to thrive in that role after a slow recovery from offseason knee surgery. The question is are there any RFA’s like Chandler Parsons out there in 2016 who might be plucked from their original teams.
1. Evan Fournier
I have been a big Fournier fan for awhile and he fits the profile of a guy who might be willing to switch teams if given more of an opportunity. He has had to fight and claw for an opportunity with the Orlando Magic and he has managed to carve out a role as a starter despite being the least highly drafted of any of their main perimeter players. At 6’7, 205 with a 6’8 wingspan, Fournier has a good combination of size and speed for a plus shooter and he has shown the ability to shoot off the dribble, get into the lane and create shots for his teammates. He has always posted good efficiency numbers in limited roles (he has never had a usage rating higher than 20 in his NBA career) and he’s still only 23 years old. Will the Magic really be interested in giving him big money with Victor Oladipo up for a deal soon and Top 5 picks like Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja pushing for more playing time?
2. Meyers Leonard
Leonard’s development has been agonizingly slow in four seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, but that’s to be expected for a raw 7’0 who was drafted as a 19-year-old. Big men take longer to develop than guards and that goes double for a guy who came into the league as unrefined as Leonard. Even if he doesn’t develop any further, an athletic 7’0 who can roll to the rim or be a pick-and-pop threat (35.1% from 3 on 4.1 3PA’s a game this season) will always be valuable. He has taken a step back this season because the Blazers have been playing him as a 4 and not a 5 and an offense with Leonard at the 5 forces a defense into much more difficult decisions. While he’s not much of a rim protector or interior defender for a 5, the hope is that could still develop over time given that he’s still only 23.
3. Terrence Jones
Jones has taken a step back amidst a chaotic season for the Houston Rockets that has everyone on the roster’s role in flux outside of James Harden. The recent acquisition of Josh Smith is a pretty good indication that Jones isn’t coming back, as it appears that he has hit his ceiling with the Rockets and their frontcourt is too crowded for him to assume a bigger role. There’s still a lot to like about his game - he has the perimeter game that power forwards need to have in the modern NBA and the size and shot-blocking ability to slide down to center in certain line-ups - and the possibility for growth. He’s 24, he has always posted good per-minute numbers and he has never had a usage rating higher than 19 in four seasons in Houston.
4. Donatas Motiejunas
The other member of the Houston frontcourt who could be looking for greener pastures, Motiejunas has been fighting with Jones for shots and playing time for most of the last 4 seasons and it’s unclear as to how good either would be if they were given a more prominent role in the offense. The problem for both is that they cannot stay healthy and Motiejunas is particularly a concern given that he’s coming off back surgery that kept him out of action for 8+ months. He’s a 7’0 who can score out of the post and shoot 3’s so there’s a lot to work with there. What would happen if he ever had a usage rating higher than 22? I’m sure he (and his agent) would like to find out.
5. Harrison Barnes
Barnes is the sexiest name of the bunch given his role on the defending NBA champions, but I’d be wary of giving him too much money considering that he has really only been valuable for them when playing as a small-ball PF. When he’s playing as a SF, he doesn’t have the offensive creativity to be anything more than a fifth option and he has been put in the perfect situation to succeed playing next to all of the veteran shooters, playmakers and defenders in Golden State.
I wouldn’t worry too much about the players the Nets have currently because in all likelihood they will be gone the next time the Nets are a good team. And while promising big roles to young frontcourt players would make Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young redundant, having guys who could fill their shoes would make the two veterans easier to trade and they are the only two players on the Brooklyn roster who could conceivably return some draft picks and young players.
A team built around Fournier, Jones and Leonard isn’t necessarily going to scare anyone but all three guys have room to grow and it’s not like the Nets have anything better to do. A team with a bunch of young athletic frontcourt players who can spread the floor could run spread pick-and-roll constantly, push the ball and at least play an entertaining brand of basketball. This plan would mean wildly overpaying a bunch of guys who probably aren’t good enough to be the best players on a contender, but when has that stopped Brooklyn before?