October 18, 2018
There's not a lot in the cupboard. The Nets need to start again. Where do they start?

Over the coming weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team will be taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, continuing here with the Brooklyn Nets.

1. What Has Happened To Deron Williams?

Deron Williams is not the player he was, and it’s no longer possible to ignore that fact.

It’s tempting to just type out “Jerry Sloan isn’t his coach anymore”, and there’s definitely some truth to that notion. But firmer evidence is found in Jackie MacMullan’s recent interview with Paul Pierce, where he described Williams as not wanting to be the man:

Before I got there, I looked at Deron as an MVP candidate. But I felt once we got there, that’s not what he wanted to be. He just didn’t want that.

Pierce knows a thing or two about stepping up, accepting a leadership position, and carrying a team. His words carry a lot of weight, and are thus a true insight to the world of Deron Williams, which exposes the fact that Williams is no longer the player he once was out of choice. Whether it’s due to the very comfortable $98.7 million he received in 2012, the disappointment of not breaking through at one of the largest basketball stages in the world, Jerry Sloan, or a mixture of all three, remains a mystery.

What we do know, though. is that Williams has gone from having a 20.3 PER in 2012/2013 with an attached true shooting percentage of .574%, to only a 15.7 PER (about league average) and a measly TS% of .503% (well below league average) last year. In Utah, Williams never had a full season three-point rate (i.e. percentage of his shots that came from three point range) of above 30%, in New Jersey and Brooklyn it’s yet to fall below that mark, suggesting a heavy reliance on the long ball, which the eye-test confirms.

Williams’s success in Utah was in large part due to his ability to get to the rim, where he would score at a 58.7% clip. In his five and a half seasons with the Jazz, 31% of all D-Will’s attempts came within three feet of the basket. Since the trade, though, that has gone down to just 19%, further suggesting a severe lack of aggressiveness. Not surprisingly, his regression there has lead to him attempting more shots elsewhere, and as alluded to above, it’s especially been behind the three-point line – Williams went from attempting 24.4% of his shots in Utah from outside the line, to 36.2% in New Jersey/Brooklyn.

These changes, especially Williams’s decision to prefer the long-ball, have been theorized to be in part due to the acquisition of Joe Johnson, who is known for being an isolation-heavy player. However, Johnson’s 15.6% isolation rate this season ranked just 11th in the league for players with over 50 games played, and 150 of said play calls. Johnson, in fact, barely made that cut as he had just 194 isolation plays over 80 games, the second-lowest amount in the top 11, only behind Jamal Crawford’s 193, which came in 16 less games. He too is not what he was, in terms of style or effectiveness.

Ironically, at least for this season, some of Williams’s issues have been in some part due to his back-up, Jarrett Jack. The journeyman had a usage percentage of 22.6%, took the same amount of shots as Williams per 36 minutes (13.1), and indirectly forced Lionel Hollins to play Williams a career-high 32% of his minutes at shooting guard so the two could share the court. Jack, a player who demands touches to be effective, averaged 61.3 of them a game, second on the team behind Williams at 75.4. Jack’s scoring production, however, was greater. He scored 0.195 points per touch compared to Williams’s 0.172 and for a while took over as the starting point guard, leaving Williams on the bench.

For a 30-year old with two All-NBA Second Team selections to his name, the fall is rather drastic. Williams at this point has the make-up of a secondary point guard than a full-time starter, which Hollins tested out. His 13 points in 31.1 minutes per game is a long way from accepted given William’s size, skill level, and brute force. At 6’3″ and definitely more than his reported 210 pounds, Williams remains a physical beast who has his handles intact and should be able to produce significantly more as both a scorer, and a passer (his assist rate has declined 12.9 percentage points since 2011/2012), but just… isn’t.

In the past, Williams had a tendency to do the dribble-lullaby. He would move up court with the ball in the most nonchalant way imaginable, and then push the tempo as soon as his man looked elsewhere or was out of position by just a smidgeon. This aspect of his game has almost entirely vanished. His mind seems to have gone on auto-pilot, and he rarely explodes into the lane with the same determination as he once used to. Instead, he just hangs around the perimeter, either looking for a three, or making the pass. There’s more than anything a visual change in Williams’s game that now seems uninspired and disinterested, which in large part explains why Brooklyn wish to move him and why Hollins went as far as saying Williams is no longer a franchise player.

Along the way, Williams has had a littany of injuries, ranging from wrists and ribs to multiple problems with his legs and ankles, most notably having had surgeries on both ankles prior to last season. The cause of his lack of assertiveness, aggressiveness, speed and dynamicism can surely be found somewhere in there, and cannot be fully ascribed to a lack of desire. But this is no consolation to the bigger picture – Deron Williams has lost his edge, and there’s no sign that he’s going to get it back.

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2. How Do They Rid Themselves Of Their Long-Term Deals?

In aiming to compete, the Nets made money no object, and took on huge contracts in a bid to reload quickly. Now, with things having not gone well, some of those contracts are burdensome. How do they get of them and begin anew?

They don’t. Or rather, they won’t be able to unless they’re willing to take on deals with more years on them, with only a slight saving in terms of worth. No one’s eating Joe Johnson’s $24.89 million for next season, just as no one dares giving Williams a shot with $43.3 million remaining on his deal, especially given the above.

With rumors suggesting Brook Lopez (who holds a player option for next season) may wish to opt in with Brooklyn and re-sign for max money a year from now, it looks like these Nets won’t have cap space until 2016, where Lopez needs to be retained and Williams will still on the hook for $22.3 million. Assuming the cap reaches $80 million by then, Lopez would be entitled to roughly 28% of the cap, or a starting salary of $22.4 million. That’s $44.7 million for just him and Williams, well over half the cap. Billy King would love to shed Williams’s contract to further maximize flexibility for next summer, but he’ll likely have to make due with the increased cap number and possibly wait a year, for 2017, where the cap will increase further, to really sell free agents on the re-shuffling Nets.

One option, one that might become a reality as the Nets undoubtedly field unsuccessful trade calls, is to pay Williams to go away, through a buy-out in which they stretch his salary out for longer. With lesser cap hits every year. It’s not optimal, but it’s an option. And in terms of their payroll management, the Nets have given themselves very few of those. The same may also need to be necessary for Jarrett Jack. Either way, the Nets have given themselves very little flexibility, and the massive impending increase in salary cap size is needed by none more than they.

3. Is There A Future In Brooklyn For Brook Lopez?

As mentioned above, Lopez could opt out of his deal this summer. He might not, given the cap increase destined for 2016 as well as the fact that he stands to earn $16.7 million, but what happens in a year from now when he’s a free agent?

Keep in mind that Lopez, as effective as he is, has missed significant time to injuries over his career. Re-investing in him is not a foregone conclusion, nor should it be. He played in 72 regular season games this season, which is encouraging, but for the Nets to feel confident in his health, he’d have to repeat, and preferably improve, his endurance next year.

Lopez is looking at max money regardless of this, though, because of his abilities. He understands the value in being an agile seven-footer who can actually make something happen offensively, and he intends to squeeze that for all that it’s worth. This decision is up to the Nets, as they’re going to be forced to make a simple, yet difficult, choice: Either lose Lopez for nothing, or max him. Conventional wisdom says they should max him, so as to retain at least some level of talent and quality. Losing him, while shedding themselves of Johnson and Williams, leaves the Nets emptier than a Joel Anthony box score, and they know it.

Thankfully, Billy King could take a page out of Denver’s book. The Nuggets re-signed Nene back in 2011 to a five-year deal worth $67 million, but they never intended to keep him. They wanted to maintain an asset, so that asset could be spun off elsewhere, which happened when they shipped him off to Washington for JaVale McGee. Essentially, they performed an extended sign-and-trade.

This philosophy might not be a bad option for Brooklyn regarding Lopez, as there are always teams in the market for scoring centers. This could be a way of bringing in new blood all depending on what the Nets take back. The key is here, in being able to deliver a freshly signed Lopez to the team they’re trading with. With 2016 looming, and Lopez’s unrestricted free agent status, teams would hesitate to put big offers on the table, knowing they could lose Lopez fairly quickly.

They could do the same this very season with Thaddeus Young, if they are so inclined. The Nets are so short of assets at the moment that the retention of all the ones they do have, even if only with a view to later trading them, will surely help.

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4. How Long Will Nets Fans Have To Wait For Glory?

That’s the $50,000 question, and without sounding too much of a Debbie Downer, probably a long time.

Brooklyn’s plans were clear as day when they acquired Pierce and Kevin Garnett before the 2013-14 season – they were hoping to acquire enough veteran talent to win the whole thing. It was, admittedly, an aggressive move from the franchise, even if it did end up falling on its rear. The logical components in acquiring players with championship pedigree and knowhow made sense, albeit slightly naively so given their advanced age.

Now, however? Lord knows what their plans are, given that so many things are up in the air. They can’t unload Williams and Johnson to anyone, and if someone raises their hands showing interest, it’s imperative Brooklyn hires “Blake” from Glengarry Glen Ross to close the deal. And as seen above, they still have to decide what to do with Brook Lopez.

Much like the Knicks, Brooklyn decided to make several short-term moves that involved trading away draft picks. This year, Atlanta has the right to swap picks with Brooklyn, handing the Nets the 29th pick in the draft. Furthermore, from the Pierce/Garnett trade, Brooklyn owes the Boston Celtics its 2016 and 2018 picks, with Boston having the option to swap picks in 2017.

It’s a situation about as bleak as it sounds regarding draft picks. Rookie contracts have long played important roles in re-building teams, given their low cost compared to productivity. Having been able to attach a couple of players to the team’s core, who would have been on cheap deals, could have opened up everything for the Nets. It could have assisted them in drawing free agent interest, secured themselves elite financial flexibility, especially under the increased cap, and finally helped the team improve internally, which is a difficult ask these days. They need not look outside for an example of this – their best future piece, Miles Plumlee, is a fine example of it.

In short, to move quickly,, the Nets will have to hit it big in free agency or make a trade that favors them drastically. Neither seem very realistic, as free agents will know that Brooklyn mortgaged their future, and is short on trade chips to further improve the roster.

There is one way to acquire possible assets, though. Much like Denver acquired Will Barton at the trade deadline as a Portland throw-in, it’d make sense for these Nets to scour the league for under-utilized players, acquire them at low costs, and letting them receive plenty of minutes to see if gold has been struck. The philosophy reeks of desperation, perhaps, and is entirely at odds with the big-splash, cost-be-damned approach that went before. But given the mess they’ve made, the opposite might be a good idea.

5. Is This The Most Bland Team In Basketball?

The Nets do not play an exciting brand of basketball. This may not seem important, but given their lack of success it makes matters a lot worse, considering they rank 20th in the league in attendance, according to ESPN.

This is partly due to their low rankings in two of the most widely commercialized aspects of basketball; three-pointers and dunks. The Nets rank 22nd in dunks with 243 and 21st in three pointers made, according to Basketball-Reference. It doesn’t help having a former All-Star point guard in what should have been his best years looking mostly like a back-up as mentioned in the beginning, while Johnson and Lopez, both former All-Stars themselves, play conservative but boring basketball. Johnson is declining in front of the very eyes of the Barclays Center crowd, and Lopez’s flat-fooded mid-range shots doesn’t inspire wild enthusiasm.

To be fair, flair has nothing to do with effectivity. The Nets were in the playoffs, having succeeded in making the second season based on their vanilla play, which is what counts. But you have to wonder how far anyone can go without getting the home crowd involved, and shifting momentum off bang-bang plays. And from a coaching point of few, it certainly doesn’t help having a ball-dominating back-up point guard in Jack, a severe lack of ball-movement (27th in assists), an even severer lack of player movement (the Nets are a very stagnant halfcourt offense team short of much stand-out NBA athleticism) and several low-efficient swingmen. The Nets had elements of spryness, sure, but Mason Plumlee and his 21 minutes a night isn’t quite enough to install a foundation of excitement.

Excitement isn’t equal to success, but it does help. It helps everyone, both fans and players alike, tolerate the rebuilding/reloading process, It betters the product, not only visually but also by providing extra dimensions to the playbook. And it adds to the attraction of the team as a potential free agency destination. The Nets have a struggling on-court product, a struggling reputation, a bleak short term future, and not many assets with which to remedy it all. At the very least, they might want to liven it up a bit.

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Morten Stig Jensen

Danish hillbilly, and proud father, who's been around the web a few times. Owned and operated the largest basketball-site in Denmark, was an NBA on-air color analyst for a brief time, now a frequent podcaster. Academy Profession Degree in Multimedia Design and Communication from the Copenhagen School of Design & Technology, currently studying Media Production & Management at the Danish School of Media & Journalism.

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