The Brooklyn Nets’ ill-fated trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in July 2013 left the team with bleak short, medium and long-term futures.
On the court, the pair did not work out. Ageing very quickly after leaving Boston, the two never bettered the team; Brooklyn only got as far as a 44-38 regular season record the season immediately after the trade, which was actually a backwards step on their 49-33 campaign previously, and loafed to a mere 38-44 the season after that. Thereafter, the bottom fell out completely, and the Nets have not cracked 30 wins since.
The bigger problem, though, was off the court. To acquire the duo (plus veteran reserve Jason Terry, young forward D.J. White who was soon out of the league, and the #57 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft), the Nets gave up a bevy of assets. They gave up unprotected firsts in all of 2014, 2016 and 2018, and only because of the rule (colloquially named the Stepien Rule) that prevents teams from leaving themselves without a first-round pick in consecutive future seasons were they able to keep a first-round pick in 2017. Even then, though, they traded the right to swap it.
In total, this trade cost Brooklyn all of James Young (#17, 2014), Jaylen Brown (#3, 2016), Markelle Fultz (#1, 2017; or Jayson Tatum at #3 if you’d prefer) and Collin Sexton (#8, 2018). With all due respect to Aleksandar Vezenkov, the saving grace of the #57 pick in 2017 coming back the other way probably doesn’t salve the pain much. And that was a lot to pay for no discernible improvement.
Ever since that trade, the team has been in a quagmire, with an assets cupboard barer than any asset cupboard should ever be, and no obvious way out of it. Rather than just wait, though, the Nets under Sean Marks have instead been on a four-stage plan of asset accumulation that has not realistically been able to include acquiring any elite assets, but which has at least yielded a volume with which to begin again.
Part one was to get as much as could be for what was left in the chamber. This did not take long, and was not easy considering there was so little in there. Yet in being able to turn Kevin Garnett into Thaddeus Young into a first-round pick, the Nets were able to get Caris LeVert out of it. Trading Mason Plumlee when Brook Lopez was still on the team ahead of him yielded Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and trading Lopez ultimately later brought back D’Angelo Russell as well. And Bojan Bogdanovic was dealt to the Washington Wizards for the pick that later became Jarrett Allen, with both that deal and the Lopez one including a hefty dose of part two below as well.
Part two was to trade using the cap space, acquiring into that space surplus yet expensive players of other teams, with some draft assets attached. The Nets needed some replacement draft assets given the above, and had both the cap space, spending power and lack of spending alternatives to be able to do this, and this has subsequently become the most obvious piece of the puzzle. Both the Lopez (via Timofey Mozgov) and Bogdanovic (via Andrew Nicholson) trades were of this nature, and the deal with Toronto that brought in DeMarre Carroll was the most obvious success of this type. Not only did it bring in the picks that have subsequently been used on Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs, but Carroll also had a career-best season, and now has resale value of his own.
Part three was to target young veterans headed into restricted free agency, with a few to being able to buy them at the time of their second contract. This has not been a particularly successful bit of strategy - they did sign Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe, Donatas Motiejunas and Otto Porter to offer sheets, but all got matched, and a similar pursuit of JaMychal Green was rebuffed before even getting to that point. Buying players in this way is hard to do precisely because of the restricted free agency designed to protect the interests of that player's first team - the Memphis Grizzlies had to give their full mid-level exception with a trade kicker to Kyle Anderson to persuade the San Antonio Spurs not to match their offer sheet to him, for example - and this past summer, despite rumoured interest in candidates such as Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic, it appears as though the Nets opted not to try.
When unsuccessful with that, part three (b) was to instead sign decent slightly older veterans to reasonable contracts with a view to getting some decent play out of them for a bit (purely to aid development of youth and individual resale value; it is not as though they could submarine a tank), then selling them wherever possible. The signing of Trevor Booker was able to yield a second-round pick in this way, and it was hoped until his injury that Jeremy Lin could do the same. Even minimum salary third stringer Tyler Zeller was, amazingly, able to garner a second-round pick when traded this past deadline, one subsequently used on Hamadou Diallo (himself part of the small price of two future second-round picks the Nets only had to give up to move Mozgov's extra year of salary onto the Charlotte Hornets).
And part four was to seek out reclamation projects, redrafts and sneaky-good minimum salary pick-ups. Zeller, as above, was one. Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie have been emphatic successes as others. Nik Stauskas and Jahlil Okafor, less so, but the aim is not to realistically win them all; it is merely to have as many options as possible, where once there were so few.
In the course of two trades amid the third wave of this summer's free agency business, the Nets did a bit of all of this. They first traded Lin to the Atlanta Hawks for essentially nothing (Nets also gave up a 2025 second-round pick and the right to swap 2023 second rounders for whatever reason; Hawks gave up the draft rights to Isaia Cordinier, who will likely never join the NBA, along with a top 55 protected 2020 second round pick, which will not convey), and then used that space to take on more salary. They acquired Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur (both unwanted veteran power forwards), a protected future first-round draft pick (top 12 protected for the next six drafts) and an unprotected 2020 second-round draft pick from the Denver Nuggets in exchange merely for little-used guard, Isaiah Whitehead.
This was a very Netsian deal, for all intents and purposes nigh-on identical to the successful Carroll deal. Indeed, it was arguably better, as both Faried and Arthur expire after one season whereas Carroll had two remaining. It likely was a deal available to the similarly-rebuilding, cap space-rich Hawks, yet their priorities instead seemingly lay with the cash cow of Lin (who does not have a cheap salary, but who does more than make it back in secondary revenue via his marketability to the Chinese market). And yet because they prioritised the draft assets over the financial benefits, the Nets came out of that exchange as the only one of the three teams with tangible assets and players going forward.
Another job well done, then. The strategy came through for them once again, the patience paid off, and another asset or two is now on board. On the surface, all seems well, and it pretty much is below deck as well, relatively speaking.
It is worthy of exploration, however, as to whether this ostensibly successful rebuilding strategy has actually been optimal.
Optics are important here. Relative to what went before, pretty much any level of rebuild and hope-acquisition will have looked good. The mistake of the forebear is not the fault of the replacement, and to be sure, the team-building strategy under the new regime has been much more successful (and makes a lot more strategic sense) than what went before. But those optics run the risk of clouding our judgement to be overly favourable. There have been mistakes here, after all, ones that have slowed the rebuild and cost the team precious assets.
The most obvious of these is the repeated valuation of Allen Crabbe. It was the Nets who signed Crabbe to an ambitiously large four year, $74,832,500 offer sheet back in the overspending summer of 2016; they paid him to be someone he had never been, and then added extra money on top to make it impossible for the Portland Trail Blazers to match. Remarkably, though, despite spending more than a quarter of a billion dollars that off-season on Evan Turner, Festus Ezeli, Meyers Leonard, Mo Harkless and C.J. McCollum, the Blazers still felt able to match that deal for Crabbe, even though they had no designs on a starting spot for him at any point during that deal. For one team to see so much in Allen Crabbe was kind of bewildering; for two to do so, especially considering their overall roster management circumstances, was amazing.
It also didn't last long. The Blazers soon had buyer's remorse on their egregious overspend, and have been in a cost-saving mode ever since. They cut Ezeli, who never played for the team, and traded Noah Vonleh to the Bulls for no return at the last trade deadline. They stopped spending significant money on anyone they din't already have, and thus have not much improved their team. But most obviously of all, they wanted to get away from one of the big contracts. And thus they moved Crabbe back to the Nets at the first possible opportunity (Crabbe could not be traded to the Nets for a year after the offer sheet was matched).
To finally get Crabbe cost the Nets only the contract of Nicholson, who they had never wanted anyway. (Nor did the Blazers, who immediately stretched him.) Nicholson's contract was another of the bad 2016 signings, but not all bad contracts are created equal; his four year, $26,080,000 pact still had three years and $19,991,007 left to run was still a world better than Crabbe's $56,332,500, and even if the Nets viewed Crabbe as being a circa. $12.1 million per year player when taken in the aggregate with the amount they already owed to Nicholson, this is still too much for Crabbe. It is also not fair, considering there were other options for Nicholson's deal, and the chunk of cap that it took up.
The cap space that Crabbe now takes up is the issue here. As the Nets have proven in the above, they have sought to acquire assets from other teams in exchange for burning up their cap space on buyer's remorse contracts. And yet with the biggest contract of all, with a team pretty desperate to shift it, the Nets got no such sweeteners. The Blazers were trapped in a situation of their own making, and yet the Nets let them out of jail, purely it seems because they rated Allen Crabbe that highly.
It is hard to see why, but let's try.
Working in Crabbe’s favour is that he is a shooter in a league permanently on the lookout for them. A wing with decent-enough size who can always get them away, Crabbe is streakier than many shooters, but the upside of that is occasionally game-winning performances from outside. Even if he only has one plus-NBA skill, it is one he won’t now lose. It is particularly one valued on this Nets team that values the three-pointer so much as to have encouraged Mozgov to take some last season; in terms of fit, there could not be a better team for Crabbe. [The Rockets take more threes, but offer fewer guard minutes, and, with respect, have higher defensive standards.]
Yet the cost going forward is highly detrimental. For Crabbe to have any trade value going forward, he needs to perform at a higher level much closer in value to that large contract, and considering the limited improvements throughout his NBA career to date, that does not look likely. Crabbe is still not active enough off the ball, still does little with it, is too passive at times, needs more motion, and makes no significant impact defensively. He may have been essentially free to acquire, but he will not be to rehome.
Also counting against Crabbe is the fact that Joe Harris is just as good, if not slightly better, and is to be paid much less. More aggressive, more consistent, better defensively and less prone to long periods of just standing there, Harris stood out last year, for only the minimum salary, and has agreed to re-sign with the Nets for only roughly $8 million per, despite outperforming Crabbe last season. It is true to say that the Nets could not exactly predict Harris's development in this way, yet it is even truer to say that never was there ever going to be a time where Crabbe was the only shooter available, or that all shooters should cost that much.
Crabbe’s contract has not cost Harris his spot. But Crabbe’s contract is no virtue, and his presence is more awkward than beneficial. At a time when teams around the league are feeling the cap space pinch due to the 2016 overspend and would be more prepared than before to give up assets in order to move bad deals, the Nets spent a big chunk of their potential to help with that on Crabbe’s bench-player-for-All-Star-price play.
The wider worry here is whether or not the Nets have fully leveraged the power that this cap space has gotten them. They have done well with several deals, as above; the core trio of D'Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, possibly with Dzanan Musa to come, only came because they did these deals. But the cap space may have given them a greater leverage than they have used. For all the good things they have done with it, there were some urgent teams out there that needed the Nets' help, and whom only the Nets could help.
Teams and executives feeling the pressure of urgency can act in desperation. And the Nets know this first hand, because no one ever fell more victim to this urgency than they themselves did with the Garnett and Pierce trade.In this instance, they failed to take advantage of the Blazers' urgency.
There may also have been opportunities to further leverage the pressure release valve of their cap space than they did. For example, at the time of the Carroll trade (reported 9th July 2017, consummated 13th July), the Toronto Raptors were somewhat desperate. They were roughly $11 million over the luxury tax line, having committed to re-signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, yet had not improved their previous season's team at any point - the only other moves that they had made were to let Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker walk in free agency, and to draft O.G. Anunoby in the first round. They simply could not afford to improve their team beyond this; having almost never paid the luxury tax in their team's history, the Raptors are generally mandated by their ownership to operate below the threshold. The one they were $11 million over at the time.
The Raptors, then, had to do a deal. Having underwhelmed in Toronto, being deemed surplus and on a big salary, Carroll was the obvious target. But there were not many suitors for him. The other teams who had cap space last summer had spent theirs up by that time. The only ones with enough space remaining at that time who could incorporate Carroll's contract were the Sixers (who prioritised the renegotiation/extension of Robert Covington), the L.A. Lakers (who were hell-bent on keeping open their cap space in 2018 for a run at LeBron, and who instead spent their remaining money on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a bid to woo over their mutual agent, both of which were prescient, correct and successful decisions), the Nets and the Hawks.
Considering their disinclination to take on the same deal from the Nuggets this summer, instead opting for Lin, can we say with any certainty that the Hawks were a realistic competitor for this package from the Raptors? And if they weren't, leaving Brooklyn as the only bidder, did they again let a team out of financial jail for less than they could have gotten?
Whereas the Raptors had to do a deal, the Nets didn't. There is, of course, supposition and guesswork in the implication above. It is impossible to know what deals were discussed and turned down, and what machinations were realistic/fanciful. Maybe they played an absolute blinder and extracted the maximum possible value in every deal other than the Crabbe one. But there is some circumstantial evidence to at least theorise otherwise. And in the case of Crabbe, they definitely didn't.
Trading on desperation works, as does capitalising on buyer's remorse. Three different examples from two different iterations of the Philadelphia 76ers iterate this point well.
Firstly, in their 2015 trade with the Sacramento Kings to open free agency, the Sixers yielded all of Nik Stauskas (thought of at the time to be a young player worth having, although he did not ever do much for the Sixers), the right to swap first-round picks in 2017, and a 2019 first-round pick that is unprotected from 2019 onwards. The Sixers latterly packaged those last two to Boston in exchange for the rights to Markelle Fultz, thus yielding a #1 overall pick purely for having to take on Jason Thompson and Carl Landry's salaries for a bit. It should be noted that the Kings did this deal to open up cap room despite not having anyone to open up cap room for, eventually using the majority of it on Rajon Rondo, who signed only a one-year deal and then left afterwards. With their greater foresight and patience, the Sixers got every good bit of that deal.
Secondly, on the night of the 2014 NBA Draft, the Sixers leveraged their draft patience to gain yet more pieces worth having. Picking 10th, Philadelphia selected Elfrid Payton, yet the Magic, picking 12th, really wanted Payton instead. In their desperation to get their guy, they gave up not only a valuable 2015 second-round pick (later used on Willy Hernangomez), but also gave back Philadelphia the very same 2017 first-round pick the previous regime had given up in the aforementioned Dwight Howard deal. That same 2017 pick is the one that, after the swap with the Kings and the trade to the Celtics outlined above, became Fultz. (It should also be noted that not only did Saric not immediately come over, thus aiding the next two years of tanking and lengthening the 76ers' team control - he is also a much better player than Payton.)
And thirdly, the 2018 Sixers did much the same when they moved from #10 and Mikal Bridges to #15 and Zhaire Smith, bagging an unprotected 2021 first-round pick from the Heat for their troubles. One team's must-have is another team's meh, and the 76ers exploited that.
But let us counsel come caution here. The Nets, by and large, have done this too.
The four-part plan has been executed as designed, with some good results. There is, or might be, a core now to be found with this team; the tank-or-rings hive mind so prevalent in the NBA today would suggest that more star talents are needed before this can be considered a core of any stature, yet the idea of a team just wanting to be a solid 45-50 win, playoff team is fine, especially if said team is reasonably young and reasonably flexible with its construction and willing to be selectively aggressive where they can. This is something that Brooklyn can soon realistically be. And that is fine.
To do so has required great patience on behalf of both the front office and the ownership. Having no expectation or time pressure does empower the decision makers to act free of the urgency that so often overwhelms others, and gives them the time needed to try and get as many decisions as possible in, and to get as many of them right as possible. As seen above, they aren't all right, and as seen above, there is plenty of reason to suggest that they could have done better. But by no means have they done badly.
The Nets have a future now. And even if the future has Allen Crabbe in it, that is considerable progress.