The Brooklyn Nets’ 90-82 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday night was more than the final score of Game 2 of their first-round playoff series. It was a look at the future.
This, you see, is what mediocrity looks like: Following an impressive Game 1 win over the Bulls, the Nets delivered a Game 2 dud that should relieve any remaining Brooklyn believers of any illusions they had that their team might make any kind of deep run during these, or any subsequent, playoffs.
This is not to trash the Nets, or to disparage what they have done, or to insist they are any kind of failure. They are not. It’s to point out the obvious. This is probably as good as it gets. This is a Nets team mired in mediocrity, a high-profile and higher-priced team held captive by their own silly spending and aging so-called stars.
The Nets are a team fronted by Deron Williams, a player who since the All-Star break has reemerged as the top-tier point guard so many of us expected him to be when he was traded to the franchise two years ago. His eight-point, 1-of-9 shooting night against the Bulls was a reminder of his past problems – and at a minimum a fair reminder that he has been far from reliable since forcing his way to New York.
But that’s not the crux of Brooklyn’s issues. Nor is this equally mediocre Bulls team, which they may yet beat in this series. Brooklyn’s problem is that regardless of whether or not Williams is an actual star or still just an imitation of one, it’s hard to see them as anything more than what they are this season: A team at best served up as fodder for a far superior opponent as the playoffs move closer toward the Finals.
This is first and foremost an issue of salaries. But mixed into the muddle of the team’s financial obligations and the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement are some other troubling side issues. There’s the fact Williams’ main issue this season was his weight, an issue more about application than ability, and what it says about his dedication and reliability going forward.
Brook Lopez, the team’s excellent offensive-oriented center, still doesn’t bring the requisite big-man toughness any team could use in the postseason. Joe Johnson, paid so much I had to re-check 10 times to be sure I wasn’t seeing the numbers wrong, seems in decline. And Brooklyn’s interim head coach, P.J. Carlesimo, remains stuck in an uncertain situation regardless of his 35-19 record since taking over for the displaced Avery Johnson. Why? Good question. The best answer is because even the team’s owners know his record does nothing to instill the belief it can or will translate into anything other than postseason ordinariness.
But that is far from Carlesimo’s fault. Blame the general manager. Blame the owner. Blame the drive, and lack of any long-term thought, to get some big names and bigger salaries in the Barclays Center for its inaugural season. Blame trying to one-up the cross-town New York Knicks. Blame anything you want. The fact is this team is handcuffed for a very long time. The fact is they’re not getting much better any time soon.
Williams, the once-chubby and now perhaps-reinvigorated star, is still scheduled to make an average of $20 million a year for at least the following three seasons. Johnson, not exactly young at 31 years old, is closing out one of the least-efficient and troubling years of his career. But he’s still going to make a huge chunk of change the next three seasons — $21.466 million next season, $23 million in 2014-15 and almost $25 million in his last year with Brooklyn.
Think that’s a giant waste of money? Well, Kris Humphries gets $12 million next season, Lopez has a huge contract through 2015-16 and Gerald Wallace will eat up more than $10 million for each of the next three years.
All of this adds up, in 2013-14 alone, to $85.5 million in obligations for a team with a point guard who’s been overweight for most of his contract, a center who’s far from tough and a declining guard far from star material while making more than LeBron James. They may have a billionaire Russian owner cool with doling out the cash, but even he might start to balk when he realizes his luxury- and repeater-tax payments are draining millions of dollars for a team that is in fact not any kind of threat to the Heat, or probably even the Knicks or Pacers.
Was Monday’s loss to the Bulls the end of the world or some gut-wrenching, this-has-to-change moment for Brooklyn? No. Not at all. It was a reminder they can’t change, even if they want to, even if they realize this mix of over-priced so-called stars won’t live up to what a place like Brooklyn deserves.
They are a mediocre bunch, bound together by a punishing CBA and contracts that make guys like Johnson anchored in place, a team working its way through a playoff run that can only end the same way its future seems likely to as well: With a kind of insignificance made relevant only by how much money it will cost.