As the NBA free agency period kicks off this weekend, the Brooklyn Nets have everything a team could want.
They’ve finally escaped the swamps of Newark and are opening the pristine new Barclays Center in Boerum Hill. They have a stylish new logo and new jerseys and a new fan base that’s distinctly New York without being patently Manhattan.
They have a flashy billionaire owner in Mikhail Prokhorov, a funny, charismatic figure who isn’t afraid to spend and spend and spend some more when he’s not busy running for Russian office.
They also have a popular minority owner you may have heard of. His name is Jay-Z. He could regularly be found sitting courtside at the Prudential Center, hobnobbing with players from both benches before games. He’ll be around even more at their new digs.
The only thing they don’t have is a star player — or any players, for that matter — and if that issue isn’t resolved soon and the Nets’ empty lockers aren’t filled with top-tier talent, their Brooklyn housewarming party could quickly become a pretty blasé affair.
Brooklyn’s original grand plan was simple enough: The Nets wanted Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard and Howard wanted them. Howard was expected to force his way into a trade to the Nets last season, or come as a free agent this summer, making pending free agent Deron Williams’ decision to stay with the Nets little more than a foregone conclusion.
With the All-Star tandem of Howard and Williams as the league’s most formidable point guard-center combo, Brooklyn would have had the ultimate nucleus to build around, creating a team and an atmosphere that would have immediately competed with Miami and Chicago for the Eastern Conference’s top billing.
Instead, Howard flaked at the last minute and decided to stay in Orlando one more year, rendering the whole blueprint useless. And in the time it’s taken for the star big man to change course once again — because it’s become abundantly clear he still wants out of Orlando — all of the pieces the Nets could have potentially used to acquire Howard are now off the table.
Once flush with assets, the Nets have five players under contract as of 12:01 a.m. Sunday: point guard Jordan Farmar, shooting guards MarShon Brooks and Anthony Morrow, power forward Jordan Williams and center Johan Petro. And with all due respect, those guys aren’t putting fans in seats or convincing new Magic GM Rob Hennigan that they’re worth his team’s biggest star.
Gerald Wallace appears set to re-up for four years and $40 million next week, but where is everyone else? Deron Williams is an unrestricted free agent after opting out of the last year of his deal, as is Kris Humphries, the former Kardashian beau who had the most productive season of his career last year as a full-time starter in his second full season in Newark.
Additionally, Brook Lopez, who played in just five games last year because of foot and ankle injuries, is a restricted free agent this summer and has been tendered a qualifying offer, but there’s no guarantee the Nets will match any other offers the big man might receive.
As for new talent via the draft, Brooklyn struck out there, too. When the Nets acquired Wallace just before the trade deadline — a move they only made after it became clear Howard wasn’t coming — he came at the expense of a lottery pick, which Portland eventually used to draft Weber State point guard Damian Lillard at No. 6 overall.
Brooklyn did leave Thursday night’s draft in its old arena with three new players in Tyshawn Taylor, Tornike Shengelia and Ilkan Karaman, but the latter two are international projects who are expected to stay overseas as they continue to develop, and Taylor’s impact, if he makes the team at all, will be marginal.
So now, as a result of Howard’s waffling and their own bad dealings, the Nets find themselves with somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million to spend and no guarantees that any star will take their money.
The D-Will-meets-D-12 dream is still a possibility, and executing that haul should still be the priority, at least for the time being. But whereas Howard was the key to making it a reality in March, Williams is now the player on whom the onus rests.
Williams is said to be considering Brooklyn and his hometown Dallas for his next destination, and if he doesn’t re-sign with the Nets, their hopes of landing Howard, however slim to begin with, will be irreversibly dashed. So with Williams the biggest and most important piece of the puzzle, the Nets are treating him as such.
On Williams’ 28th birthday Tuesday, the team sent a portable billboard to his front door, which read “Happy Birthday Deron, from your Brooklyn family,” and Nets coach Avery Johnson reportedly attended an intimate birthday party later that night.
Williams has also continued to work out at the Nets’ practice facility in East Rutherford, N.J., seemingly another good sign for the team going forward.
But general manager Billy King understands the fluidity of the situation, and he’s not getting ahead of himself with regard to Williams’ future, which should be decided sometime this week.
“At the end of the day he’s going to play here or someplace else,” King told reporters before the draft. “I think we’ve done everything, prepared everything, we’ve got a great building. So everything is mapped out. He sees what we have, he sees what (the Mavericks) have, and he’s got to make a decision.”
The Nets will fill out their roster one way or another by the time the season starts, but should Williams ultimately decide to stay, Brooklyn will find that the door to a host of other free-agent possibilities — or another run at Howard — is wide open.
Otherwise, the Nets will end up kicking off the Brooklyn era with an endless supply of selling points, an unambitious and unappealing roster, an empty new arena and as little hope for the future as they had in New Jersey.