NBA Roundtable

Thinking About The Nets Decline

In General NBA on December 3, 2009 at 10:42 am

I’ve been reading a few articles this morning — Adrian Wojnarowski + Ian Thomsen + Chris Mannix + Chris Sheridan + Charley Rosen + Randy Hill.

Anyway, the result is some wandering thoughts on some of the Nets decisions over the past few years …

Nets Previous Seasons

  • 2001/02 — 52 wins + 30 losses — Best team in the Eastern Conference + lost in the NBA Finals
  • 2002/03 — 49 wins + 33 losses — Best team in the Eastern Conference + lost in the NBA Finals
  • 2003/04 — 47 wins and 35 losses — The fourth best team in the Eastern Conference behind Detroit, Miami and Indiana.

At this point the Nets decided that their star trio of Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson were not going to lead them to a title. At that point the Nets weighed their options and decided they were better off letting Kenyon Martin leave for the Nuggets in exchange for three first round draft picks plus superior cap flexibility.

  • 2004/05 — 42 wins and 40 losses — finished 8th in the Eastern Conference. Their season was derailed by an injury to Richard Jefferson. That year, the East had several solid-to-good teams with the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, Indiana Pacers (injuries, suspensions, falling apart too) and the Chicago Bulls. The Nets were also in that bracket and well behind the Pistons and Heat. The Cavs were also getting ready to make a leap forward.

The Nets acquired Vince Carter midway through that season and began trying to build another contender around the trio of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson.

  • 2005/06 — 49 wins and 33 losses — the Nets finished fourth in the East and where clearly a notch or three behind the the squads that finished above them (Cavs, Heat, Pistons).
  • 2006/07 — 41 wins and 41 losses — The Nets finished eight in the Eastern Conference and where again incapable of matching any of the contenders in the East. The East was fairly weak that season and each of the final five playoff squads where close in overall talent (Nets having the strongest, or second strongest (Miami?), core).
  • 2007/08 — 34 wins and 48 losses — 10th place in the East. Lottery team.

The Nets begin to rebuild by trading Jason Kidd for Devin Harris and future draft picks midway through that season. Richard Jefferson was then sent packing in exchange for a bright young prospect (Yi Jialian) that summer. The Nets took another season (2009 offseason) before sending Vince Carter on his way and accepting the need for a full blown rebuilding process.

  • 2008/09 –34 wins and 48 losses — 11th in the East. Lottery squad.
  • 2009/10 — ??? — The Nets are on track to be one of the five worst teams in the league.

Some Key Decisions

Kenyon Martin

Kenyon Martin left the Nets for the Nuggets in a sign and trade and earned three first round draft picks.

The Nets GM adding in a press release

“Kenyon is a great player who played a pivotal role in our success over the past three seasons,” said Thorn. “He is a terrific guy and we wish him nothing but continued success in the near future.

“This was an extremely difficult decision for our franchise, but I felt that the magnitude of the contract, both in its first year due to the signing bonus as well as over its duration, would seriously impair our ability to sign enough quality players,” Thorn added. “This core group of players has had an amazing run over the past few years, and we will work diligently toward once again competing for an NBA title.”

The Contract

Kenyon Martin signed a seven year $90 million contract. That included a large signing bonus. I can’t remember how much that signing on bonus was but I think it was the maximum allowed.

Anyway, Kenyon Martin was just coming off a season where he made his first All-Star appearance.

16.7ppg + 9.5rpg + 2.5apg + 1.5bpg + 1.5spg in 35mpg

Martin was also considered one of the best defensive players in the league and rightly so.

So, Kenyon Martin was an excellent defensive player + good rebounder + good passer + solid scorer. He was an excellent athlete who brought toughness and leadership to the Nets. Filled most of the intangibles. Kenyon Martin had had some serious injury problems in college but was fairly healthy over his first four years in the NBA. Still, there were some lingering health questions given the length of the contract. And finally, Kenyon Martin, despite showing very good improvement in recent seasons, was considered to be close to his ceiling as a player.

In terms of value, Kenyon Martin was a clear All-Star and looked to become a perennial All-Star for the duration of his contract. He wasn’t an MVP caliber player or an All-NBA guy, and, it didn’t look like he’d ever become one.

I can’t remember what the cap was at the time but I think it was just below $50 million. A max contract for Kenyon would have been 25% of that ($12.5 million) whereas Kenyon signed for $10.64 million. The biggest problem with the contract was down the road in years four-through-seven when those annual increases really began to amount.

Anyway, to sum it up, Kenyon signed a contract that was generally considered (correctly so) an overpaid contract. That deal since then has become one of the worst in the NBA, although, Kenyon’s injury problems have played a large role in that but even without them (since we didn’t know he’d have them at the time of signing the contract) it would have been a bad deal.

So, instead of signing Kenyon Martin to a near-max contract and locking themselves into a highly paid trio of Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin … the Nets instead let him leave in free agency and got a large amount of cap flexibility + three first round draft picks.

The Draft Picks

  • Clippers’ first-round pick in 2005 (protected for overall picks 1 through 14) or ’06.
  • 76ers’ first-rounder in ’05 (protected for picks 1-8), ’06 (protected for picks 1-5) or ’07.
  • Denver’s first-rounder in ’06 (protected for picks 1-5), ’07 (protected for top two), or ’08.

Ratings those picks

  • Clippers pick — lottery pick — This looked like a very valuable draft pick. This was prior to the Clippers few moments of success, before Sam Cassell. They had just finished with 28 wins the season prior and had used their draft pick on Shaun Livingston who looked like he’d need a few years of seasoning before becoming an impact player. This was a very valuable pick to hold.
  • Sixers pick — mid-first round pick — Phily was hanging onto a low playoff seed year after and year and looked incapable of righting the ship.
  • Nuggets pick — low-to-mid 20’s — Denver looked well on their way to becoming a very good team in the Western Conference. A 50+ win team.

Those draft picks became:

  • 2005 — 15th pick — Joey Graham — Sixers
  • 2006 — 20th pick — Renaldo Balkman — Nuggets
  • 2006 — 22rd pick — Marcus Williams — Clippers

The Renaldo Balkman + Joey Graham picks were sent to the Toronto Raptors as part of the Vince Carter trade midway through the 2004/05 season (Sixers + Nuggets picks). The Nets hung onto the Clippers draft pick because the Clips were still struggling and it looked a very valuable pick to keep.

The Raptors then sent Balkman pick New York as part of the Jalen Rose for Antonio Davis trade.

Overall, I think the Nets did pretty well in the Kenyon Martin decision.

Vince Carter

It’s time-consuming and somewhat difficult to rebuild team’s past salary caps over a few years … so let’s just assume the Nets would have had substantial cap space soon after letting Kenyon Martin.

Could New Jersey have reasonably gotten a superior player than Vince Carter in free agency?

Hell no.

Vince Carter was and is an All-NBA level talent. Those guys don’t grow on trees and they hardly ever switch teams in free agency … especially not after they’ve established themselves as elite players in the league.

Was Grant Hill the last established All-NBA talent to leave his team during free agency? I’m struggling to think of anyone else of the top of the my head.

Vince Carter was an excellent acquisition and as good as the Nets could have hoped for.

Since the two first round draft picks were the main assets used to acquire Vince Carter you really have to credit the Nets work to sign and trade Kenyon Martin + get useful assets in return while also avoiding that bad contract.

Richard Jefferson

On August 13th the Nets signed Richard Jefferson to a six year $78 million contract extension. This came roughly one month after the decision not to pay Kenyon Martin. The only real difference in the contracts was that final seventh year in Martin’s deal.

So we come to the conclusion that the Nets rated Jefferson higher and felt he was the more valuable player to hold onto. We’ve already looked at Kenyon Martin in some detail at the time of the contract agreement so let’s have a look at RJ now.

Richard Jefferson had just finished his third season. A year where he averaged 18.5ppg, just under 6 rebounds, and added 4 assists nightly in 38 minutes a game. He was also an excellent defensive player. Great in transition.

Richard Jefferson was an excellent defender, good-to-very good scorer, good rebounder, and solid passer. He also had large potential and was considered a player who could improve further.

As it turns out, Richard Jefferson did have good potential and had two very impressive seasons right after signing that contract. Unfortunately, his progress stopped there, and he then began regressing as a player. Jefferson’s contract has been a negative one (a large negative at that) for the second half of it’s deal.

RJ vs Kenyon?

Looking back at it, and knowing the Nets landed Vince Carter, definitely. Well, if we know that we also know about Kenyon’s injuries, make that definitely not.

At the time … tough to say. I thought Martin was the superior player and signed a better contract. I would have gone with him. But at the end of the day the difference between the two wasn’t a large one and it’s hard to fault NJ was picking Jefferson.

Other Thoughts

Should the Nets have signed Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin?

And lock themselves into a Kidd-RJ-Martin trio? That core wasn’t taking the Nets anywhere. They’d gone as far as they could go. They were a second tier team, always were, the East was just weak back then and at the time it had begun to get a lot stronger (Heat, Pistons, Pacers).

At the time, and looking back now, I thought the Nets made the right decision in deciding that core wouldn’t get them back to the Finals.

Should the Nets have tried to trade Richard Jefferson at an earlier date?

Yes, that looks like it would have been the Nets best option. They badly needed a high level talent on the interior to boost their defense + balance their perimeter heavy ball club.

The Kerry Kittles decision

Kerry Kittles played a total of 11 games after leaving New Jersey before retiring. They made the right decision in moving him.

If memory serves, the Nets traded Kittles to the Clippers for cap relief + trade exception + a second round draft pick. Kittles was entering the final year of his contract at the time so he was an expiring contract.

Could the Nets have better used Kittles in a trade? For talent instead of cap relief? He was an expiring contract after all. Kittles was earning around $9-$9.5 million at the time. So he could have netted an impact player in a trade. Actually, the Raptors probably would have demanded that expiring contract otherwise. So no loss.

Although, they would have gotten a trade exception so that opportunity wasn’t totally lost (somewhat lost).  I don’t think the Nets ever used the trade exception. They should have used that trade exception to bring in another impact player.

How about New Jersey’s other spending habits? How good a job did they do adding quality players to their core’s supporting cast?

  • A number of mistakes, some solid decisions, not great acquisitions.
  • Alonzo Mourning — Zo was just coming back from a kidney transplant. He played only 12 games in his first season after signing for the MLE. By the time his second season came about the Nets had begun trying to remake their team. Zo left in the Vince Carter trade.
  • Ron Mercer — The Kerry Kittles replacement who only played 10-15 games
  • Jason Collins — A four year $24 million contract for a limited center.
  • Marc Jackson — Acquired in a trade when he was earning almost $5 million a year with two years left on his deal … this is how you end up in financial difficulty
  • Jeff McInnis — coming off a very good season with the Cavs and the idea was that he’d be the quality backup point guard that they’d lacked since Anthony Johnson left. It didn’t work out at all … but I can’t fault the choice. I liked the move at the time. McInnis lasted 30 games before leaving (kicked off) the team.
  • Cliff Robinson — good replacement for the loss of Rodney Rogers a few year and change earlier.
  • Brian Scalabrine — Choose not to pay him the $15 million Boston offered. Good decision.

The Nets payroll versus salary cap

Information taken from basketball-reference.com

  • 2003/04 — $52 million in payroll versus $43.8 million cap
  • 2004/05 — Approximately $52 million in payroll versus $43.8 million cap
  • 2005/06 — $67 million in payroll versus a $49.5 million cap
  • 2006/07 — $64 million in payroll versus $53 million cap

So it wasn’t that the Nets were being cheap and wouldn’t pay for talent. They just weren’t using their finances prudently.

Key role players weren’t replaced

  • Anthony Johnson — primary backup point guard — was not replaced (Jacque Vaughn, Travis Best, Jeff McInnis, Marcus Williams)
  • Kerry Kittles — high level role player — Vince Carter replaced him as the starting SG but he was really replacing Kenyon Martin as the Nets third high level talent.
    So was a high level role player acquired to play power forward? No, not for a lack of trying though. Jason Collins took over the PF role but he wasn’t nearly as effective as Kittles was. So no, Kittles was not replaced.
  • Lucious Harris — main backup wing — not replaced (Rodney Buford, Eddie House, Antoine Wright). Nachbar, to a decent degree, replaced him two years later.
  • Rodney Rogers — key rotation player 3/4 — Cliff Robinson replaced him 18 months after leaving. So slowly but surely. Nachbar took over some of Uncle Cliffy’s responsibilities in his final year there.
  • Aaron Williams — main backup big man — not replaced (Mourning?, Marc Jackson, Mikki Moore, Jamaal Magloire, Josh Boone)

Not a single one of these role players where replaced by a superior talent.

If the Nets had of replaced their supporting cast to better effect … how good of a team could they have been?

They could have been a 50+ win team. A 55+ win team? Yeah, I think so.

A contender? An outside contender. Not a frontrunner but a team that has a chance at making a run if it gets friendly/lucky run of events.

How about the Nets draft picks?

  • 2002 — #24 — Nenad Krstic
  • 2003 — #22 — Zoran Planinic
  • 2004 — draft pick traded (#22 — Khryapa) for Eddie Gill
  • 2005 — #15 — Antoine Wright
  • 2006 — #22 + #23 — Marcus Williams + Josh Boone
  • 2007 — #17 — Sean Williams

Krstic is the only player on that list that you’d call a good pick. One good pick in six years (seven first rounders). No notable second round picks either (Hassan Adams, Mile Ilic, Tamar Slay). Poor drafting contributed to the Nets lack of talent.

New Jersey have done a much better job in the draft since rebuilding with the selections of Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson, Chris Douglas Roberts and Terrence Williams.

Phil Jackson quote … came across in a Lawrence Frank sacked article

Across the hallway in the Lakers locker room Phil Jackson was reminded of the time he nearly took the Nets head coaching job in 1999, before agreeing to coach the Lakers.

“The offer was the best offer I’ve ever gotten as a coach, but they didn’t have what a team needs to succeed; a heartland, a fan base and an energy source,” said Jackson, who lost 15 games in a row as a Nets assistant coach in 1981. “I don’t even know if New Jersey has their own television station, they get most of their feeds from New York and Philadelphia.”

Main Reason For Decline?

Was it ownership or management? Looks like management to me.

  • Poor uses of finances
  • Unbalanced teams
  • Poor supporting casts
  • Poor draft records
  • Lack of quality signings through free agency
  • Lack of quality trades

Even with a so-so ownership … the Nets management team, and Rod Thorn in particular, had more than enough resources to put a much better Nets team on the floor post-Kenyon Martin. Management’s failures were the largest cause for the Nets mediocre performances.

Final Thoughts

I can’t believe the amount of negativity that surrounds the Nets these days

  • NJ is brilliantly positioned to build a very good t0 excellent basketball team over the next couple of years.
  • They’ve rebuilt their roster remarkably quick — it wasn’t even two years ago when Jason Kidd left. Only a season and change since RJ left. Only a few months since Vince left — the amount of talent that they’ve assembled + the opportunities to improve in the future (draft, free agency, trades) is incredible.
  • The Nets have some good talent on that roster — Brook Lopez, Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas Roberts and Terrence Williams.
  • New Jersey’s front office should be applauded for their work over the past two years

Also, the Nets will play better as the season progresses. Whatever is going on now is the opposite of a perfect storm and it’ll pass. They have some nice young talent on their roster along with some hard working veterans (Alston, Dooling, Hassell, Simmons, Najera) and some decent young players (Yi, Boone, Williams). They have enough talent to be a 25-32 win team and that will show as the season continues.

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  1. Good analysis. Especially agree with the wrap-up paragraph.

  2. Dave,

    I agree with your take on New Jersey’s prospects moving forward from here.

    It’s a VERY GOOD situation for the right head coach to step into this coming summer.

  3. BTW …

    1. I do not agree that several of those personnel moves which the Nets made were for the worst.

    2. If they would have simply held onto Vince Carter this past summer, New Jersey would probably be in the thick of the battle for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as this season continues to unfold.

    3. What Rod Thorn & Co. have done recently is a classic case of “short term” pain in exchange for “long term” gain.

    If I had to bet today, my money would be placed on Rod Thorn & Co. to eventually be able to successfully extricate the Nets from this current mess.

  4. Very good run down on GM Rod Thorn’s moves over at Nets Daily.

    That Kerry Kittles trade exception ($10 million) was actually used … it was the tool that allowed the Nets to acquire Clifford Robinson + the remainder was used to acquire Marc Jackson. I was wondering what happened to that trade exception, I didn’t think they’d used it.

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