It’s funny how a concept as black-and-white as winning and losing can be so nebulous.
The Brooklyn Nets think they can still win. General manager Billy King said so in the wake of the news that center Brook Lopez will miss the remainder of the season with a broken bone in his right foot. Coach Jason Kidd said so as his seat began to get toasty through a 5-14 start to the season. The players said so as early-season injuries and losses continued to mount.
Of course, they are right, to a degree. The Nets can still win — a game here and there, maybe a first-round playoff series, if they get a favorable seed by way of winning the atrocious Atlantic Division — but that’s not the sort of “winning” they were thinking of when they made the blockbuster moves of the last several summers.
Mikhail Prokhorov did not move the franchise from New Jersey for Brooklyn for this type of winning. He did not take on Joe Johnson‘s enormous contract for this type of winning. He did not acquire two future Hall of Famers in the twilights of their careers for this type of winning.
These Nets were brought together to win it all, and now that winning it all is no longer a possibility, they must break it up. It’s not too early. It’s not panicking. It’s just realistic.
There is no concern about Prokhorov being able to eat the $190 salary bill, including luxury tax payments, and even trading away Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett is not likely to bring back the picks or young players necessarily to jumpstart a typical rebuilding process. The Nets’ season is far from doomed. If they do put together some sort of run in the new year — which is entirely possible once Deron Williams finds his legs, Pierce’s hand heals and Andrei Kirilenko gets back onto the court — Garnett will glower at the naysayers and the team will pat itself on the back about keeping the faith.
Then April or May will come, and the Nets will watch the late rounds of the playoffs from the same place as you or I — from a couch. That’s not what Pierce and Garnett were brought to Brooklyn for. That’s not why Kirilenko was pried away from a more lucrative contract with Minnesota. That’s not why Kidd sent assistant coach Lawrence Frank to his room over philosophical differences. The goal was a title. As long as a title was the remotest of possibilities, every dollar spent and coaching blunder made was tolerable. With that goal lost, nothing is tolerable expect a fire sale.
The rest of the league is already gearing up for the event. The Rockets reportedly offered Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin for Williams last week. As absurd as such an offer is, given the Nets’ circumstances, they wouldn’t have been crazy to take it. Yes, Williams puts them closer to title contention than Asik and Lin do No, the Nets aren’t really that close for the difference to matter much anyway. Even if the Nets, who won four out of five games early in December, find something resembling a rhythm, teams will keep calling with trade proposals that amount to pennies on the dollar, because there’s blood in the East River. They can see it even from Houston.
That’s why, in this case, “blowing it up” doesn’t mean trying to shed money or accumulate draft picks. Neither is possible given Brooklyn’s payroll situation or the widely held sentiment about the strength of the upcoming draft. Instead, the Nets need to double down. Poaching the market for Asik, Lin, Evan Turner, Carlos Boozer or whoever else is available might be foolhardy in most instances, but for the Nets, it is the only option.
They gambled that stockpiling high-priced yet flawed stars was the most expedient approach to a championship. They were wrong with this iteration, but they’ve gone too far down this road now. There’s no way out, only a path that goes deeper and more uncertainly into luxury tax territory.
Throughout the first month of the season, as they wallowed at the bottom of the standings, the Nets told anyone who would listen that their best-case scenario was still in their back pocket. Once they got healthy, they said, and the many disparate parts they brought together started to get familiar with each other, this team could scare anyone in the playoffs — Miami and Indiana included.
Now, they scare no one and will continue to scare no one. Lopez isn’t walking through that door. He’s not walking any place, in fact. Indiana is only getting better and the Heat are reminding people why they are two-time defending champs.
The best-case scenario for the Nets now? A playoff berth, possibly, plus enough grind-it-out wins to give columnists fodder to write about Pierce and Garnett refusing to go down without a fight. In a lot of places — Cleveland, Charlotte, Toronto or even Boston this year — that might qualify as a “winning” season.
In Brooklyn? In 2013-14? Anything that doesn’t end with a ring is a failure. The longer the Nets keep the roster as currently constructed, the longer they delay the inevitability of ending a do-or-die season without a trophy. They threw something against the wall hoping it would stick. It didn’t. So it’s time to throw something else.