The experiment failed.
The Brooklyn Nets’ season ended Wednesday at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat, who rather coolly and calmly fended off an epic Joe Johnson performance to triumph in their Eastern Conference semifinals series 4-1. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s first season in Brooklyn ended the same way as James’ first season in South Beach: without a championship ring.
This was an entirely different situation, though, which is why the failure was so unmistakable. At least in 2011, Miami was a team in its prime, with at least three more chances at a title. As Nets general manager Billy King stated back in training camp, “This is our window, this season.” For all intents and purposes, for this batch of Nets players, this was it.
The Heat’s dominance in the series laid waste to Brooklyn’s belief that constructing a roster stacked with stars of past and present could contend with the game’s elite player. Pure excellence trumps depth, and that is why Pierce and Garnett’s futures are now so uncertain. Rare is that single, dominant player who can will his team to victory, as James is. If they want a shot at another ring, they will have to do it on some other star’s terms.
Pierce is a free agent, which means he is either due for a huge pay cut or he is stuck with Brooklyn, which owns his Bird rights and therefore is the only team that can give him a contract anywhere near the $15.3 million he made this season. Garnett has one more season at $12 million remaining, but Garnett will retire when he wants, not when his contract says he should. They were part of a $180 million spending spree by the Nets that resulted in barely surviving a first-round series against the Toronto Raptors and a swift five-game ouster to the Heat.
That is not much of a return on investment.
Still, the Nets can’t easily blow things up and start over, although owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s bottomless bank account provides more options for Brooklyn than the typical team. Deron Williams, the scoreless avenger, has $22.3 million remaining in the last year of his contract — in 2017. Johnson, who was tremendous in Game 5, will continue to be paid tremendously for another two seasons.
In other words, Williams and Johnson aren’t going anywhere. Prokhorov might be fine paying such massive salaries (and the accompanying luxury taxes), but no other owner will do the same. Ridding themselves of Pierce’s salary will ease the pain financially, but collective bargaining rules would prevent the Nets from signing a similarly paid free agent. If they want to continue to chase the Heat, they will likely have to add to, not replace, their current roster.
The problem is, the Nets aren’t close. The beatdown at the hands of the Heat illustrated that. No mid-tier free agent will make up the vast gulf between Miami and Brooklyn, and Pierce and Garnett might not be keen on another hard season at their ages without the possibility of a title. That was why they agreed to leave Boston, after all.
Pierce still wants to play, and Garnett has shown that he still can, in a certain role. But they can’t play to the level they once did, or to the level the Nets required this season, to be a true championship contender. Now, after this failed experiement, it remains for them to decide if it’s worth another shot, under slightly different conditions, whether in Brooklyn or anywhere else.