Nets fans: I know you must be confused. The Nets dump Richard Jefferson, in a clear rebuilding move ... and then turn around and sign three veteran free agents and trade one of their young guys?
Does this really make any sense?
Actually, it does, believe it or not. But it might take a while to get there, so let's get started.
Team president Rod Thorn and GM Kiki Vandeweghe are operating with two separate goals in mind first, to get well under the cap in the summer of 2010, and second, to have as good a team as possible in the meantime.
The former is the great priority, so anything that accomplishes it is fair game, even if it hurts the product over the next two years. That's why you saw Jefferson traded on draft day, and that's why the Nets didn't get too heavily invested in making an offer to Boki Nachbar it would have required them to commit serious dough past 2010.
Right now, the only Nets scheduled to make meaningful money past 2010 are Vince Carter and Devin Harris. The other players due to be paid that year are Yi Jianlian, Brook Lopez, Ryan Anderson, and Sean Williams all of whom will be on rookie-scale contracts and Josh Boone, who will be a restricted free agent if he isn't extended prior to that point.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the Nets are well-positioned to get far enough under the cap to make a run at the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh in 2010, with James clearly the top target in light of his cozy relationship with part-owner Jay-Z.
That part of the game has been well-known for a while. But the Nets also will need to sell LeBron on the idea of coming to a team that wins games once in a while. And that, in turn, is why they've been emphasizing veteran help ever since the Jefferson trade.
Enter Eduardo Najera, the kind of meat-and-potatoes tough guy that Lawrence Frank will instantly love. He's 32 and has had some knee problems, but he was an inexpensive pickup, and even though he theoretically signed a four-year deal, much of the final two years aren't guaranteed in other words, the Nets can cut him if they find themselves needing more cap space for LeBron.
Enter Jarvis Hayes, who comes in on a two-year deal designed to have him off the cap just when the Nets make their free-agent push. Hayes can shoot the ball and serves as an inexpensive replacement for Nachbar, though he's not as accurate and might be even more flammable as a defender.
And enter Keyon Dooling, one of the best defensive guards in the game and one who played fairly passable offense a year ago for Orlando. He also comes in on a two-year deal, though in his case New Jersey paid a bit more for the privilege. He's not a natural point guard, and there might be some uncomfortable moments for fans watching him and Devin Harris run the show especially after half a decade of seeing Jason Kidd but he's a big improvement on Marcus Williams and he can back up Carter at off-guard too.
Speaking of Williams, he was jettisoned to Golden State Tuesday for a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2011 a date conveniently timed to add a rookie-scale salary just after the Nets make their big free agent plunge. Also, the market for Williams had dried up after his ragged play in his first two pro seasons, so this might have been the best the Nets could do anyway in what was basically a low-level salary dump.
And just like that, the Nets are pretty much done with their offseason. The team has 16 players on the roster at the moment one more than the maximum if you include unsigned restricted free agent Nenad Krstic and unsigned second-round draft pick Chris Douglas-Roberts. A couple of disposable players (hello, Mo Ager!) still loom as possible cuts, but basically this is what you'll be seeing in October.
And even without Jefferson and Kidd, they won't be half bad. Harris and Carter make for a nice backcourt. Small forwards Bobby Simmons and Hayes will at least knock down shots from the corners and give the others some breathing room. Yi Jianlian is an intriguing talent at power forward, and Najera can spell him when he's getting beat up. And in the middle, Boone and Lopez make a nice, young combo with some good upside, while Williams also has shown great potential.
So although the Nets' primary focus remains on the long term, there's at least hope for the short term too. No, they won't be talking about contending for the Eastern Conference title, and they probably don't project as a playoff team either.
But it's at least plausible to discuss the Nets as being a competitive team at a minimum one that should be at least as competitive as the squad from a year ago. That's not a bad place to start for a team that just traded two of its best three players to kick off a rebuilding effort.
It took a while, but NBA players and agents finally figured out a way around some of the salary cap's most restrictive rules. It's called Europe, and it's getting more popular by the day. The Nets already lost Boki Nachbar to an incredible offer from a team in Russia, and on Wednesday Josh Childress sent shock waves through the league by leaving for Olympiakos in Greece.
Coupled with high-schooler Brandon Jennings leaving for a team in Rome, it presents a decisive counterpunch to the league's rules that restrict free agent movement and rookie salaries and limit entry to players 19 and older. Instead, it's having the unintended consequence of allowing European clubs to poach good NBA players this summer alone the Europeans nabbed a top restricted free agent (Childress), an under-19 phenom (Jennings), and a would-be rookie confined by the rookie salary scale (Tiago Splitter, whose rights were held by San Antonio).
As I wrote last week, this is just the tip of the iceberg. If the NBA doesn't seriously rewrite the collective bargaining agreement in 2010, it's going to find itself increasingly raided for talent by overseas teams ... and lose some of its cachet in the process.