Solving Problems: Nets Need Another Scorer
The New Jersey Nets are in an interesting position. They have franchise players are arguably the two most difficult positions to fill, with Brook Lopez at center and Deron Williams at point guard. They also have cap space and a clear need to fill: the Nets need scoring. And they need it badly.
Word on the street is Williams plans on entering free agency (he can exercise an Early Termination Option before June 30, 2012) and the feeling is the Nets need to show some improvement as a team in order to be in the running to retain him. Money isn’t the issue here, because Williams is a bona fide maximum contract player and the Nets will make that offer at any time.
Between Williams and Lopez they average 40.5 points a game in 2010-11. That’s a healthy amount of points for two players, but it’s only about 40% of the total offense needed to win an average basketball game (more if you happen to be playing the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors or New York Knicks).
Last season the Nets had a very, very hard time coming up with points from the rest of the team. Their 94.2 points a game ranked 28th in the league (also, the Nets ranked 28th in field-goal percentage, 22nd in three-point percentage, and 19th in free throw percentage). The defense was average, giving up 100.4 points a night (15th), but when combining poor offense with average defense you don’t get a solid recipe for wins.
So where will these points come from? It’s possible both Lopez and Williams could score more, but that’s not a reasonable thing to rely on at this point. Now it’s time to take a closer look at the rest of the roster.
The Nets currently have nine players under contract for 2011-12, adding up to a total of $40.9 million. They can open two more roster spots by waiving Stephen Graham and Sundiata Gaines, who both have non-guaranteed contracts totaling a shade under $2 million. They traded their own first-round pick in the deal to get Williams, but used the Los Angeles Lakers’ pick (from the Sasha Vujacic trade) on forward JaJuan Johnson, whom they traded to the Boston Celtics for the rights to guard Marshon Brooks. As the 25th pick Brooks is eligible for a four-year contract starting at $1.14 million in 2011-12. Second-round pick Jordan Williams, a power forward from Maryland, seems likely to be signed as well (rookie minimum contracts cost less than $500,000).
Only Williams and Travis Outlaw make more than $4.0 million for 2011-12.
All told, the Nets could have 11 players totaling $42.5 million when the next free agency period starts (assuming a 2011-12 season does happen). Using the salary cap figure from 2010-11, that would give them $15.5 million in cap space, not including cap holds to unrestricted free agents Sasha Vujacic, Dan Gadzuric, Brandan Wright, Kris Humphries, Mario West and Ben Uzoh. Of that group, only Humphries figures to be a possible returnee.
It’s safe to say the Nets will be free agent players, and they should, if they desire, be in the running for a top-tier free agent.
But can they get scoring from the players they already have? Given Williams is a slasher and Lopez is an inside-out post player, it would be best to add this third scorer on the wing. It doesn’t make sense to expect much from Graham and Gaines if they are retained, and big man Johan Petro is not around for his scoring, so cross them off the list.
The first option to consider is Outlaw. New Jersey gave him a five-year deal worth $35 million last summer, expecting him to be a primary scoring option. He responded with the worst shooting percentages of his eight-year career despite playing more minutes than he ever had. Draft out of high school by the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s probably a safe bet to say now Outlaw is what he is, and what he is not is a reliable scorer. Next.
Jordan Farmar was not signed to score the ball. He is a solid reserve point guard and played well behind first Devin Harris and then Deron Williams while also proving more than adequate in a starting role when either player was injured. He works hard, he plays smart, and he can hit an outside shot, but he’s not a third-option scorer. Besides, as long as Williams is healthy Farmar will only come off the bench.
Anthony Morrow is another player the Nets gave a shot in free agency last summer. In slightly more minutes than a year earlier with the Golden State Warriors Morrow posted almost the exact same numbers. Morrow is a fantastic outside shooter and capable of putting up a lot of points in a hurry, but hasn’t proven to be reliable to give x amount of points on an every-game basis. Entering his fourth year in the NBA that could change, but the Nets can’t count on it.
That leaves second-year player Damion James and the rookie Brooks. James played just 25 games due to injury last year and never really had a chance to prove himself. He did average 18.0 points a game and shoot 50.1% from the field his senior year at Texas (and 38% from three-point range), so perhaps given a chance he could produce for the Nets. Brooks was second in the nation in scoring last season as a senior at Providence with 24.6 points per game.
Are either of them the answer? They could be, eventually, but like with Morrow and Outlaw, the Nets can’t afford to count on it if they want to show enough improvement to retain Williams.
Trades don’t seem likely for the Nets given their limited roster, unless a team willing to work an unbalance deal wants to dump a more expensive player to use the Nets’ cap space. Typically a player a team is willing to part with in that way isn’t one who is going to step in and make major contributions, so it’s in the team’s best interest to instead look to free agency.
However, one name they should seriously consider is Memphis Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo. A scorer who is smart and can play some defense, he doesn’t seem to be an ideal fit in Memphis anymore. Could the Nets put together a package the Grizzlies would like? In addition to being able to offer either Brooks or James – or both, perhaps – the Nets also have their own first-round pick in 2012 and Houston’s (from when they traded Terrence Williams to Houston last season). For a Memphis team already close to the cap before they re-sign center Marc Gasol and with other capable guards, it could be a tempting option.
Let’s assume the Nets keep their current roster and sign Williams and Brooks. Let’s also assume they re-sign Humphries to a reasonable contract starting in the $6 million range. That would leave them about $9 million or so to bring in a scorer on the wing (and yes, another big man, preferably a veteran, would be nice, but not THE priority). What’s out there?
Atlanta Hawks free agent Jamal Crawford is instant offense. He could step in at the shooting guard position and immediately give the Nets 20 points a game, plus handle point guard duties in a pinch. On the flip side he doesn’t play much defense at all and he just turned 31. A player who relies on his quickness, giving him a long-term contract could be questionable. If the new collective bargaining agreement limits contracts to three seasons that may not be an issue.
Denver Nuggets free agent J.R. Smith would have been an interesting option, but he signed a one-year deal in China with no out clause. If there is a 2011-12 NBA season it won’t include Smith, barring his being waived by his new team. However, there is another Nugget the Nets could go after: Arron Afflalo. A restricted free agent so Denver could match any offer, the Nets potentially could offer him a larger contract than the Nuggets are prepared to match. But is he the right fit? He can score and is a fantastic defensive guard, but is he a legit third option? That’s a question the Nets would need to answer before making that offer.
Another restricted free agent they could make a godfather-like offer to is the Sacramento Kings’ Marcus Thornton. He played well after being acquired from the New Orleans Hornets, but the Kings have plenty of guards already under contract and acquired Jimmer Fredette on draft day. Can they afford to match a sizeable offer to Thornton? Is he worth a sizable offer?
Nick Young is another restricted free agent, from Washington, who could be interesting. Like Thornton he has proven he can score in the NBA and the Wizards, with Jordan Crawford, may also be less inclined to match a good-sized offer sheet. Young and Thornton are similar in that they can score multiple ways and also aren’t quite as good defensively or moving the ball. That may not be the best fit with Williams, but it’s better than what Jersey has now.
One veteran who could make an instant impact is Orlando free agent Jason Richardson. Originally known for his ability to perform amazing feats of athleticism, over the years Richardson has become a better shooter and a smarter player. He’s also a year younger than Crawford, bigger, and a better defensive player (not great, but better).
One final name to consider could be Vince Carter. The Phoenix Suns figure to waive him on the first day of free agency (otherwise his $18.3 million contract is fully guaranteed), but would the Nets bring him back? And at 34 years old does it make sense? Perhaps not, but his name should still be on the list – just below everyone else already mentioned.
Adding one of these players to the core the Nets have already created wouldn’t instantly turn them into a contender, but it could at least put them in the playoff conversation, mark them as a team on the rise, and should be enough to convince Williams to sign a long-term contract with the franchise. That, really, is the key; it would validate the risk they took in trading power forward Derrick Favors, Harris, and the pick that would become center Enes Kanter to obtain Williams last February.