Both of these deals were long a formality; the Nets have publicly committed to building around Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young since the buzzer sounded in Game 6, and every sign in the last month pointed to the Nets cornering the Lopez & Young market early in free agency.
More analysis to come in the coming days, but the shorthand: Lopez was always getting a max or near-max deal to drop 20 points every night and shop at Bergen Comics for at least a few more years. He dominated the second half of the season to the tune of 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, and the team liked how he played off Young. Signing on for three years instead of five gives Lopez the chance to opt out when he’s 30 and reap the rewards of the NBA’s cap spike when it’s peaking at over $100 million. This also comes with the Lopez-sized caveat that he needs to remain healthy, and it’s likely the Nets have taken out injury protections on his deal.
Young gives the franchise talent at the power forward position that they’ve sorely lacked in Brooklyn beyond Kevin Garnett’s defensive barking, and at a relatively good price. Forget about last year’s cap and start thinking forward: if you normalize Young’s deal for the rising cap, paying him around $13 million in his last two seasons — again, the cap is expected to hover over $100 million — would be the equivalent of paying him $8 million this past season. That’s less than the $9.5 million he actually made. A starting-quality power forward at that price is more than fair value. Overpay now to underpay later.
What that’s going to earn the team is another matter entirely. A Lopez-Young-Johnson-Brown-Williams starting five showed flashes last year, outscoring opponents by a robust 8.9 points per 100 possessions[note]In a small sample size of just over 250 minutes.[/note], but much of that time came beating up on weaker competition. Add in that Williams and Johnson could be on the way out in offseason trades, and just re-signing Young & Lopez doesn’t even guarantee a playoff run in the weaker Eastern Conference. It’s a low ceiling for a $110 million splash.
The Nets have, perhaps quietly and in the shadow of the Knicks, begun making moves to compete down the road. Lopez & Young are both 27 with skills that don’t rely on youth & athleticism, and the Nets used the NBA Draft to pick two 19-year-olds and one 20-year-old sophomore with room to develop. Keeping Lopez & Young at these prices allow them to remain competitive for the playoffs now, while still holding onto developing talent.
Assume the hope is that they can start fresh in the next two years with a relatively young core of Lopez, Young, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, Bojan Bogdanovic, Sergey Karasev, Markel Brown, and Cory Jefferson,[note]Or some combination thereof, since one or more of these guys might get shipped off with Joe Johnson or Deron Williams.[/note] with enough cap space to pursue big names when the cap rises next offseason and beyond. There’s no championship banners to be raised here anytime soon, but they’ll at least stick around the playoff race with whatever veterans they have, and slink away from a core that just didn’t work out as well as they’d planned.
For now, keeping Lopez & Young does guarantee that they’ll win more games than if they cut them loose, and at this point, that’s all that really matters. It would’ve been ballsy for the Nets to let both of them go and go into super-dismantle mode, but it also would’ve been defeatist: the Nets only had around $7 million in cap room to work with if they renounced Young, Lopez, and Mirza Teletovic,[note]A reminder that Deron Williams and Joe Johnson make up close to 69% of next year’s estimated salary cap alone, and any deal the Nets make to trade them will likely involve getting nearly the same back in salary.[/note] getting rid of both undoubtedly makes them worse, and they don’t have their 2016 draft pick[note]That goes to the Boston Celtics as part of the Garnett-Pierce deal.[/note] as an inverse prize for a spiral.
If there’s criticism to be dug from this groundwork, it’s that the Nets planted these seeds years ago, not that they’re watering them now.