Brooklyn nets huge win in blockbuster gamble

Jason Terry
JET Terry. (AP)
Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett
Brooklyn Nets. (AP)

If you’re just waking up to the news, the Brooklyn Nets have traded Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, a signed-and-traded Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph, three first-round draft picks (2014, 2016, 2018), and the right to swap first-round picks in 2017 to the Boston Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry. The deal will not be official until July 10th and there’s a chance that minor pieces could change, but the important framework is rock-solid.

If Nets general manager Billy King wasn’t considered the league’s leading gambler, just put a World Series of Poker hat on him now. He gambled that he could turn around a team that won 12 games into a championship contender. He gambled that mortgaging the team’s future was worth Deron Williams. He gambled that Gerald Wallace would help Williams stay. He gambled that Joe Johnson would be worth trading flotsam for. He gambled that all of these moves would lead to a contract extension. He gambled on turning a player that retired ten days earlier into his team’s head coach.

Now he’s gambling that his head coach can squeeze one more year of productivity out of two aging Hall of Famers, one that has never seen a home uniform that wasn’t green, and hopefully help Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov stave off marriage.

Whether or not that gamble wins isn’t the point. By making the gamble, they’ve already won. The deal proves once again that the Nets are willing to spend for their roster and for their players, focusing on talent over saving, focusing even more tightly on the now that matters to them.

(For the record: the Nets didn’t use one cent on buying draft picks in the second round, and though this is purely speculation, don’t be surprised to see $3 million in cash added to this deal for Boston.)

First things first: even if only for a year, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are massive upgrades for the Nets at their two weakest positions. Not even the staunchest critic of this deal would argue against that. Comparing Evans to Garnett is almost laughable; Evans is a lovely human being with a legendary beard, a historic rebounder, and an underrated defender, but the Celtics were a league-best defense with Garnett on the floor (allowing just 96.2 points per 100 possessions), and Garnett is one of the league’s best midrange shooters. Evans is best suited for spot duty in a backup role, and earned the starting spot in Brooklyn because Kris Humphries played like a succubus was stealing his life force. Garnett is a legitimate starter, even at 37.

As for Wallace & Pierce, there’s no other way to write this: Pierce is a massive offensive upgrade over Wallace in nearly every conceivable way. Pierce holds a significant edge over Wallace in true shooting percentage and usage rate, and Pierce’s methodical game ages far more gracefully than Wallace’s non-stop franticity. Pierce is a crafty sharpshooter that shot 38% from beyond the arc last season, while Wallace shot an NBA-worst 27.3% from outside the paint.

If Kidd wanted Wallace to function as a facilitator forward, he’s got to be salivating at the idea of Pierce, who turned the ball over fewer times per possession and who’s assist rate last season (25.1) nearly doubled Wallace’s (13.3), even though Pierce was his team’s primary scoring option. Pierce probably isn’t the defender Wallace is, but is a better defensive rebounder, and the huge gulf in offensive production more than makes up for that difference.

Putting both players on the floor creates spacing opportunities the Nets just never had this season. Pierce can shoot from nearly anywhere — he shot 41% on spot-up threes this season, and at least 36% from every three-point zone besides the right corner (only 16 attempts) — and Garnett’s midrange touch makes him one of the league’s few viable threats from the 16-23 foot range.

With Wallace and Evans on the floor, the Nets were doomed to “3-on-5” ball, particularly in the playoffs. Not this year. The Nets now have a wealth of offensive options unlike any they’ve seen before, with former All-Stars at all five positions with synergetic skillsets. With Williams running the show, Lopez and Garnett interchanging between post-ups and pick-and-pops, and Pierce and Johnson interchanging between spotting up and wing-facilitating, the Nets have an opportunity to shatter last year’s ninth-best offense.

Garnett’s potential impact on the team’s defense can’t go unnoticed, either. Defense comes naturally to Garnett in a way that it doesn’t for any other Nets player; his spatial awareness, aged nimbleness, and length make him an elite shot-stopper and team defender. A team that finished 18th in defensive efficiency is adding the player made one of the league’s biggest on-off court defensive impacts.

JET Terry. (AP)
The third piece in this deal — the one that’ll barely be talked about, considering that there are two Hall of Famers coming to Brooklyn — is Terry, who will fill in the hole left by C.J. Watson’s departure, presuming the Nets don’t flip him elsewhere. Like Watson, Terry is more of a shooter than a facilitator; Terry has recorded more three-point attempts than assists in every season since 2007-08, shooting at a steady 37% clip in nearly every season. Terry’s role won’t change much in Brooklyn — they’ll rely on him to occasionally run the offense, but mostly play him off the ball and look for spot-up three-pointers for him.

Basically: think an older Watson, with better shot celebrations.

Of course, this all hinges on the control of new head coach Jason Kidd, who is also new to head coaching in every way. Kidd’s learning curve just got a little steeper with this move: the Nets can’t wait for him to develop into an all-star coach anymore. He’s got to be able to manage a widely disparate bunch of personalities: the fiercely intense Garnett, the goofy but focused Lopez, the enigmatic Williams and Pierce, and the calm, collected Johnson just make up the starting five alone. How Kidd manages the relationship and minutes of Garnett and Lopez alone could swing the season in any number of directions.

Kidd preached his desire to instill an up-tempo style, one that’s nearly impossible with a lineup that features Garnett, Pierce, Lopez, and Johnson. He’ll have to manage the minutes of older players, after being an older player himself whose minutes were mismanaged. Kidd may be better off leaving the defensive scheming to Garnett and new lead assistant Lawrence Frank, and focusing more on devising an offense that floats Garnett around the elbow, Johnson & Pierce on the wings, Lopez in the post, and Williams poking and prodding everywhere else.

Critics of this trade say the Nets mortgaged their future, to which I say: what future exactly? The Nets didn’t trade away MarShon Brooks (though he’s still quite expendable) (edit: they did), Tornike Shengelia, Tyshawn Taylor, Bojan Bogdanovic, or new draftee Mason Plumlee, and none of those guys are considered crucial pieces. The only contract they sent away that makes a dent in their cap was Gerald Wallace’s, who was overpaid anyway. The Nets are giving up two picks that likely won’t be in the lottery (2014 and 2016) and a pick in 2018 that’s impossible to forecast. Kris Humphries made about as much noise in the Nets rotation as I did. I love Keith Bogans as a “3 and D” guy, and I’ll miss Evans as a backup dearly, but the Nets did nothing but improve last night.

The Nets didn’t change anything about who they were with this deal, they just improved on it. They didn’t mortgage their future, nor did they turn into instant contenders. They just turned their short-term window into an even shorter-term. Pierce’s contract is set to expire after this season, while Garnett’s contract is fully guaranteed for two years (the second of which he’ll be 38 in). The Nets shed Wallace’s contract for 2015-16 without taking on any additional salary for that year.

While they’re still a step below the Heat — and who isn’t? — they’re a much more serious threat to contend with the rest of the East than the team that lost a seven-game series at home to a decimated Chicago Bulls roster in the first round this season. The division is all about the Nets and Knicks now, and the fight for the division victory — and the four games between the two sqauds — will be nothing short of spectacular.

The Nets were an interesting team last year for their cultural cachet: they were just breaking ground in Brooklyn as the hot new squad on Flatbush Avenue. The team itself was boring and predictable, with an offensive scheme based on isolating their three best players and a defensive scheme based on Brook Lopez’s energy level on that particular play.

Now, with a new coach and All-Stars at all five positions, with so much room for improvement on a 49-win team and the weathered steel dripping off Barclays Center, it’s finally the team itself that’ll be the story. They’ll be exciting and fascinating and intensified and just fun to watch in a way they just weren’t last year. I can’t wait.