Should the Nets stretch Deron Williams?

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Brooklyn’s final day before summer break was more notable for who didn’t show up than who did.

Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young discussed their looming free agency. Joe Johnson wondered aloud if it was all over. Lionel Hollins imagined a more athletic, stable roster. Two days later, Billy King talked priorities, trade rumors, and faced criticism for the team’s struggles.

But one person’s silence spoke volumes: Nets guard Deron Williams, who was requested but did not speak with the media on the team’s final day of availability. He had just polished off the least productive season of his career since he was a rookie, and did not face questions about his uncertain future.

If Williams wanted to stay in Brooklyn and fix what’s devolved into an uneasy partnership, he had a chance to make that proclamation. All that’s left is what we heard from the rest of the team, that they might be headed for a breakup.

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It should be noted that when it comes to points per possession, the Nets have been at their best with Williams on the floor since they moved to Brooklyn. That’s not so much an outlandish proclamation as it is a fact: the Nets have simply been better with Williams at the helm over the past three years than when he is on the bench.

It’s also not a compliment. Brooklyn’s best this season has been uninspiring and average, and Williams’s ability to lift the Nets from doldrums to dull decency is not a selling point for a player on a maximum contract. Add in Williams’s lengthy injury history, declining production, and shaky confidence, and it’s not hard to see why the Nets are trying to sell low.

The Nets will explore the market for Williams, as they have diligently for the past year. Back in December, the Nets discussed a deal with the Sacramento Kings for Williams, but balked when the Kings asked for Mason Plumlee. Plumlee’s decline since has likely scared the Kings off, and though King said that he had an opportunity to move some of his bigger contracts at the deadline, no serious offers have been made public since.

But for Brooklyn, their best option might be to cut and run.

If there are no realistic offers on the table and Williams does not agree to a buyout, the Nets could decide to outright waive Williams using the “stretch” provision, which would allow him to play somewhere else and give the Nets short-term flexibility.

If the Nets decide to stretch Williams’s contract between July 1st and August 31st, the remaining ~$43 million on his contract this year and next year will be “stretched” over five years. If they stretch him after August 31st, they’ll pay him the full amount of his salary next season, then stretch his last year — worth around $22 million — over the next three years. Here’s the different salary scenarios in chart form:

Williams (AP)
Williams (AP)
If the Nets and Williams have committed to a split, there’s one big advantage to spreading the cap hit over multiple years. The Nets have been over the tax threshold in each of the last two years, and if they do it again, they’ll be in “repeater tax” territory, a punitive tax that adds an extra dollar for every dollar spent over the tax. To put that in perspective, Brooklyn’s record-annihilating $193 million salary+tax bill in the 2013-14 season would’ve been just under $225 million with the repeater tax. That’s about four times that season’s salary cap.

The Nets have looked to cut costs following that record-setting year, and if they decide to stretch Williams’s contract this offseason, they’d shave close to $13 million off their cap. That’s not insignificant: it would allow them to sign Brook Lopez to a near-max deal[note]A max deal for Lopez would start at around $18.9 million.[/note], retain Thaddeus Young to a contract around $10 million per season, and still hover around the tax, expected to be just under $82 million by the NBA’s latest projections.

The Nets are in a near-impossible position, and like any solution, stretching Williams is an imperfect band-aid. They would need to find a decent replacement, only made more difficult if they’re committed to bringing back Young & Lopez. Average point guards don’t grow on tree-lined blocks in Park Slope, & normally can’t be plucked from the waiver wire. Williams’s exacerbated issues don’t change the fact that the team was among the league’s worst in net rating with Jarrett Jack as their point guard.

They’d still need to decide what to do with Mirza Teletovic, who could get an offer his agent can’t refuse on the open market. They’d probably be unable to do anything but sign minimum players if they don’t want to go over the tax, unless they found a taker for Johnson or Jack on the cheap.

It would also keep Williams on their books long-term, which they may not want. Remember, the Nets were still paying Travis Outlaw $4 million through this past season, which didn’t really matter when they were peering down at the salary cap from Luxury Tax Mountain[note]Luxury Tax Mountain looks roughly like Scrooge McDuck’s lair.[/note], but could be a factor if they’re looking to sign free agents. The Nets could decide to just bite the bullet on Williams, offer him a buyout or keep him through the end of his contract, and start fresh in two years.

But if the Nets are committed to getting under the tax this season and maintaining flexibility, stretching Williams might be their best bet at doing so.

Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the dates for use of the stretch provision, reporting that the Nets would have to use the provision before July 1st for it to apply for next season. They could use it any time before August 31st for it to apply for next year. The error has been fixed.