My Take On Ben Couch’s Interview With Kiki Vandeweghe

Kiki Vandeweghe has been with the Nets for 18 months now, so Ben Couch decided to sit down with the Nets’ General Manager and ask him a few questions.  It is broken down into two parts (part 1 and part 2 here) and it is a great read for any Nets fan.  Ben Couch also put together a complete list of all the moves Kiki has been involved in.  Ben asked some great questions, and some of Kiki’s answers really got my wheels spinning (These are bits and pieces from Kiki’s answers.  Again to see the complete answers check out Part 1 and Part 2 of Ben Couch’s interview): Looking back at the past 18 months, how do you feel about where the team is now — and where it could go — relative to its position when you joined back in December 2007?

It’s difficult to replace great players, but our players were getting older. And in 18 months, we’ve gone from a sort of older team that did not have any cap flexibility and no real good way to improve to a team that has four or five really good young players who can play together for a long time, great cap flexibility – probably as much or more than anybody in the league – some extra draft picks. We also lowered the cost of the team and moved all the real big long-term contracts. We’ve got shorter term contracts at lower numbers, which is where you need to be if you want to improve, so I would say we’re as well-positioned as anybody in the league to improve in a very short time.

I like our young players very much: Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Jarvis Hayes, Yi Jianlian, Brook Lopez, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Terrence Williams and Josh Boone, who are all young and all have big upside; they’re good players now, but they can continue to improve. I like our veteran group: Rafer Alston, Eduardo Najera, Keyon Dooling, Bobby Simmons, the addition of Tony Battie, Trenton Hassell. I like our group, we’ve got a nice mix of players.

Improving in these challenging economic times, it’s about flexibility, and I would say we’ve got as much flexibility as anybody. We’ve done a 180 and we’ve done it about as quick as I’ve seen it done. And it’s been great working with Rod — I’ve learned a ton already. It’s a tremendous opportunity for me to be a part of this. To me, the way I personally look at it, the real work begins now because you’ve created the opportunities to improve. Now you’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities: you’ve got to use your extra draft picks wisely, you’ve got to use your cap space wisely. That doesn’t come around all the time. But these are opportunities and I think that if history is any indicator, with rod and myself, we’ll be able to do some good things.

I know that fans want their teams to be competitive every year, but it is the GM’s job to pay attention to the future.  Kiki is a great GM that understood Nets weren’t going to reach their ultimate goal with the current roster they had, so he (along with Rod Thron) decided to rebuild.  It is also comforting to know that Kiki and Rod don’t think the job is done, and that there is work to do.  I think they have made a ton of great personel decisions so far (I still think we have the best young core in the NBA), and I hope they continue to draft well for the next couple of years and add that one free-agent who will be able to put us over the top. With all that in mind, how would you respond to a fan concerned about the team on the floor this year?

Kiki Vandeweghe: I would say we had Vince Carter and we didn’t make the playoffs, so that limited our ways to improve. If you’re going to keep him again and just miss the playoffs again … that’s not where we want to be. Last year, I was very proud of the guys; they played extremely hard. But I think we went as far as we could. Now we have a very young team, and I think an exciting team that is going to play hard every single night and I think can be more competitive – last year they picked us to be last in the league (and we weren’t).

Everybody always says, ‘Well, you traded away a great older player,’ and it’s difficult to get better trading away, in the short-term. but unfortunately, players don’t last forever. Although I think Vince can be a great player for two, three more years — however long — he’s a tremendous athlete, tremendous talent, but unfortunately for us, we didn’t have the flexibility to improve to take advantage of that. We got to trade Vince to a championship-caliber team where he’ll do very well and have a long playoff run next year, and that fits his time horizon as a player. And we got a real good young player in Courtney Lee, who’s going to be with us for a very long time, and that fits for us. Plus, we got all the cap flexibility of of Carter’s contract coming off, and you can utilize that. It’s always tough trading good older players, because they’ve done so much in their careers. But it’s nice when you can reward them and send them to a good place.

When the Nets traded Vince Carter, many fans were up in arms claiming it as a salary dump.  While in a sense it is one (because that is what naturally happens when you trade an old vet for some younger players), it is comforting to hear Kiki tell Nets fans that the trade wasn’t an economical decision.  It was a decision made knowing that the Nets weren’t going anywhere with Vince, so they decided to trade him away and get younger. One more — what other team turnarounds would you offer examples of how this process could prove successful, and soon?

Kiki Vandeweghe: Certainly Boston’s an example where you’ve got one tremendous player who just changed your equation. They developed some good young players and traded one of their best young players (in Al Jefferson) for a great star (in Kevin Garnett) to add with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. And just from personal experience, my last job was Denver, and we won 17 games one year. But we made the playoffs the next year, winning 43 games, and they’ve been good, winning close 50 games ever since — the team was built to last. Whether you make it to the Conference Finals or not, you know you’re going to be in the playoffs and be competitive every night, maybe one good player away, but you’re there.

So you look at that, you look at Phoenix, where they sort of tore it down and built it up over a couple years. Those are examples of teams that have done it. But Boston, that was a four- or five-year process to get to that. Obviously, you’d love to have the success they had at the end, but we hope we don’t have to take that long to do it.

I don’t really agree with Kiki when he says our process reminds him of Boston.  For one, we don’t really have a veteran star around our young guys (like when Boston had Paul Pierce).  I also don’t think that the Nets will be able to trade our young guys for players like Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, as those two trades were completely lop-sided in my opinion.  I am glad we aren’t like Boston though, because their window will be closing soon.  Their core is aging, and injuries are going to happen (like KG’s last year).

I love the comparision to Denver though, and I think it is a resonable one.  Denver was god-awful, and they developed a solid team mostly through the draft.  They then added a few key parts (Chauncey Billups being the biggest), and now they should be competitive for years to come.

I just hope that the Nets are going to be able to add that one special player (hopefully he comes via free-agency next year) that will put everything together.