Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of the Brooklyn Nets in the wake of a Game 5 loss Wednesday night in Miami that ended their season in the second round:
1. What happened to the team that swept Miami during the regular season?
Rarely mentioned, whenever Brooklyn's 4-0 pre-playoffs record against Miami comes up, is the fact that three of those wins came by a total of three points. Beating the Heat four straight times obviously required a measure of good fortune.
This series, by contrast, was the far truer reflection of how the two teams measured up, with the Nets repeatedly falling (way) short in the fourth quarter -- despite all that veteran know-how -- in what was widely billed as a title-or-bust season.
That, of course, was the standard with a healthy Brook Lopez in the lineup. A first-round exit to the inexperienced Toronto Raptors, given Brooklyn's infamous $190 million payroll, would have put this season in a completely different (and depressing) light ... but a second-round exit to the two-time reigning champions can be rationalized. Presumably even by moneybags owner Mikhail Prokhorov after the Nets played without Lopez for the past five months.
Jason Kidd, furthermore, went through at least two seasons’ worth of turmoil in his first-ever coaching campaign and hushed many skeptics along the way. He would undoubtedly benefit from a venerable former head coach at his side for seen-it-all guidance -- Paul Silas springs to mind as an ideal target -- but this has to go down as a excellent debut for a young prospect (in his new profession) who flashed undeniable upside in charge of a group that wasn't exactly easy to manage.
I know that these Nets aren’t getting any younger, but don’t forget how out of reach making the playoffs seemed when the Nets took a 10-21 record into their Jan. 2 game at Oklahoma City.
2. What happens now to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce?
It’s the obvious question in Brooklyn, but it’s also a tricky one to answer at this early juncture.
Assumptions that Garnett, who turns 38 next week, will retire after his least productive season are just that. No one really knows yet and KG has to consent to walk away from $12 million guaranteed next season, as well as walk away from Pierce, if he really intends to forego his 20th NBA season.
The thinking, though, is that Garnett’s decision is bound to have an impact on Pierce’s, with Brooklyn’s other marquee import from Boston becoming an unrestricted free agent July 1.
If KG decides to play on, those who know him well say Pierce’s incentive to stay in Brooklyn naturally spikes. If Garnett decides it’s time to stop, Pierce is bound to be intrigued even more by the scenario that is said to be on his radar already: Reuniting with Doc Rivers in Clipperland in what would also be a homecoming for the Los Angeles native.
Pierce could also elect to return to Boston as a free agent to set himself up to retire a Celtic, or maybe even sample life back home as a Laker, or pick out another one of the many teams bound to be interested in his veteran know-how. Count on Pierce generating plenty of July buzz no matter what happens with his older buddy.
3. And what about Deron Williams and Lopez?
D-Will has three years and $63.1 million remaining left on his contract. At 29, he’s also still a difference-maker on his good days, but those days are getting rarer and rare because of his ongoing health woes.
Despite an undeniable sense in Brooklyn that a fresh start would benefit both sides after a bumpy 3½ seasons together, it’s difficult in the extreme to imagine the Nets finding a trade partner willing to take on D-Will’s deal, as much as they might secretly dream of a swap that sends him elsewhere and starts to nudge them in the direction of the sort of financial flexibility needed to start infusing this roster with some youth.
Ditto for Lopez. The Nets will undoubtedly receive plenty of external encouragement, presumably from the ever-helpful Gotham media, to try to trade Williams and Lopez, whose latest foot failure forced Kidd into small-ball schemes that proved more effective than anyone imagined. Chances are good, though, that the limited market for those two almost certainly means both will be back as Nets come October.
Can Lopez finally stay healthy next season? Can he fit in with the small-ballers even if his body cooperates? Can the Nets really afford to stick with small ball when it matters most? Or will Lopez’s return force them to tweak team philosophy yet again?
After the Nets missed his presence against a Miami club vulnerable to quality size, those are the types of Lopez questions you’re advised to focus on.
4. Do the Nets have any shot at keeping Shaun Livingston?
It’s going to be tough.
The Nets want to hang onto their reborn guard but aren’t projected to have more to offer in free agency than the taxpayer mid-level exception. Sources close to the situation say Livingston, bound for free agency again at 28, is a virtual lock to attract offers in free agency that can trump the hamstrung Nets’ best pitch financially.
Sounds like he’ll have to want to stay, with a willingness to sacrifice some cash, for the Nets to hang onto their Cinderella story.
Andrei Kirilenko, Andray Blatche and Alan Anderson, meanwhile, are three more potential veteran free agents. All three possess player options for next season in their current contracts, with Blatche ranking as the best bet to opt for free agency and give the Nets one more tricky decision.
5. Can you run through one more time through what the Nets have surrendered, in terms of draft assets, to assemble this win-now team that didn’t win now?
Brooklyn’s first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 are all owed to the Boston Celtics.
The Atlanta Hawks and Celtics have the right to swap first-rounders with the Nets in 2015 and 2017, respectively.
The Nets also owe a second-rounder next month to Philadelphia and second-rounders in 2015 and 2017 to the Hawks.
They can, of course, buy first- or second-round picks in the forthcoming June draft or any other draft. Yet it should be clear, once you add all that up, that fortifying the current cast is not going to be easy.
Which puts the onus on Lopez to make a meaningful recovery -- and on Kidd to blend him back into a prominent role -- if the Most Expensive Team on Planet NBA intends to go any further next season than it did this season.