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GM King, Nets have work cut out for them

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King said some interesting things during his annual end-of-the-season news conference Wednesday morning.

Among them:

1. “We can’t keep turning over the roster every year thinking we’re going to find it on the outside.”

2. “I don’t expect us to be trading any future picks. We've already done that.”

3. “We’re trying to build the Brooklyn Nets brand more than [an] individual brand, so maybe it will help individuals that the pressure isn’t on them as much as where it’s more focused on the team.”

All of these statements serve in direct contrast to how King and the Nets have operated under owner Mikhail Prokhorov. When Prokhorov took control of the team five years ago, he promised a championship by 2015. The Nets began spending recklessly and making blockbuster trades for expensive players (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett), hemorrhaging future assets in the process.

Win now, worry later.

Since moving to Brooklyn in 2012, the Nets have spent approximately $400 million in player salaries and luxury taxes. Over that span, they’ve won just one playoff series. They do not have total control over their own first-round pick until 2019.

As a result, they now find themselves in an unenviable position. Rebuilding doesn’t feel like a realistic option, even though it might be the best one.

“There’s only one team that wins,” King responded when asked why Prokhorov’s five-year championship plan failed.

“You have injuries that take place. I think when you put that group together, you plan on having Brook [Lopez] play, you plan on Deron [Williams] being healthy from the start last year -- but then Deron missed the beginning of training camp and the regular season. Brook gets hurt at the beginning, and now, instead of having a young center to go with those guys, you start relying on other guys to do things.

“Things change. Injuries happen. Things you put on paper, you think they’re going to happen, but they don’t. ...So we’re going to go back and keep trying."

The 2015-16 season is expected to serve as a bridge year to the 2016-17 campaign, when the Nets should be armed with a fairly significant amount of cap space. The only problem with that, of course, is prospective free agents aren't going to be intrigued by the possibility of joining an inexperienced team. They're going to want to join a team that already has talent in place.

To that end, King’s No. 1 priority heading into this summer is retaining Lopez and Thaddeus Young. Both have player options, but it would not be a surprise if either elects to opt out and hit the open market. The Nets have Bird Rights on both players, enabling Brooklyn to pay them more than anyone else.

And the Nets desperately need both back.

Brooklyn already has about $59.5 million committed to Johnson ($24.9 million), Williams ($21 million), Jarrett Jack ($6.3 million), Bojan Bogdanovic ($3.4 million), Sergey Karasev ($1.6 million), Mason Plumlee ($1.4 million) and Markel Brown ($850,000) next season. The 2015-16 salary cap is projected at $67.1 million, so the Nets have no cap space to replace Lopez and Young if they bolt elsewhere.

Both players know this, and both would have significant leverage in contract negotiations as a result. Still, as King said, continuity is key, and retaining Lopez and Young would be a strong step toward establishing that.

Brooklyn prefers not to be a taxpaying team next season (projections on that for 2015-16 are $81.6 million), so the possibility of shedding the contracts of Williams -- owed $22.3 million in 2016-17 if he doesn't opt out of the final year of his deal -- and Johnson off their books is an intriguing one. But that’s easier said than done. King said on Wednesday there is a market for both players. Whether that’s the case remains to be seen.

Getting younger and more athletic is seen as a continued goal for Brooklyn. Nets coach Lionel Hollins, who, barring an unforeseen development, should be the first coach in the Net's tenure in Brooklyn to make it to his second season at the helm, wants to add tougher players with better basketball IQs as well. Hollins also wants more shooting and rebounding on the roster. Another point guard who can really change the flow of games would be a nice luxury to have.

At least the players who return won’t have to learn yet another new system. That’s called progress.

But King is going to have to get creative.

The Nets own the 29th and 41st picks in the draft. History suggests difference-makers are hard to find at those spots. Brooklyn owes its unprotected 2016 and 2018 firsts to Boston. The Celtics also have the right to swap firsts with the Nets in 2017. Tanking is out of the equation.

On the surface, the team’s outlook appears less than favorable. The pressure is on King, who is entering the final year of his contract barring an extension, to turn things around.

He has to find a way to get his team back to contention. If he doesn't, the criticism he’s facing will only continue.

“Just keep working, that’s all you can do,” King said. “There’s no reason to run and hide. When you choose to be in these kinds of positions -- whether as a player in the NBA or a GM or a coach -- you’re going to get criticized and that’s part of the job.

"I chose this profession. If I wanted to do something where I wouldn't have been criticized publicly, then I would have. But this is the profession I've chosen.”