Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of the Brooklyn Nets in the wake of their first-round playoff exit:
The Nets can only hope.
There really is no alternative scenario for them.
General manager Billy King has made no secret of the fact that retaining his frontcourt twosome is Brooklyn's No. 1 priority this summer, which is easily understood, given the Nets' financial predicament.
They simply lack the salary-cap flexibility to replace Lopez and/or Young, if they lose them. And they have to field the most competitive team they can in 2015-16 to try to avoid forfeiting a lottery pick to the Boston Celtics. Re-signing Lopez and Young is the surest path to repeating the sort of season we just saw, a season that made the Nets just good enough to snag the East's No. 8 seed and avoid seeing a lottery pick land in the hands of the 60-win Atlanta Hawks.
The safe assumption is the Nets will make strong offers to both Lopez and Young once they opt out of their current contracts and become free agents July 1. All signs point to Lopez, despite his worrisome injury history, declining his $16.74 million option for next season and heading to the open market after responding to a near-trade to Oklahoma City with a monster second half. Young, despite his status as a longtime King favorite, is likewise believed to be leaning toward bypassing the $10-ish million he is owed for 2015-16 to do the same.
The far greater source of uncertainty is the size and scope of the contracts they would command as free agents, given that Brooklyn risks cutting into its July 2016 spending money if it lavishes too much on the incumbents.
Yet that's just it with the Nets: They went all-in as far as any team we've ever seen over the past few years -- and we're typically all for boldness in this cyberspace -- only to wind up in a bigger ditch than we've ever seen when the big swings whiffed. There are simply no preferred scenarios for them to pursue in the short term. There are downsides even if things go as planned this offseason.
The happiest ending, of course, would be Lopez and/or Young deciding to play out next season on their current deals in the name of joining the free-agent bonanza that looms in a year, when the salary cap spikes massively. How, though, do the Nets even dare dream about things working out that well, given their recent string of bounces?
2. Is there any way Deron Williams does not start as a Net next season?
It's very hard to imagine the Nets actually going through with releasing Williams between now and the Aug. 31 deadline that would allow Brooklyn to waive him and stretch out payments on the $43 million he is owed for the next two seasons.
But you can rest assured they'll ponder it.
It's a largely unappetizing prospect, considering a) they'd still have to pay Williams nearly $9 million a season for the next five years and b) he remains one of the better players and most feared shooters on the roster, despite his up-and-down health and steep decline in stature.
You strongly suspect it'll be too unpalatable, in the end, for the Nets to go that route.
The reality, though, is they're obligated to give such an expensive divorce deep thought, as this is a team at great risk to become the first franchise in the modern NBA to pay the dreaded repeater tax.
If the Nets can't get under the luxury tax threshold by the end of next season, it will be their fourth consecutive season as a taxpayer, and it will clinch "repeater" status. Brooklyn paid $12.9 million in tax in 2012-13 and $90.6 million in 2013-14 before racking up a bill of $20.5 million this season.
It is widely assumed the Nets will explore the trade markets for both Joe Johnson (with his expiring $24.9 million deal) and Jarrett Jack (due $12.6 million over the next two seasons but only partially guaranteed in 2016-17) to try to get away from tax territory that way, instead of waiving and stretching Williams. Neither of those ideas is as complicated as trying to trade D-Will himself, with $21 million next season and $22.3 million in 2016-17 owed to the 30-year-old, but you wouldn't describe trading Johnson or Jack for purely financial motivations as easy, either.
3. How does this team go about getting younger?
This task certainly would have been simpler, had the Nets sold high on Mason Plumlee and traded him when the calls were flooding in early the previous season ... when the going rate for centers was so favorable.
It's unavoidably tantalizing to think about what the Nets might have gotten for Plumlee, had they actively shopped him before he fell out of favor -- bearing in mind the two future first-round picks Denver extracted from Cleveland for Timofey Mozgov.
Some rival executives think the Nets might go ahead and explore the Plumlee marketplace anyway, in hopes teams remember his dogged play for Team USA the past summer more than his struggles to get on the floor under first-year Nets coach Lionel Hollins. Now, though, would not appear to be the ideal time to see what shopping him might fetch.
What's clear is Brooklyn somehow needs to get younger, even as we concede there is no clear-cut path to achieving that goal.
Can the Nets buy their way back into the draft after all the picks surrendered to Atlanta and Boston in their now pilloried deals to acquire Johnson, Garnett and Paul Pierce? Presumably only Mikhail Prokhorov can answer that question.
Don't forget the Nets had to spend nearly $2 million this time a year ago just to load up on the second-round picks needed to draft Markel Brown, Cory Jefferson and Xavier Thames. Prices are high when the outside world knows you're desperate.
(Just in case you need the recap: Brooklyn went from No. 15 to No. 29 in the first round of next month's draft as a result of the pick swap it agreed to with Atlanta as part of the Johnson deal in the summer of 2012. Unprotected first-rounders in 2016 and 2018, along with another likely first-round pick swap in 2017, were the cost imposed by Boston to complete the blockbuster that sent Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn.)
4. Does Mikhail Prokhorov really want to keep this team?
That has been the steady insistence from Prokhorov in recent weeks and months. He keeps saying he is only willing to sell off a minority stake in the team ... up to 49 percent.
Around the league, mind you, skepticism persists.
Prokhorov, to be fair, invites such doubts with his ever-so-rare presence around the team. He came into the league billed as the Russian answer to Mark Cuban, but the available evidence forces you to put him at the foot of the Passionate Owners Scale, despite the zillions he has allowed the Nets to spend in trying to assemble a true contender.
Yet there are also persistent rumbles in league circles that the real reason the Nets aren't being actively shopped to potential bidders is the structure of the deal Prokhorov struck to buy the team mandates he sell Barclays Center in conjunction with his basketball team. Word is the entities can't be sold separately, which is said to have chilled the market due to the complexities involved in such a transaction and the significant price tag it would carry.
5. What about Prokhorov's basketball people?
All the current signals suggest the Nets are going forward with King in control of basketball operations -- with heavy input from Prokhorov aide Dmitry Razumov and with or without a contract extension -- and Hollins on the bench.
At the Nets' nadir, when they lost consecutive games by 35-plus points in January and rumbles of player discontent with the coach were commonplace, some in NBA coaching circles believed Hollins was only being preserved by the thick layer of insulation that comes in year one a four-year deal believed to be in excess of $20 million.
To his credit, though, Hollins eventually found some common ground with Lopez after their rocky start and got the most he could out of a limited group to not only win the "race" for the East's final playoff berth but also push the Hawks to six games in Round 1. Hollins thus seems poised to become the first coach in the Nets' Brooklyn history to reach Year 2 of his contract.