That's because even though Garnett and Pierce are no longer the players they once were, the Nets won’t be able to replace them in free agency.
The projected salary cap for 2014-15 is $63.2 million, and the projected luxury tax line is $77 million. The Nets already have $79.3 million committed to five players: Joe Johnson ($23.2 million), Deron Williams ($19.8 million), Brook Lopez ($15.7 million), Garnett ($12 million) and Marcus Thornton ($8.6 million).
Mirza Teletovic ($3.4 million) and Mason Plumlee ($1.4 million) also need to be accounted for. And then there are all the team’s free agents: Andrei Kirilenko ($3.3 million player option); Andray Blatche ($1.4 million player option, says he’ll opt out); Alan Anderson ($1.1 million player option); Shaun Livingston (unrestricted, no Bird Rights so Nets can only offer three years, $10 million) and Jason Collins (unrestricted). Jorge Gutierrez ($816,500) is under contract for next season, but it’s non-guaranteed.
Nets GM Billy King is operating under the assumption that Garnett, whose contract is fully guaranteed, will return next season unless the now-38-year-old center informs the team otherwise. He could decide to retire.
The Nets have the advantage over everyone else with regard to Pierce (unrestricted) because they have his Bird Rights, and therefore can pay him more than any other team. Pierce could decide to leave for Boston or the Los Angeles Clippers, but he’d have to take less money to do so. Nets coach Jason Kidd, Williams and Pierce all have the same agent: Jeff Schwartz.
If Garnett and Pierce leave, the Nets would have Johnson, Williams, Lopez and little else. They would lose two of their biggest leaders/defenders. The once touted “two-year title window” will have closed.
Their best bet, it appears, would be for Pierce, who turns 37 in October, to take a two-year deal -- perhaps with an option for 2015-16. That would enable them to field a contending team in 2014-15.
A problem, though, might arise as far as future flexibility is concerned. By getting rid of Gerald Wallace in the Garnett-Pierce blockbuster trade, the Nets went under the tax line in 2014-15 -- thereby enabling them to avoid the dreaded repeater tax and luxury tax hell. But adding Pierce at a comparable salary -- $10 million or more -- would likely put them over again. The Nets have $64.1 million committed in 2015-16 to four players: Johnson ($24.9 million), Williams ($21 million), Lopez ($16.7 million if he exercises his player option) and Plumlee ($1.4 million team option). If Pierce makes what he made last season ($15.3 million), it would put them at $79.4 million, which likely would be around where the luxury tax line would be at that point.
This is a hypothetical scenario, but perhaps that’s why it makes even more sense for the Nets to explore trading Williams (owed $22.3 million in 2016-17, but has an early-termination option) and Lopez in order to get out of their massive financial commitments.
Without first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and without total control of their first-round pick until 2019 (2015 and 2017 can be swapped), the Nets don’t have as many ways of adding cheap, young assets as other teams do.
But they can compete in the near term while also setting themselves up for the future.
To do so, they really need Garnett and Pierce to come back -- at least for one more season.