The biggest deal of deadline day thus far sees the New Jersey Nets trade Mehmet Okur, his expiring $10.89 million salary, Shawne Williams, his not-expiring $3 million salary, and a 2012 first round pick to Portland, in exchange for Gerald Wallace.
Wallace, a one time All-Star and long-time quality player, averages nearly 13 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists on the year, in addition to quality, versatile defense. He dramatically improves New Jersey’s weakest position, small forward, where a whole host of players have been rotated through. After deciding Stephen Graham probably wasn’t the answer, the Nets turned to Damion James. When he got hurt, Keith Bogans, Larry Owens, Andre Emmett, Gerald Green and Dennis Horner all took turns. The longest runs have been given to Williams and DeShawn Stevenson, who are shooting 29 percent and 25 percent from the field respectively. Given that they had absolutely nothing at that position, and traded absolutely no production to get it, getting a fringe All-Star is a significant upgrade to the collective nothing that went before.
But let’s not lose sight of the issue. In spite of how good he is, and how bad D-Steve has been, New Jersey are not really trading for Gerald Wallace. They are really trading for Deron Williams, again.
And inevitably, it’s all for Dwight Howard.
The entire plan, the whole thing, the whole shaboodle, everything the Nets have thrown away the last two years for, is based around Dwight. Prokhorov didn’t buy the team to get Dwight, the team isn’t moving to Brooklyn because of Dwight and they didn’t trade their only semblance of a long term plan for Deron because, at the time, they expected to get Dwight. But it did become the expectation, and it did become the plan.
It became a very good plan, too. The future looked good. Deron Williams, the impressive rookie MarShon Brooks, the probably impressive rookie Harrison Barnes, Kris Humphries, Dwight. That’s some front five. New city, new arena, new fan base, plenty of money in reserve, Jay-Z adding some luster. No depth, but that doesn’t matter. That was the plan. It was beautiful. And when Howard declined a move to the Chicago Bulls, the best team in the league, because Derrick Rose was too famous or the weather was too windy or whatever the hell reason he used, the Nets’ plan looked almost consummated. You don’t disregard Chicago and consider joining the Nets unless you really, really want to join the Nets. Up until this week, it was all-consuming.
But it didn’t work. Dwight opted in. It seems now that he didn’t really, really want to join the Nets after all.
Not yet, at least. The pipe dream still exists. Dwight didn’t sign an extension with Orlando, commit his adult life to them, or declare an undying love that would only have looked facetious by this time; instead, he merely opted in. He opted in for only one year. In 12 months time, therefore, it is more than likely to be the case that Howard — who has trolled the entire NBA media and tormented his own team’s fans for a whole year — is going to be doing it all again. And so what is a stay of execution for Orlando is essentially an adjournment for New Jersey. The plan is still to get Dwight. By this time, it rather has to be.
However, in the time in between the two, one big variable exists. While Dwight Howard opted in, Deron Williams didn’t. The whole Dwight plan was, and is, dependent upon Deron. Concurrently, keeping Deron was, and is, dependent on getting Dwight.
New Jersey knows Dwight only joins them if Deron Williams is here. It’s why they traded for him in the first place. And it’s still the case. This year, they didn’t get Dwight, even with Deron. Now, to get Dwight next year, they need to keep Deron.
Therein lies the logic for the Wallace deal. A team trotting out so many sub-30 percent shooters and D-League call-ups, limping to a mid-lottery position in front of small crowds, is not a team Deron Williams re-signs with. Not when Dallas is primed and ready. New Jersey have to make themselves appealing, so they traded for the fringe All-Star. It is fine in theory, and you can never have too much talent. But the plan is a massive, massive, dangerously massive gamble. An unnecessarily massive gamble. And if Wallace opts out of his player option for 2012-13, it’s even worse.
If the gamble doesn’t pay off, then between Derrick Favors and the 2012 pick, New Jersey just blew their load. If Deron leaves and Dwight doesn’t come, they have nothing. They’re starting next season with a lineup of Farmar, Brooks, Wallace, a presumably overpaid Humphries, a presumably overpaid Lopez, and going back to the lottery. They’re then serving up big offer sheets to Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan in 2013 instead of Dwight. It isn’t the same.
Deron. Williams. Must. Stay. But is Gerald Wallace really going to tip that balance?
So desperate are the Nets to this short term vision that they may have ballsed-up their own vision. The 2012 first round pick given to Portland in this deal is, amazingly, only top three protected. The Nets are not especially likely to finish in the top three as their 15-29 record is poor, but not catastrophic, and the capable Wallace is going to only make them better for the remainder of the season. With no incentive to tank any more, the chances are even less likely. The pick is thus almost certain to go. And it will be a big loss.
In this strong draft, a lottery pick, even outside the top three, gets you Barnes, John Henson, Jeremy Lamb, something along those lines. It gets you young talent, the kind of young talent that you can direct a franchise around. Maybe it only gets you young talent equal to someone like Wallace, but even then, that is something to keep. Their long term plan to build around Deron and Dwight does not necessitate dumping everything that can help them in the long term. Or at least, it should not.
Despite all the poor years, New Jersey doesn’t have many assets. Deron is not available, for obvious reasons. Shawne Williams, Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow all cost a little more than backups really should. Due to a technicality, Kris Humphries has a no-trade clause. And Brook Lopez is about to be wildly overpaid by somebody. The two best assets the Nets had — Okur’s expiring and the 2012 first — have just been used on a declining player signed only through 2013. With all due respect, that is what Gerald Wallace is becoming.
Wallace gives it his all and is not responsible for the mutiny or the implosion that is the 2011-12 Trail Blazers. He still contributes on both ends of the floor, and contributes well. But into his 11th NBA season, with 682 games played and another couple of hundred spent watching on injured, kicking 30′s door down, he is not what he once was. In joining the Nets, he will get to play with the first quality point guard of his career, which ought lead to increased efficiency and offensive output. But he is not a particularly long term asset for the team, and New Jersey probably doesn’t intend him to be. It is not a coincidence that Wallace’s $9.5 million contract expires in 2013. They still want Dwight. They just want to win more games along the way. And that, of course, is done in order to get them Dwight.
Without a pick to tank for, New Jersey may as well now go for the 8th seed in the East. Bizarrely, only 4.5 games back of the Bucks, this is an entirely achievable aim with Wallace in the fold. The Nets, if nothing else, have a plan, and their commitment to the plan is seemingly limitless. But they should have realized its limit when it came to the pick protection.
Portland now saves over $6 million on Wallace’s 2012/13 salary, adds to their already significant cap room that year, and gains a likely lottery pick for their troubles. New Jersey shortsightedly threw everything at one player, in the hope it will persuade another player to stay, thereby bringing in a third player. They are incessantly, unretractably committed to acquiring a player who just turned them down.
Good luck with that.