Shortly after midnight Saturday, the news broke -- and it proved to be yet another stunner. The Brooklyn Nets had decided to pass on keeping unrestricted free agent Paul Pierce, and he was headed to D.C. to join on the Wizards on a two-year, $11 contract with a second-year player option.
Nets fans were mostly outraged.
How could they elect to let Pierce walk at that price? No sign-and-trade deal? Nothing?
Hadn’t they surrendered three unprotected first-round picks (2014, 2016, 2018) along with a potential first-round pick swap (2017) to acquire him just a season ago?
Wasn’t this a team with a five-year championship plan? Didn’t they print enough money?
Sources told ESPN NewYork.com that, at it’s core, this was “a basketball/business decision.” The Nets didn’t feel like they could win the title with Pierce and wanted to give their younger players a chance. They felt they were set at power forward and didn’t feel like potentially spending upwards of $50 million between salary and luxury taxes on the soon-to-be 37-year-old veteran forward over the next two seasons.
Most of the criticism, obviously, has been directed toward GM Billy King, with many calling Brooklyn’s blockbuster trade with Boston a failure because the Nets sacrificed so many future assets in exchange for just five playoff wins.
An offseason that was expected to be fairly quiet has quickly spiraled out of control. First, Jason Kidd departed to Milwaukee, the result of a failed power play in which he requested final say in player personnel decisions. Next, Shaun Livingston left for more money in Golden State. And now Pierce.
The spotlight is officially on Billy King. So is the pressure.
He needs to have a clear plan. But what will it be?
Last season, the Nets had a win-now team and a first-year coach. This season, they have a veteran coach and a team in transition. The leadership that Pierce brought? Gone. The small-ball system that Kidd implemented and Pierce and Livingston thrived in? Seems like that’s going to be gone too.
This time around, King needs to make sure everything aligns. Ownership clearly wants to be competitive; It just doesn’t want to spend as recklessly as it once did.
But the key appears to be the summer of 2016, when the likes of Kevin Durant and Joakim Noah could become free agents. King needs to make his roster attractive to players like that, accumulating assets while also staying financially flexible.
In the past, King has had a track record of making bold, splashy moves. He made them in Philadelphia, but came away with mixed results. He was never quite able to find the championship-winning mix of players to put around Allen Iverson (they did make the finals in 2000-01). He certainly tried, bringing in the likes of Dikembe Mutumbo, Glenn Robinson, Toni Kukoc and Chris Webber. The 76ers were just were never able to get over the hump.
King expedited the rebuilding process in New Jersey in advance of the move to Brooklyn under a win-now mandate from Mikhail Prokhorov and Co. by trading for and then re-signing Williams, who hasn’t produced like a franchise player despite being paid like one -- this, of course, after all-in pursuits of Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard that ultimately fell short. The Johnson deal looks like a good one, though King’s decision to deal a first-rounder for Gerald Wallace and then give him $40 million has certainly been scrutinized. The Pierce-Garnett blockbuster looked good at the time. It doesn’t look as good now.
Pierce is leaving, signaling the end of one direction and the start of another. It’s up to King to decide what that direction is, formulate a clear plan and stick with it.
What will that be?
The pressure is on.