By Steve Lichtenstein
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Nets fans sat around their houses Sunday night in depressed states.
Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks seemingly had found a devious avenue Thursday to secure the signatures of two restricted free agents he coveted, only to lose out at the conclusion of the three-day waiting period when those offers were matched by the players' current teams.
All hope must have been lost, right? The Nets would have been a team on the rise with those two players. Instead, they will surely be looking at a repeat of last season's 21-61 disaster, if that.
So who were these transformational players? LeBron James? Kevin Durant?
Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson, a pair of backup guards, will be returning to the Blazers and Heat, respectively, while Brooklyn remains a mostly barren wasteland for basketball.
At least that's what the "hot takes" claim.
Yes, both of Marks' targets are young (24 years old), somewhat athletic, and efficient from long range. They have "potential," ideal candidates to develop under new coach Kenny Atkinson.
However, it's a big stretch to say that those additions would have catapulted Brooklyn onto any level above mediocre.
Johnson hasn't even proven he can stay healthy on the floor, having missed 46 games last season due to a recurring shoulder injury that required surgery. Portland actually performed better statistically in terms of points per 100 possessions with Crabbe off the court versus on the court, especially on defense.
I think the "allure of the new" got into Nets fans' eyes and made them believe these players were guaranteed to live up to their outsized offer sheets.
In reality, the whole plot by Marks was a gamble, though an understandable one given the Nets' predicament -- no first-round draft pick of their own until 2019 and a roster with possibly the lowest aggregate trading value in the league. It wasn't as bad a gamble as, oh, the "let's throw our entire future away on old veterans for a year" from the Nets' recent past, but it was a gamble nonetheless. Besides, I think it would be best if we discontinue bringing up the Billy King Error for comparison purposes.
First, there was always a risk that Portland and Miami would finagle a way to match Marks' offer sheets -- a reported four-year, $75 million offer to Crabbe and a creative four-year, $50 million deal that included heavily backloaded "poison pill" payments for Johnson. They would have been the two largest free agent deals in Nets history.
It was just the wrong year to succeed at these maneuvers. Too much money was out there, thanks to the 34 percent spike in every team's salary cap due to the league's new TV windfall. Add in the deep pockets of the two owners who wouldn't mind going over the cap if necessary to re-sign their players and it's not shocking that the Blazers and the Heat found ways to keep their desired assets in house.
Still, even if Marks was fitting Crabbe and Johnson for Nets jerseys this week, I don't believe we would have seen a significant rise in the standings this season. They're just not worth 20-25 extra wins.
Worse, what if they underperformed compared to their contracts, which isn't unthinkable given that neither has proven they can be relied upon to play heavy minutes on a nightly basis? Crabbe was reportedly lured to Brooklyn with a promise he would start.
Then Marks would have been stuck with more untradeable long-term commitments for next offseason, when the Nets would still have holes to fill and the percentage salary cap rise is expected to be significantly less.
At least Marks has moved on, signing reserve guard Greivis Vasquez late on Sunday to a one-year, $5 million contract, according to a New York Post report. The 29-year-old Vasquez doesn't have Johnson's "upside" and is coming off a horrendous injury-plagued season in Milwaukee, but he proved to be effective at either guard position during his prior two seasons in Toronto.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that the Nets are considering pursuing Oklahoma City's Dion Waiters, another 24-year-old shooting guard. His penchant for shot-hunting might not fit into Marks' vision, but he's worth a look.
Though Waiters is also a restricted free agent, the Nets have about $31 million in salary cap space and the Thunder, who recently acquired guard Victor Oladipo, are known for their frugality.
The extra cap space from the offer sheet matches should also allow Marks to add depth to the frontcourt, which took a hit when Thaddeus Young was dealt to Indiana on draft night so the Nets could select wing Caris LeVert.
The current bigs on Brooklyn's roster are centers Brook Lopez and Justin Hamilton and forwards Trevor Booker and Chris McCullough.
Other than Lopez, that's not going to scare anyone.
Signing Crabbe and Johnson would have depleted Marks' resources for interior improvements. As it were, the three-day waiting period has left the rookie GM with a very thin remaining inventory. Boston's Jared Sullinger is probably the best in the limited stock and most attainable. Terrence Jones, a 24-year-forward, who played last season for Houston, is also an unrestricted free agent.
Michael Scotto of Sheridan Hoops and the Associated Press reported that the Nets and 23-year-old forward Anthony Bennett, a bust since he was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, have "mutual interest."
Though the Nets are approximately $21 million below the salary cap floor, there should be no urgency to spend for spending's sake. Any contracts should be kept short so that future cap years aren't compromised.
This was always promised to be a lengthy rebuild devoid of quick fixes. Of course the Nets would have been a better team with Crabbe and Johnson on board this season, but I question whether the degree of improvement would have been worth the cost.
If Marks was such a big believer in LeVert, as well as in second-round selection Isaiah Whitehead and returnee Sean Kilpatrick, then loading up at guard with Crabbe and Johnson would seem superfluous. The fact that they've now been removed from the picture doesn't change Marks' strategy of building around young players.
I would also argue that the offer sheet matches put Marks in a better position for next summer, when there is supposed to be a deeper free agent supply with fewer teams holding large swaths of empty cap space.
However, I get that many can't look beyond the present, and I would agree with those who say that the Jeremy Lin/Vasquez/Booker/Hamilton haul appears incomplete.
But let's see what Marks and Atkinson have up their sleeves.
When asked about the free agent process, Atkinson told the New York Post last week that "a lot of this is scenario-planning: A, B, C, D, E, F. Hopefully we don't get to G."
I would say that Crabbe and Johnson were Plan B and the Nets are now turning to Plan C.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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