A Leap Of Free Agency Faith: The Nets And Nene

Photo by Lachlan on Flickr

The New Jersey Nets went out on a limb last season. They made a choice that teams often shy from, a choice littered with uncertainty and lacking in definite composition. It was a costly choice, bordering on sizable risk and questionable reward. The Nets sent a young, decent point guard (Devin Harris), a young, burgeoning, and athletic power forward selected third less than a year earlier (Derrick Favors), two first round picks, and $3 million in cash to the Utah Jazz. Why did they do this? For a chance at elite point guard (and noted goatee enthusiast) Deron Williams. They traded away the “future” for one of the best point guards in a point guard-driven league, a player they aren’t certain to keep, but certainly can’t afford to lose. One can assume the Nets are desperate to build around Williams immediately, before he leaves in the summer of 2012 and they’re returned to square one of the “franchise rebuilding process”. The Nets will be forced to make moves in free agency, and possibly during the season.

The success and nature of these moves will likely determine the course of the franchise for the next 5-10 years. These choices will fill seats in the new Brooklyn stadium, or, for all intents and purposes, empty them. There are few teams with more at stake in 2011 free agency (and the resulting season) than the Nets, and they know it. The problem with this leap of faith by the Nets, a leap of faith that’s entirely justified in today’s teaming-up NBA, is the 2011 free agent class itself. It’s not a “stacked” class by any measure. I wouldn’t call it abysmal, I’d call it “Andrea Bargnani”. There’s talent to be found, certainly, especially at the center and power forward positions. But in a year with no clear-cut star free agents to pursue, it’s imperative the Nets make the right decision in whom they pursue and eventually sign. That might require another leap of faith.

The man thought to be the Nets’ primary target is Nene. Nene is considered by many to be the top free agent in this year’s class, and it’s a difficult opinion to fault. Though Nene’s basic statistical numbers don’t absolutely wow on first glance (a very respectable 14.5 ppg and 7.6), Nene displayed his strong defending ability last year while leading the league in field goal percentage (an astounding 61.5%). Nene gives everything you could want from a non-superstar big man in today’s NBA: Extreme efficiency, great defense, and high basketball IQ. At the age of 29, he’s still young enough to garner a well-sized contract without significant aging concerns (the same thing can’t necessarily be said for Nene’s fellow free agent David West). So, given the Nets’ significant cap room, incessant need to sign someone, and Nene’s polished, consistent skill, there’s no reason the Nets shouldn’t do whatever they can to sign him. Right?

Maybe. It’s fair to say a Brook Lopez-Nene front court would be odd. I believe each player could hypothetically play both positions, but Nene would likely get most of the minutes at power forward. Lopez is now infamous in fan perception for his inability to rebound (after a 6.0 average last season), despite Lopez’s damaging bout with mono (a bout now likely overcome, thankfully) and respectable 8.1 and 8.6 rebound averages during his first two seasons in the league. While it’s very possible Lopez could be an average rebounder in the future, it’s unlikely he’ll be better than that. Nene has likewise proven himself to be a relatively average to below-average rebounder, recording 9.0 rebounds per 36 minutes last season with the Nuggets. Nene scores at a more efficient rate than he rebounds, as his total rebounding rate is nearly identical to that of Lopez: 13.4% over his career vs. Lopez’s 13.0%. Thus, the Nets are left with two average to below-average rebounders and a probable lack of Kris Humphries to make up for this newfound deficiency.

Along with that possible issue, Nene and Lopez are both average-to-bad help defenders.  Nene is essentially average when moving over to challenge a shot or stop a drive; Lopez is generally abysmal. But Lopez isn’t without defensive skill, and neither is Nene, certainly. Nene is great at defending the pick-and-roll, while Lopez is a strong on-ball defender (as mentioned previously) and good at challenging spot-up mid-range shooters. Whether their defensive skills will mesh adequately is debatable, but isn’t out of the question. A Nene-Lopez frontcourt isn’t going to shut down your team, but it also shouldn’t allow a cake walk for the opposing team offensively on a nightly basis. Where Nene and Lopez both especially excel is the offensive aspect of the game. Nene is beloved for his almost insane efficiency, and Brook is one of the best offensive centers in the NBA. Nene’s skill in transition is superb, as is his ability to capitalize on offensive rebounds. Lopez on the other hand, has an odd combination of skills. His touch is extremely good for a center, and he’s often most effective in iso situations outside the lane. He’s arguably best when using the backboard or shooting a floater.

Would these skills complement each other? I’d say it’s more of a likelihood that they would than it is on defense. They’re both efficient and skilled centers offensively, but they excel in different ways. The possibility surely exists, with the terrific passing ability of Williams, for both to get the touches they need during the right moments and in the right situations. Other than Williams, the Nets simply wouldn’t have many other viable scoring options. Nene and Lopez would form one of the strongest offensive front courts in the NBA, if neither is seriously derailed by the other’s style. And that seems quite unlikely, given Nene’s formed, experienced skill set and Lopez’s unorthodox, difficult-to-defend style.

Given these combinations and factors of personnel, is it worth it for the Nets to sign Nene for likely a near-max contract? Based on the other free agent options that exist, I’d say it would be a justified decision due to the following:

1) The Nets need to sign a high-profile player (or somehow trade for one) in the very near-future, so competing and thus retaining Deron Williams is possible.

2) There are three true candidates for a big contract from the Nets: Nene, Tyson Chandler, and David West. (Marc Gasol will almost certainly re-sign with the Grizzlies.) Tyson Chandler is only a viable option at center, will probably command a relatively equal contract to Nene, and has a long history of injuries before his stellar season last year with Dallas. I doubt he and Lopez would fit well together with Lopez at PF, as Lopez has never played the position and lacks the speed to be equitably effective there. David West seems like a better option, but he’s 31 years old and coming off of ACL surgery. He’d be a fine consolation prize for the Nets, and could pair adequately with Lopez, but his age and recent injury are enough to make him a far more questionable signing than Nene.

3) Signing someone widely considered to be the best free agent in his class could be a great selling point to Deron Williams. Having Lopez, Nene, and likely a couple new decent rotational players (the Nets have a sizable amount of cap space and will likely be active beyond simply a big man signing) could be a huge asset in the bid to draw Williams to re-sign with the Nets. That’s a decent Eastern conference playoff team under most considerations, and one that can at least “compete”.

In many ways, the Nets will rest where they did when they chose to make an aggressive move for Deron Williams: somewhere between uncertainty and legitimate hope. The Nets can choose a more conservative path and ensure they aren’t submarined with bad contracts and no Deron Williams, by simply not signing Nene. But in many ways, that’s not an option. When they made the Williams trade, the organization’s path towards immediacy began. There can be no deviation into organizational conservatism now. Either it’s Nene and triumph and Brooklyn and Deron and all of the things Nets’ fans desperately want, or it’s a deviation towards mediocrity. The Nets aimed high with the Williams signing. They can’t stop now. Nene is waiting.

Seth Carstens