The easy explanation is cheapness. The Nets don't want to pay the NBA's luxury tax, so they do want to trade Joe Johnson.
That's the latest, anyway, as ESPN reports the Nets and Grizzlies discussed a move that would have sent the seven-time NBA All-Star to the Grizzlies as a means of helping the Nets' dreadful salary cap situation. The trade fizzled, but the Nets left encouraged, the report says.
Yet there's more to it, more than figuring out a way to get rid of an aging, inefficient swingman slated to make almost $25 million next season. Johnson, who turned 34 Monday, still has enough left in his tank to help a contender, as he showed for the Nets in a six-game first-round series loss to the Hawks.
This report — and everything else to come out of Nets camp lately — mostly is about ownership.
Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who bought 80 percent of the team plus 45 percent of Barclays Center for $200 million in 2010, watched the prices of NBA teams soar with keen interest. After the Clippers sold for $2 billion, Prokhorov tested the market himself before reportedly cutting ties with the bank he hired to sell the team. Minority owner Bruce Ratner's share in the team still is on the market.
Johnson figures into this equation in two ways. The obvious one is that the team would be worth more for an immediate sale without his massive contract driving up tax costs this season, but that's the short view.
The three biggest value-drivers for an NBA team are market size, market share and marketability. The Nets get an A-plus on the first while dealing with a lot of competition from the Knicks (and New York's two NFL, two MLB and two NHL teams) on the second. The third is where the roster comes into play.
The Nets reportedly are front-runners to bring back Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez, the pair of 27-year-olds who effectively manned power forward and center down the stretch last season. They traded Mason Plumlee, whose role with the team seemed in doubt after a terrible second half and losing his starting job to Lopez, for No. 23 overall pick Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a small forward. They also have put out feelers on trading backup point guard Jarrett Jack, according to ESPN.
Johnson and Jack are valuable pieces in the NBA — for title contenders. In a smaller role, Johnson could go from inefficient isolation scorer to dangerous do-everything sixth man, the way Andre Iguodala was for the champion Warriors this season. Jack can be a great backup on both ends and can play on or off the ball, though he is coming off a mediocre season.
But the Nets sold their most obvious paths to a future soon after Prokhorov stepped in, notably giving away several future draft picks and young players to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry; the Hawks for Johnson; and the Jazz for Deron Williams. The first three all are gone, Johnson may end up on the move, and Williams may be untradeable this season because of his huge contract into 2016-17 and poor production and health (though another ESPN report suggests the team still thinks there's a market for the three-time All-Star point guard).
That puts Brooklyn in a position somewhere between rebuilding and contending. Lopez, Young, Hollis-Jefferson and Bojan Bogdanovic — who had a breakout second half and has great scoring ability — form a young core group good enough to probably make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. If the veterans can contribute or are valuable enough in trades, where even late first- or second-rounders would be welcome, the future for once might look bright in Brooklyn.
The ripple effect of trading so many draft picks is that the Nets have no reason to consider a full-scale rebuild. They need to turn aging veterans into young players who can help this team win now as well as in the future, and it appears ownership understands that.
As well they should. The Clippers sold for $2 billion in a similar situation to the Nets — perhaps even more difficult, given that they share an arena with the much more popular Lakers. But their talented roster offered a clear path to success. Now, after years without one in sight, the Nets may be forming their own future.