The Brooklyn Nets are turning the page following the close of the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving era. As the two stars walked out the door so did Brooklyn's hope of competing for a championship in 2022-23. The revamped squad headlined by Mikal Bridges posted a 12-15 record before being swept in the first round by the Philadelphia 76ers.
The small sample size with the pieced-together roster begs the question: Where do the Nets go from here?
With a stockpile of draft picks and several talented young players, Brooklyn has the flexibility to go several routes. In this offseason preview, we'll break down the Nets' roster outlook, free agent questions, salary cap situation, and tools to acquire talent heading into next season.
Nets Roster Outlook
The Nets are not talent-barren following the trades of Durant and Irving. They still boast two young, foundational building blocks in Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton. Cam Johnson could join that group pending his return in restricted free agency. Beyond that, Brooklyn's roster is a mystery.
Perhaps no player in the league is a greater question mark than Ben Simmons. The former number-one pick is owed $78 million over the next two seasons and has played 42 games in the last two years, making a trade this summer highly unlikely. Brooklyn would have to attach multiple first-round picks to either dump Simmons' salary to a cap space team or use him as a salary filler in a trade for a star.
The more likely scenario: the Nets hold onto the 26-year-old, see if he can get healthy, and reevaluate next summer with one year left on his deal. After shutting Simmons down late in the season due to a nerve impingement in his surgically-repaired back, general manager Sean Marks said the Aussie's timeline is to be 100 percent ahead of training camp.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Royce O'Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith are all veterans with playoff experience who project to have trade value. Dinwiddie and O'Neale are entering the final years of their contracts at $18.9 million and $9.5 million respectively. Finney-Smith is under contract for $28 million over the next two seasons before a $15 million player option in 2025-26. Brooklyn was offered two first-round picks for Finney-Smith and one for O'Neale at the trade deadline, according to HoopsHype's Michael Scotto. The Nets could revisit that interest this offseason. They could also gauge interest among contenders in Dinwiddie's expiring contract should they look to go younger at point guard.
Joe Harris and Patty Mills will return on expiring salaries and have little to no trade value. Both are unlikely to be moved unless used as salary fillers in a trade for a star. Cam Thomas and Day'Ron Sharpe could be used as sweeteners along with draft picks in such a package. Edmond Sumner has a $2.2 million non-guaranteed salary that becomes fully guaranteed on July 5th. Seth Curry and Yuta Watanabe are set to hit unrestricted free agency. David Duke Jr. and Dru Smith are restricted free agents.
Guaranteed (10): Ben Simmons, Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith, Nic Claxton, Royce O'Neale*, Patty Mills, Cam Thomas, Day'Ron Sharpe
Non-Guaranteed (1): Edmond Sumner
Two-Way (1): RaiQuan Gray
Free Agents (5): Cam Johnson (RFA), Seth Curry (UFA), Yuta Watanabe (UFA), David Duke Jr. (RFA), Dru Smith (RFA)
Johnson is expected to garner interest from multiple teams in restricted free agency on a deal worth as much as four years, $90 million. In 25 games following his trade to the Nets, the sharpshooting forward averaged 16.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 47/37/85 shooting splits. Johnson's best basketball came in the playoffs during which he averaged 18.5 points on 51 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from three.
HAVE A HALF, CAM JOHNSON.
22 points (Playoff career-high)
📺: TNT | Game 2 | PHI Leads 1-0#NBAPlayoffs presented by Google Pixel pic.twitter.com/e8smk0R9tm
— NBA (@NBA) April 18, 2023
Marks said retaining Johnson in free agency is a “big priority” for the Nets. While Johnson was non-committal about re-signing with Brooklyn, that interest appeared to be mutual with the 26-year-old speaking glowingly about the franchise. Johnson also said remaining teammates with Bridges, his “Twin”, will play a factor in his decision-making. The Nets have the right to match any offer made to the forward.
Curry is an unrestricted free agent after struggling to regain his form this season while returning from ankle surgery. The 32-year-old appeared in 61 games, averaging 9.2 points on 46.3 percent shooting from the field and 40.5 percent from three while battling injuries. It was a shock to many when the veteran remained on Brooklyn's roster following the trades of Durant and Irving. Curry is unlikely to return with the Nets out of contention and nearing the luxury tax.
Watanabe exceeded expectations this season after earning a roster spot in training camp. The 28-year-old shot 44.4 percent from three on 2.3 attempts per game, both career highs, while providing a spark off the bench. Watanabe saw expanded minutes early in the season alongside Durant and Irving, hitting clutch shots in the closing minutes of several games. However, he fell out of Brooklyn's rotation following the additions of Bridges, Johnson and Finney-Smith to a wing rotation that already included O'Neale and Harris. Watanabe's performance early this year is likely to earn him a contract above the minimum for the first time in his career. If the Nets dip into the luxury tax by re-signing Johnson, they could offer Watanabe a portion of their taxpayer mid-level exception ($7 million).
David Duke Jr.
The Nets can make Duke Jr. a restricted free agent by extending him a $2 million qualifying offer before July 5th. If they do not, he will become unrestricted. Duke Jr. finished third in the G-League MVP voting this season, averaging 23.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists on 48/32/80 shooting splits. He made 21 NBA appearances, averaging 3.1 points on 46.0 percent shooting in just 8.6 minutes per game.
Smith is a restricted free agent with a $1.8 million qualifying offer after joining the Nets as a two-way mid-way through the year. The 25-year-old guard appeared in 22 G-League games with Long Island and Sioux Falls, averaging 15.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists on 48/38/68 shooting splits. Smith made 10 appearances with Brooklyn, averaging 3.3 points and 1.7 assists on 42 percent shooting in 9.1 minutes per game.
Salary Cap + Free Agent/Trade Exceptions
The Nets enter the offseason with $146 million committed to 11 players, assuming they guarantee the contracts of O'Neale and Sumner. Re-signing Johnson to a deal approaching $20 million would push Brooklyn's payroll north of the $162 million luxury tax line. Such a scenario would mark the Nets' fourth consecutive season paying the tax. Teams that exceed the tax line three times in four years are subject to the repeater tax, meaning they pay $2.50 per every dollar of salary over the line. That figure increases to $2.75, $3.50 and $4.25 for every additional $5 million. If Brooklyn hopes to avoid this, they would have to dump another player to a team with cap space or a trade exception.
Mark said the Nets aren't going to “pay the tax just for the sake of paying the tax”, emphasizing that doing so would have to be “a smart business decision” for owner Joe Tsai.
Guaranteed salary: $137.2 million
Non-guaranteed salary: $9.2 million
Total salary: $146.4 million
Brooklyn's best avenue to adding talent is an $18.1 million trade exception generated in the Durant trade, the largest in the NBA. The Nets can use the exception to exceed the cap and acquire another player without sending out salary. They would still need to send out an asset to entice another team to give up a player, such as draft compensation and/or a player of their own. For example, Brooklyn could package a first-round pick with Cam Thomas to acquire a player who makes up to $18.1 million. The exception, which expires on February 9th, could be attractive to teams who want to trade a player without incurring salary.
If the Nets fall into the luxury tax as expected, they would have access to the $7 million taxpayer mid-level exception in free agency. If they maneuver to avoid the tax, they would have access to the full $12.2 million mid-level exception. The exceptions are tools for teams above the salary cap to sign players above the minimum. Both can be split up and used on multiple free agents.
Free Agent/Trade Exceptions:
Taxpayer Mid-level: $7 million
Kevin Durant trade exception: $18,131,946
Kyrie Irving trade exception: $4,494,702
Markieff Morris trade exception: $1,836,090
T.J. Warren trade exception: $1,836,090
Kessler Edwards trade exception: $1,637,966
Nets Draft Capital
The Nets will have back-to-back first-round picks in this year's draft: 21st overall via Phoenix and their own at 22nd overall. Brooklyn also has a second-round pick at 51st overall. Following the trades of James Harden, Durant, and Irving, the Nets have 11 first-round picks over the next seven years, the fourth-most in the NBA.