By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Sep 9 2009 9:46AM
It's a question all NBA general managers ask themselves every year: Are we focused on the present or the future? In New Jersey, the answer is clear.
The Nets traded Vince Carter, their best player, before the Draft to put themselves at the top of the list when it comes to cap space next summer. The deal, of course, followed the departures of Jason Kidd (at the 2008 trading deadline) and Richard Jefferson (last summer).
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With all three trades, the Nets sacrificed short-term success for long-term opportunity. The Carter trade, with the lack of any other moves this offseason, has earned them failing grades from several pundits. NBA.com's own David Aldridge wrote that the Nets have had the worst summer of any team in the league.
Clearly, their roster is lacking experienced, top-of-the-line talent. As the Nets stand, it's very likely they'll be at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference in the 2009-10 season. But the focus in East Rutherford is not on the next eight months.
The question is: How well are the Nets positioned for the longer-term future?
New Jersey will have more cap space next summer than any team in the league, around $25 million, depending on where the salary cap line falls. That's a lot of money to spend, enough to sign two major free agents (and there will be a lot of those to go around).
The Nets also have a deep developing core, led by point guard Devin Harris, who's under contract through 2013 at a very reasonable rate, and center Brook Lopez, who's coming off an impressive rookie season. With Courtney Lee, Yi Jianlian, Terrence Williams and Chris Douglas-Roberts, they have young depth as well. The Nets, all things considered, are in a better position than their equally focused-on-the-future neighbors in New York.
"When you're building a team up, all the young players are X-factors," Nets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said Tuesday. "That's why player development becomes so important and, in some cases, takes precedence over winning one particular game. You may sacrifice a little bit waiting for young players to improve."
Would the Nets be better off if they had kept Vince Carter? The 11-year veteran provided leadership. But he missed just two games last season and his team still went 34-48. With some improvement from their younger players, the Nets may have won a few more and maybe challenged for the eighth spot in the East.
"We weren't going where we wanted to go as we were constructed," Vandeweghe said. "Vince Carter is a tremendous basketball player, but we looked at our team and we realized that we weren't going to get to a championship level."
So the Nets took a step back, hoping it would allow them to take two steps forward. Carter's absence provides a greater opportunity for the younger players to develop. And for Vandeweghe and team president Rod Thorn, it's better to be in the position they are now than the one they've been in for the last five years.
"We weren't satisfied just staying in the middle," Vandeweghe said. "That, to me, is the worst place to be if you're going to improve your team."
So they're back at the bottom -- familiar territory for long-time Nets fans -- and looking toward next summer when they can start climbing back to the top, as they did in the first few years after Jason Kidd arrived.
Many doubt the Nets' ability to attract high-caliber free agents next summer. They're losing a lot of money at the Izod Center. Their proposed move to Brooklyn is seemingly forever in doubt.
If they don't get the go-ahead on the Brooklyn move, the franchise's future will be in a serious state of uncertainty. They need to break ground by Dec. 31 in order to sell tax-exempt bonds for the project (or have the budget go up considerably), and with an eminent domain hearing on Oct. 14 holding things up, it will be a tight squeeze at best. If they can't get to Brooklyn, no one knows where the Nets will end up and how that will affect their spending next summer when they have all that cap space.
Even if free agents aren't willing to spend a year or two in New Jersey, though, there are other ways to bring in more talent. Vandeweghe is quick to bring up the possibility of using cap space to acquire players via trade.
For now, the Nets play a waiting game, both with Brooklyn and with their roster. While they wait, they're preaching patience and a focus on improving from within.
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