Playing Russian Roulette

Gerald Wallace had until Wednesday night at midnight to decide whether or not to exercise an option in his contract that would extend it for one more year, and $9.5M, but he decided to let his contract expire rather than play on a one year deal. This decision may not seem to be too Earth shattering considering Wallace is a second tier star but it does start the countdown to a potential doomsday for the once-New Jersey Nets who have not even finished unpacking all the boxes in the new Barclays center in their new home in Brooklyn.

It is most likely that the team’s superstar Deron Williams will also hit the free agent market leaving the team with only four above minimum contracts (assuming Jordan Farmar doesn’t opt out of his deal) on the ledger (Marshon Brooks, Anthony Morrow and Johan Petro being the others). While Brooks played very well as a rookie the other two-three guys are dead weight as far as the salary cap is concerned – counting about $12.5M towards the assumed $58M cap. They also have to deal with restricted free agent center Brook Lopez, whose tender number is about $4.2M, but cap hold is much higher. However, the issue isn’t having the money to re-sign these players, it is convincing them to take team owner Russian millionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s money or someone else’s.

After trading a large number of assets to acquire Williams – Devin Harris, Derrick Favors (3rd overall 2010), Enes Kanter (3rd overall 2011), and a potential future lottery pick from Golden State; the Nets then traded another package including the 6th overall pick this year and the expiring contract of Memo Okur to get Wallace from Portland with the intention of proving to Williams how serious they were about winning. These moves leave the Nets at a crossroads – and over a barrel – and Wallace and his representatives know it.

So how does the team make best use of this gambler’s opportunity? First the team will try to dump the contracts of Morrow and Petro (and possible Farmar) but they are unlikely to find a taker. Then the team has to deal with Lopez and Wallace and both players know how much the Nets need to bring them back. The team is likely looking at about $27M open after Lopez’s cap hold and it will take more than that to being all three of their free agents back. So at best, the Nets will only be able to keep their current team together – meaning that they may be as good as they’re going to get. How appealing is this to a player like Williams who is interested in winning now? this is also assuming that both players re-signing is enough to get Deron Williams to decide to return.

The Nets could have had about $25M (and another $12M in 2013), to go with a nucleus of Brook Lopez, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Marshon Brooks, the 6th pick in this draft and future lottery pick from Golden State – and instead they chose the quick and easy way and gambled on being able to keep a superstar. Now they pray for a best-case scenario that could turn out to be years of mediocrity and that is a scary proposition for a franchise that left their fan base behind to move into a market-street fight with New York’s beloved Knicks.