The Nets entered training camp last fall as the title favorites, with their Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Hardenand Kyrie Irving all healthy and ready to play their first full season together. However, it didn’t take long for Brooklyn’s season to begin to come off the rails.
Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 led to him appearing in just 29 of 82 regular season games due to New York City’s local vaccine mandate and the Nets’ initial unwillingness to only play him on the road. Durant put up MVP-type numbers in the first half to help compensate for Irving’s absence, but he went down with a knee injury in January that cost him nearly two months.
Harden dealt with conditioning and hamstring issues, and reportedly became frustrated by Irving’s inconsistent availability and the Nets’ struggles in Durant’s absence, ultimately requesting a trade prior to February’s deadline. Health problems also impacted Joe Harriswho was limited to just 14 appearances due to a troublesome ankle injury, and Ben Simmonswho was acquired as the centerpiece in the Harden trade but never suited up for Brooklyn because of a back injury.
The Nets still went 44-38 and won their first and only play-in game, but they never really looked like they were firing all cylinders, and their playoff run was short-lived – they lost four straight games to the eventual Eastern champions ( the Celtics) in the first round.
With Irving on track for potential free agency and Simmons recovering from a procedure on his back, Brooklyn will have to determine this offseason whether the current core is still championship-caliber, assuming everyone is available next season.
The Nets’ Offseason Plan:
Irving holds a $ 36.9MM player option for the 2022/23 season, but is considered likely to turn it down and seek a new contract, which would lead to some fascinating negotiations between him and the Nets.
Brooklyn can’t really afford to let Irving walk, since his exit wouldn’t open up any cap room for a replacement. That should create some leverage for Kyrie. On the other hand, Irving is on the wrong side of 30 and has a reputation as a mercurial star. And the teams with the most projected cap room – such as the Magic, Pistons, Spurs, and Pacers – aren’t likely to seriously pursue him.
If the right sign-and-trade opportunity arises, perhaps Irving and the Nets would be open to pursuing it, but Kyrie – who specifically chose Brooklyn in free agency in 2019 – has given no indication he wants to leave, and it’s unlikely that any player available in a sign-and-trade deal would possess Irving’s upside or his ability to make an immediate impact for a win-now team. The Nets and Kyrie may take some time to reach sort of compromise – a five-year, maximum-salary contract seems like a long shot – but I’d still expect them to eventually come to an agreement.
A new deal for Irving is likely to push the Nets into tax territory on its own, but the team still has several other players’ free agencies to resolve. Patty Mills (player option), Nothing Claxton (RFA), and Bruce Brown (UFA) all played important roles on the 2021/22 roster and if they’re not re-signed, Brooklyn will have to seek out adequate replacements.
Of the three, Claxton is perhaps most likely to be back, since the Nets can match any offer sheet he receives. But if there’s a team particularly high on Claxton that decides to force Brooklyn’s hand with an aggressive offer, perhaps Sean Marks and his team would prefer to go bargain shopping at center and use the Claxton money to address other roster spots.
Mills shouldn’t be in line for a significant raise, so his free agency will likely come down to where he wants to play. If he turns down his $ 6.2MM player option, there will be no shortage of teams interested in signing him as a backup point guard – if he decides another team gives him a better shot to win a title, he could depart.
Brown is another player who figures to draw interest from a handful of playoff teams, given his versatility and defensive tenacity. The Nets were able to retain him last year at a bargain rate because he was a restricted free agent, but this time around, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a salary closer to the full mid-level exception. It’s unclear if Brooklyn is prepared to go that high.
If the Nets lose a couple of those guys, their best path to acquiring replacements may be on the trade market, since they don’t control any 2022 draft picks and will only be able to offer the taxpayer mid-level exception or minimum salaries to outside free agents.
Harris ‘stock will be down following a lost season, but if his medicals look good, the Nets could potentially dangle his contract (two years and $ 38.5MM) and the Sixers’ 2023 first-round pick in an effort to get a couple useful rotation players. With sharpshooter Seth Curry under contract for less than half the price, Harris has become more of a luxury than a necessity.
Of course, Simmons – who has three years left on his maximum-salary contract – could be a trade chip, but his value will be even lower now than it was when the Sixers spent months trying to move him. Brooklyn is probably better off hanging onto the 25-year-old and hoping he can regain his All-Star form in a new environment. In theory, his defensive prowess and ability to run the floor should make him a nice fit alongside Durant and Irving.
As the Nets explore the trade market, it’s worth noting that they have several trade exceptions available, including one worth $ 11.3MM. That should give them a little additional flexibility as they weigh their options.
Salary Cap Situation
Note: Our salary cap figures are based on the league’s latest projection ($ 122MM) for 2022/23.
- Kevin Durant ($ 44,119,845)
- Ben Simmons ($ 35,448,672)
- Joe Harris ($ 18,642,857)
- Seth Curry ($ 8,496,653)
- Jevon Carter ($ 3,925,000) – Waived.
- Cam Thomas ($ 2,138,160)
- Day’Ron Sharpe ($ 2,109,480)
- Total: $ 114,880,667
Restricted Free Agents
Two-Way Free Agents
Note: These are players who are either already eligible for an extension or will become eligible before the 2022/23 season begins.
- Seth Curry (veteran)
- Joe Harris (veteran)
- Kyrie Irving (veteran) 1
- Ben Simmons (veteran)
Unrestricted Free Agents / Other Cap Holds
- Bruce Brown ($ 8,998,596 cap hold): Bird rights
- Nikola Milutinov ($ 2,275,680 cap hold) 2
- LaMarcus Aldridge ($ 1,811,516 cap hold): Early Bird rights
- Wilson Chandler ($ 1,811,516 cap hold): Non-Bird rights 3
- Goran Dragic ($ 1,811,516 cap hold): Non-Bird rights
- Andre Drummond ($ 1,811,516 cap hold): Non-Bird rights
- Blake Griffin ($ 1,811,516 cap hold): Early Bird rights
- Mike James ($ 1,811,516 cap hold): Non-Bird rights 3
- Total: $ 22,143,372
Offseason Cap Outlook
Even if Irving walks and the Nets get nothing back in return, they’ll be operating as an over-the-cap team – opening up cap room would require jettisoning Irving and shedding more salary beyond that, which probably isn’t happening.
The most likely scenario is that Irving re-signs on a maximum-salary deal or something close to it and Brooklyn is once again a taxpayer in 2022/23.
Cap Exceptions Available
- Taxpayer mid-level exception: $ 6,392,000 4
- Trade exception: $ 11,306,904
- Trade exception: $ 6,267,918
- Trade exception: $ 3,246,530
- Trade exception: $ 1,669,178
- Trade exception: $ 1,293,680
- Trade exception: $ 118,342
- Irving would only be eligible if his option is exercised.
- Milutinov was the No. 26 overall pick in 2015, but has yet to sign a rookie contract. The Nets hold his NBA rights.
- The cap holds for Chandler and James remain on the Nets’ books from prior seasons because they haven’t been renounced. They can’t be used in a sign-and-trade deal.
- This is a projected value. The Nets could instead have access to the full mid-level exception ($ 10,349,000) and bi-annual exception ($ 4,050,000) if they remain below the tax apron.
Salary and cap information from Basketball Insiders and RealGM was used in the creation of this post.