The financial parameters under which the NBA operates are ripe for change with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expected to look far different than the current one, which expires July 1. That makes it difficult to predict with confidence how the New Jersey Nets can adjust their roster following their 24-win season. amNewYork spoke with two NBA front office executives to collect their thoughts on where the Nets need to upgrade.
Improve the wings
Anthony Morrow and Sasha Vujacic don't offer the necessary offensive firepower to complement 26-year-old All-Star point guard Deron Williams in the backcourt. "They have good shooting, but they certainly don't have guys who can create off the dribble," said one Eastern Conference general manager, who requested anonymity out of respect for the team's matters.
Travis Outlaw, who signed a five-year, $35 million deal last summer, averaged just 9.2 points on career-low 37.5 percent shooting. An Eastern Conference basketball official wrote in an email message that a team needs 25-30 points per game from its wing players. "[The Nets] don't have that on most nights," wrote the official, who didn't wish to comment publicly about another team.
The general manager said Outlaw's struggles could be attributed to his more prevalent role on the Nets. "He was in a good role in Portland," the GM said. "He was playing with confidence. He was more of a guy who came off the bench and got them points. He wasn't a go-to guy."
Now, the GM said, Outlaw has expand his offensive repertoire by getting stronger and finding a way to take defenders off the dribble better.
The burden from signing a contract many deemed too rich for his ability could also be affecting Outlaw, although neither executive alluded to that. Still, the GM said the reward of a large contract always poses a risk when teams analyze free agents. "So much of it is evaluating a guy's makeup and his mental toughness and inner strength," he said.
Given that Morrow doesn't appear to be starter material and that 23-year-old guard Damion James hasn't set the Nets on fire, Outlaw might be the team's primary option to improve their wings' production. The GM hinted a wing scorer won't be so easy for the Nets to find; they used to be a dime a dozen, he said, but "it's not like that anymore."
Humphries: to re-sign or not to re-sign
One of six NBA players in 2010-11 to average double-digit points and rebounds with 10.0 and 10.4, respectively, power forward Kris Humphries played with a $3.2 million salary that was affordable by NBA standards. The Nets likely won't be so fortunate to get him on the cheap if they opt to re-sign him — which could pose a problem.
"He seems like one of those guys that when his contract is reasonable, he plays well ... but if he gets good money, then things go south," the official wrote. "We'll see."
The importance of a power forward in the mold of Humphries can't be understated — many veteran playoff teams have the success they do because of a grizzled, unselfish 4-man who sets the physical tone for a team on defense. Joakim Noah for the Bulls and Kevin Garnett on the Celtics are two examples. While not as talented as Noah or Garnett, Humphries offers what Nets general manager Billy King and coach Avery Johnson are looking for, said the Eastern Conference general manager.
"[Humphries] is not an All-Star, but he's a really good, hard-working, diligent energy guy," he said. "I think he's a guy they'll try to sign."
Yet as with Outlaw, Humphries could hold more value to the Nets by playing less, if the team wishes to join the NBA's elite. "To be a really good team, you might need better as a starter," the official said.
A rebound for Lopez
It should be considered fortunate for a team to have a 7-foot, 23-year-old center with exemplary character who's coming off a 20-point-per-game season and who is owed "only" $3.08 million next season. So, why is there skepticism about Brook Lopez' long-term value?
"He has to get stronger, rebound better and become more of a presence defensively," the general manager said. The GM conceded Lopez is a potential All-Star; the problem is his 6-rebound average.
The basketball official cited a reactive, rather than proactive, attitude from Lopez on the boards and defense that was a result of slow instincts or lack of desire, by his analysis. Still, the official said a trade isn't likely given how well Lopez and Williams work together offensively. "The only thing that makes sense is if you trade him for a young, high-scoring wing and get a rotational big man back in return," he wrote.
Still, Lopez contains a skill coveted by other teams because of its increasing rarity: back-to-the-basket scoring ability. Point guard and center are widely considered by NBA front office personnel and coaches to be the two most difficult areas in which to gain stability. The Nets have an effective young player at each position. While Orlando's Dwight Howard has been rumored to be a possible trade acquisition for the Nets as he enters the last year of his contract with the Magic, the amended CBA could sabotage any team's desire to acquire multiple superstars. For now, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez lead the Nets, who will likely search for ways to maximize the potential of that duo.