Nets fans have grown accustomed to general manager Sean Marks making huge offers to restricted free agents for three straight years only to see their original team match. But when the free-agent market opens at 12:01 a.m. Sunday morning, Marks might be focused on two new priorities — retaining the Nets’ own unrestricted free-agent guard Joe Harris and not doing anything to jeopardize the Nets’ projected salary cap space of $65 million to $80 million next summer.
The deal Marks made before the draft to acquire veteran Charlotte center Dwight Howard won’t become official until the free-agent moratorium ends on July 6, but the Nets reportedly are trying to negotiate a buyout of the final year of Howard’s contract worth $23.8 million. It’s projected they might save up to $8 million in the process and wind up with an estimated $8 million to $12 million in cap room this summer.
Harris, who might command a contract starting at $5 million to $6 million per year, said at the end of the regular season that his preference is to stay with the Nets. He developed over the past two seasons into a player who averaged 10.8 points last season and shot 41.9 percent from three-point range.
“I think Joe made it pretty clear from statements he made that he’d love to be back here,” Marks said in April. “That’s how the organization feels about him, too. We’ve got some decisions to make on several players, and definitely Joe is a guy we see in a Nets uniform.”
It’s highly unlikely that unrestricted free agent Jahlil Okafor and restricted free agent Nik Stauskas, who were acquired from Philadelphia last December, will return. The status of veteran big men Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham, both unrestricted, and restricted free agents Milton Doyle and James Webb III is uncertain, but Acy and Cunningham played prominent roles last season. Both provided three-point shooting at power forward or center when coach Kenny Atkinson went with a small lineup.
What the Nets do with them depends on whether Marks explores the market in search of the “stretch four” that is the Nets’ most glaring need. Although the Nets were second in three-point attempts last season, they were only 20th in three-point percentage, which underlines the need to improve their efficiency from long range.
“You look at the way the NBA has gone, the skill sets that are needed not only from a shooting guard but from across the board, looking at fours and fives stretching the floor and the pacing of the game and everything else,” Marks said. “We try to build a roster that suits Kenny’s vision for that.”
One restricted free agent who fits the bill is Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, but he doesn’t fit the Nets’ budget and the Magic likely will match whatever offers he gets. But there are two unrestricted free agent small forwards who can slide to the four in a small-ball lineup who might be attractive in the Magic’s Mario Hezonja and the Mavericks’ Doug McDermott, whose restricted free agent qualifying offer reportedly has been rescinded, making him available.
The Nets also need a backup center behind Jarrett Allen, who started as a rookie. The market for backup centers includes unrestricted free agents Alex Len of the Suns and Nerlens Noel of the Mavs along with restricted free agent Montrezl Harrell of the Clippers.
But with so much cap space available in 2019 — and their own first-round draft pick — the prudent thing for the Nets might be to sit tight and consolidate the gains they made last season with youthful trade acquisitions like D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe plus Allen.
“[They] haven’t gone through an offseason with us,” Atkinson said of the young Nets starters. “It’s really going to be their collective buy-in, their commitment to what we’re trying to accomplish in the offseason.”
Nets’ Needs in Free Agency
1. Sign unrestricted free agent Joe Harris. Along with point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, Harris is a prime example of the Nets’ development program and they can’t afford to lose their best three-point shooter.
2. Find a “stretch four.” Nets could use another long-range marksman who can play the four, such as unrestricted free agent Doug McDermott, who shot 49.4 from three in 26 games with Mavs after Knicks traded him.
3. Backup center. Rookie center Jarrett Allen is focused on adding strength, but Nets need a backup shot-blocker who can keep them from getting beat up in paint. Unrestricted free agents Nerlens Noel and Alex Len might fit bill.