Williams, bold moves make Nets a fun team… for now

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The Brooklyn Nets are a much better team right now than they were 72 hours ago.

They will walk onto the court at the Barclays Center with an entertaining lineup, a team with offensive firepower, something you couldn’t really say about the squad last seen in New Jersey (they move to Brooklyn this fall). They should be a team on the second tier in the East along with Indy, Boston and the Knicks. They won the battle to keep the face of the franchise in point guard Deron Williams. They should be popping champagne at the Nets headquarters tonight.

But they are not title contenders, not unless guys who have never been good at it suddenly learn to defend and board. And the way this team is built — with massive contracts for some players seeming past their prime — the moves of the last 72 hours will come back to haunt them in a couple years.

And Dwight Howard is not going to be bailing them out — all these bold moves make it nearly impossible for the Nets to trade for Howard (and there is no way they can sign him as a free agent next summer now). Howard still wants to land in Brooklyn, but it is going to take a Houdini-like escape from the confines of the CBA to find a way to free up salary to pull it off.

Nets GM Billy King was clearly under orders from owner Mikhail Prokhorov to get a team together that could open a new building, one that could compete in the nation’s largest market with the much more established Knicks. Something the Nets could sell.

He did.

Deron Williams is an Olympian and arguably the second best point guard walking the face of the earth. He’s also taken to living in New York City and will be a great ambassador for the team.

They added Joe Johnson and while we can all agree his contract is ridiculously large — $89 million over four more years — the guy is an All-Star and he can play. Johnson averaged 18.5 points per game last year, shot 38 percent from three and had a PER of 18.5.

The Nets also have Gerald Wallace, a guy who averaged 15.2 points a game, is an efficient shooter and can defend. Somehow the Nets held on to MarShon Brooks, the impressive rookie that a lot of teams coveted. They added Mirza Teletović, a quality stretch four from Europe. Reggie Evans will be a fan favorite but drive coach Avery Johnson crazy.

There are some pieces to like. This Nets roster should put up points. If Avery Johnson can get them to defend as a unit they could be better than just good.

But they are still looking up at Miami (as is everyone) and a healthy Chicago. And getting more quality pieces to change that will be nearly impossible. As you read this, the Nets have $54 million committed to six players (via Zach Lowe at Sports Illustrated who did the math). The salary cap is $58 million, and what is more by using the full $5 million mid-level exception on Teletović the Nets have locked themselves in with essentially a hard cap of $74 million they cannot exceed.

Bottom line is the Nets have $20 million to round out the roster and we haven’t talked about re-signing Brook Lopez or Kris Humphries yet. And they want to keep Lopez for sure, ideally both. Very quickly the Nets are going to be looking and inexpensive veteran minimum deals because they will be running out of space below the $74 million apron (as it is called in the CBA).

Which comes back to the dream of trading for Howard. First off, the Magic have consistently rejected an offer of Lopez, Brooks and picks for Howard and that is not suddenly going to change. The Magic have all summer or longer to make a move, they are not the ones that take the PR hit for how they handled the situation. They are more than happy to let Howard twist in the wind. And they sure as heck don’t care where he wants to go, they want the best deal for themselves.

More than that, Howard (set to make $19.5 million next year) along with Johnson, Williams, Wallace and the other couple guys already under contract but not shipped out would be owed nearly $70 million. So that leaves $4 million to get seven more guys. You’re not getting quality for that.

There are scenarios you can create where the Nets get some third party to help them out, taking on salary and opening the door for them to get Howard. But not realistic ones. And you can bet no GM in the East is going to help the Nets create another Super Team in their conference.

No, what you see with the Nets is pretty much what you get. They will be good. They will be fun. They will compete with the Nets and the fans in Brooklyn will love them. Jay-Z will love them.

But in a few years the real cost of opening the Barclays Center the right way will come home to roost.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.