These two things about the Brooklyn Nets are true.
1. The franchise is in much, much better shape than a year ago. The record speaks for itself: In 2012, the team was 22-44 and outside shouting distance of the playoffs. In 2013, the Nets went 49-33 and made the postseason as a No. 4 seed. That's real, undeniable improvement. And wins sell tickets. It's a brand new arena in a new market, and tickets need to be sold. Wins are important.
2. The Nets are totally capped out, making talent upgrades more difficult. Put in the context of having lost a best-of-seven series to a team whose best player didn't play, whose best big man probably shouldn't have played and whose best wing had a mid-series spinal tap, this is not good. If an $80 million payroll can't get you to the second round, that's bad.
It's a weird balance we are asked to strike with Brooklyn. We have to acknowledge that the Nets indeed spent themselves out of mediocrity, but also acknowledge that the Nets appear to be nowhere near contending for a championship. More or less, the Nets spent a ton of money to become the Atlanta Hawks (that a big chunk of the money was spent on getting Joe Johnson is one of many ironies here). The only two players in Brooklyn who could get big talent returns in trades would be Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, and trading either for anything less than a star would be a fool's errand.
As the season ends, the Gerald Wallace deal and contract is looking like the big mistake. The Nets sacrificed a major asset -- the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft, which became Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard -- to pick up Wallace for the end of the 2011-12 season and get his Bird rights. The Nets used those Bird rights to sign Wallace to a 4-year, $40 million deal. Wallace had a really rough season on offense, though on-off numbers indicate he was still valuable defensively. And some in Brooklyn will always argue that if the team hadn't traded for Wallace, Deron Williams would have looked elsewhere in free agency. But as Crash moves into his 30s and his signature athleticism fades, the contract could become pretty close to unmovable.
It'll be interesting to see if the Nets are interested in trying to move Wallace or Johnson in order to get an upgrade, or if the team will instead look to coaching, a healthier season for Williams and more improvement from Lopez in order to take the next step. There's no putting the toothpaste back in the tube here, though. The Nets are going to be capped out for years, and it's up to Billy King, the GM, to make it work. P.J. Carlesimo, who took over from the bench early in the season, might take the fall for this loss, even if a shaky (if defensible) personnel strategy is to blame.