It says something about NBA culture at the moment that the initial reaction to Billy King's bold maneuver to acquire Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry was one of derision. King assembled a $100 million team and it may not be any better than fourth-best in its own conference.
But in a pure basketball sense, this was a great move. We're talking about two future Hall of Famers who can still play and and a former Sixth Man of the Year in exchange for a one-dimensional rebounder, a small forward whose skills are in steep decline with an albatross contract and an inefficient bench scorer who couldn't crack the rotation. King didn't even have to give up Mirza Teletovic or Toko Shengelia to make it happen. The Nets got better, more experienced and even saved a bit of cap space in the long run.
So what's the problem?
The money, obviously. The Nets will have a monstrous payroll this year and next, even after Pierce's contract runs out. The three unprotected draft picks King surrendered will also hamper his ability to restock the roster. What you see is what you're going to get, and again, it may not be better than Indiana, Chicago or Miami.
If it doesn't work, then the Nets could find themselves stranded in the wilderness with no conceivable way out. Yet they have a far better team than they did when last season ended. Isn't that the whole point?
Understanding when to make a move out of the NBA's upper middle class is always a tricky balancing act, but it's important to remember that there are no guarantees in this league. Say it again, commit it to memory: There. Are. No. Guarantees. Players get hurt, systems fall apart and the wrong matchup in the playoffs can be the difference between a long run and an early vacation. But you cannot win if you're too afraid to try.
Let us not forget that King also secured the services of Andrei Kirilenko on a cut-rate deal and re-signed Andray Blatche for a pittance, all without fundamentally touching the core of a team that won 49 games and came within a Nate Robinson freak-out of advancing to the second round.
Let us also not forget that Garnett and Pierce are still really good players and they won't be asked to do nearly as much as they were in Boston, when they were forced to carry the Celtics long after they should have been able to settle into lesser, more productive roles.
Per 36 minutes, KG turned in essentially the same season he's been having since recovering from knee surgery. Pierce averaged better than 18 points, six rebounds and five assists and had to basically do everything offensively once Rajon Rondo tore his ACL. Team them up with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, and that's potentially one hell of a starting five. Bring Terry, Kirilenko and Blatche off the bench, and that's an excellent rotation.
There are concerns, of course. Pierce looked awfully worn out at the end of last season and the Celtics got great mileage out of Garnett by carefully protecting his minutes. No matter how tempting it may be, first-year coach Jason Kidd can't afford to wear them out for a meaningless game in January. Williams has to be the player he was in the second half of the season. KG and Lopez will have to figure out responsibilities inside and Pierce and Johnson will have to carve out space and opportunity on the wing. Kidd will have to learn on the job. There isn't much time to get it right. But Garnett and Pierce are two of the smartest players in the league and they've already been through an even tougher transition.
It's also unwise to discount the kind of franchise-altering presence that Garnett and Pierce bring to the equation in the form of accountability, practice habits and defensive commitment. The Nets often appeared rudderless last season. That shouldn't be as much of an issue with KG and Pierce around.
The Nets are going for it, and in a league that too often is content to pat itself on the back for taking two steps back to take one forward, their boldness should be saluted, not ridiculed.
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