I’d do it all over again: My hottest sports hot take
Over half a decade ago, the Brooklyn Nets made what has been described as the “worst trade in sports history,” acquiring future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for three first round picks and the right to swap picks in another year, among other moving parts.
Tomorrow, they’ll play Game Five of a playoff series against the third-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. In June, they’ll use one of their own draft picks (either round) for the first time since I was a sophomore—in high school. A month later, they’ll contend for top free agents—Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and the like.
At risk of stooping to sports hot take culture, I want to dedicate my penultimate Student Life column to the most unpopular belief I truly hold: that that trade was not only not as bad as recounted, but, dare I say, good. I’d even do it all over again if given the chance.
Since that trade, the Nets franchise has turned on its head. That 2013-14 team started 10-21, recovering to win a playoff series only to be ousted in five by the Miami Heat. Rookie head coach Jason Kidd pulled a power play on his former organization, becoming just another name on the list of six coaches in six Brooklyn seasons. The Nets let Pierce walk, traded Garnett during the following season and became the laughingstock of the National Basketball Association.
But the tidal wave forced deep introspection and change from the top down. After an uninspiring tenure from Billy King—an old head who had been a general manager in the league since 1998—the Nets went in another direction with young San Antonio Spurs protege Sean Marks, who himself had been playing in the NBA just five years earlier. On the bench, they bypassed big names like John Calipari, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy for unproven assistant Kenny Atkinson.
Even on a macro level, team owner Mikhail Prokhorov ostensibly admitted that his plans for the franchise were overly ambitious in selling 49 percent to Yale-educated Joseph Tsai, who has the option to take control of the organization in 2021.
The Nets are now run by incredibly smart people. Marks has been a savant despite a barren chest. His timing has been impeccable in maximizing his limited assets (turning Thaddeus Young into the talented-but-injured Caris LeVert or trading Bojan Bogdanovic at the deadline for a first round pick that was later used to draft Jarrett Allen). He has finagled cap space to perfection, trading it for the picks he did not have and even a few useful pieces along the way (DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Dzanan Musa, Rodions Kurucs and a first round pick this year). And he’s taken a big, calculated swing that gave the Nets their centerpiece (franchise face Brook Lopez, a first and Timofey Mozgov-sized cap space for D’Angelo Russell).
But Russell himself is a cautionary tale. He, like fellow No. 2 picks Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, stalled with the Los Angeles Lakers. The lesson: Player development is as important as talent acquisition.
That’s where head coach Atkinson has lived up to his billing. Career journeyman Spencer Dinwiddie has become arguably the best player on an above-.500 team. Cleveland Cavaliers castaway Joe Harris is a Swiss Army knife. Last year, Harris led the NBA in field goal percentage on drives among players, with at least four per game. This year, he led the league in three-point percentage.
Inexplicably, the Nets have created one of the top situations in basketball. Year one of this regime saw 20 wins. Logically, with no picks, and other bad teams adding lottery talent, you would expect Brooklyn to stay at the bottom. This was supposed to be the year the long, hard rebuild actually began. Instead, the Nets added eight wins, then 14. They’re a Durant or Leonard coup away from contending immediately at a time they were predisposed to hope for a 14 percent shot at Zion Williamson.
There’s a strong chance the Nets are in a better position for short- and long-term success than they would be sans trade. Without that trade, would they make the leadership changes they did? Would they make them at a different time, thus settling on worse candidates? The best decisions often rely on luck and timing, and it’s difficult to look at Brooklyn holistically and think it would have been better off sticking the course.
Of course, I don’t solely want to argue that I’d repeat the trade on the basis that things turned out well; that’s confirmation bias. You were probably wondering when I’d get to the Boston Celtics, the team on the other side of the heist. Let’s put the trade itself under a microscope.
Contrary to popular belief, a trade is not a zero-sum game. What one team receives is not necessarily indicative of what the other team lost, and vice-versa. So, while we look at the garden Boston has cultivated since the trade and gasp, when evaluating the trade from Brooklyn’s perspective, we must examine each piece critically.
The 2014 first round pick became James Young, who wasn’t in the league this year after producing negative-0.4 value over replacement player throughout his career. He’s a non-factor.
The 2016 first became Jaylen Brown. This is where it becomes crucial to understand that Boston’s gain isn’t equivalent to Brooklyn’s loss. Mock drafts that year had Kris Dunn going third, with Brown as low as ninth. That the Celtics made a smarter choice against the grain isn’t an additional black mark against the Nets; they had no control over the pick at this point. The Celtics deserve credit, but if we’re estimating the Net loss, the most likely outcome is a replacement-level player.
The 2017 first became any fan base’s worst nightmare—the No. 1 pick, relinquished. Of course, that was famously flipped to Philadelphia for a future pick and the No. 3 pick, which became Jayson Tatum. Again, while Celtics GM Danny Ainge deserves enormous credit for his conviction in Tatum, the consensus top choice was Fultz. It’s hard to imagine any other GM having the guts to trade that away, and it’s dishonest to ding the Nets twice for Boston’s brilliance.
The 2018 first became the eighth pick (Collin Sexton), traded before the season with Isaiah Thomas and co. for Kyrie Irving. So much contributed to that blockbuster other than the Brooklyn pick: Irving’s discontent in Cleveland, Boston’s development of Thomas as a viable alternative for a championship contender. Are we really going to misinterpret Cleveland’s chaos as another Nets mistake?
Ultimately, if you’re gauging what those assets amounted to, you’re looking at Young, Dunn, Fultz and Sexton. Ainge did masterful work in leveraging that into Brown, Tatum, Irving and the Sacramento Kings’ 14th pick pre-lottery this year. Maybe the Nets could have used the chips to their advantage in a similar way. But when assessing errors, it’s best to take the baseball approach to avoid outcome bias: You can’t assume a double play.
Maybe those picks wouldn’t have been exactly Young-Dunn-Fultz-Sexton. Maybe they’d be Jusuf Nurkic-Dragan Bender-Lonzo Ball-Kevin Knox. But I’m confident that the Nets have a better core now than they would have if they had kept all those picks, somehow had the same record each year and drafted those players on average.
The irony of it all is Brooklyn’s outlook may soon be better than Boston’s. A team that was destined for 67 wins and a dynasty may instead lose Irving because of a lacking culture. Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier all took steps back. Gordon Hayward didn’t quite return to his pre-injury self. A championship no longer seems destined.
Speaking of titles, I’d like to retroactively look at Brooklyn’s strategy from a philosophical point of view. I subscribe to the ideology that a sports team’s goal is to win a championship. Now, that doesn’t have to be the objective every season, but it should be the eventual expectation. We can debate the utility of consistent contention over cyclical greatness, but I will argue on the premise that a franchise’s overall strategy should be to compete for a championship.
With that in mind, let’s consider the state of the league in 2013 and where the Nets stood. The Heat had closed back-to-back championships, so the target was clear for the rest of the league: Beat the Heat and you can win a ring.
The Nets weren’t especially close, despite winning 49 games and tying for third in the Eastern Conference. They had two black holes on offense in Gerald Wallace and Reggie Evans and had just lost to the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls, even with Luol Deng missing Game Seven.
But they were still firmly in win-now territory. They had convinced top two-point guard Deron Williams to re-sign with them over recent champ Dallas, and had gone all-in on Joe Johnson’s giant contract to make it happen. Brook Lopez was coming off an All-Star season. With no clear challenger to LeBron James’ squad, Brooklyn was as good a bet as any.
Still, it was difficult to improve on the current roster given that the Nets were capped out and had few trade assets. The most obvious spot to upgrade was power forward, with veterans like Josh Smith, Carlos Boozer and J.J. Hickson bandied about; none came to fruition.
That’s why the Garnett-Pierce trade was so important: It was the rare opportunity to upgrade both forward positions in one fell swoop. Garnett was a legitimate All-Star the season prior. Pierce was a year removed, but just as effective. Acquiring the duo would give Brooklyn a complete starting five and the depth to oppose a Miami roster built around three stars.
Remember that the picks surrendered weren’t just for those two. The Nets also got Jason Terry, who had recorded his best true shooting percentage in four years. The picks were also the cost of dumping Wallace’s three years and $30 million remaining. Brooklyn was then able to replace his production (0.72 win shares per 48 minutes) with that of Andrei Kirilenko (1.42) for a fraction of the cost.
Future picks also need to be discussed probabilistically, not in absolutes. The picks ended up being Nos. 1, 3, 8 and 17, but the expected value of those picks at the time was likely far lower, given that the Nets were a playoff team. Brooklyn did take on a ton of risk without protections on picks up to five years out, but even so, the optics are worse than the reality of what was traded. The Nets could have retained Pierce, run it back and remained a middling team the last few years. The trade would look better without altering the sunk cost.
As for beating the Heat, the Nets didn’t quite do that, but more than demonstrated proof of concept by going 4-0 against them in the regular season. It can be argued whether Brooklyn should have tried again with a healthy Lopez, more experienced coach (Lionel Hollins) and against a worse Miami team. But that’s independent of the discussion at hand; the point of this exercise is to analyze the trade in a vacuum.
The Nets are in a really exciting place right now. But while the feel-good sentiment is that they’re here despite the infamous trade, it’s in many ways because of it.