After months of intrigue, the NBA draft has finally come and gone, and Sean Marks has begun the process of truly putting his stamp on the Brooklyn Nets.
At the moment, it is not yet clear what direction Marks plans to take the Nets, as he begins clarifying his vision through the prism of his transactions. Nevertheless, with pieces like Joe Johnson and Thaddeus Young out the door, and players like Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead in it, it does appear that the plan, in the immediate term, is to build the beginnings of a younger core.
Marks’ cannot be evaluated upon the honeymoon part of his tenure, before Thursday, June 23, 2016. Waiving Johnson was a matter of catering to Johnson, while addressing a holdover of a prior era. Adding Sean Kilpatrick was a surprise jolt, while adding Henry Sims was a largely immaterial to the future transaction, but, regardless, GM’s, and their plan, cannot be judged by players added on ten day contracts.
Even the acquisition of Isaiah Whitehead – trading the 55 pick for the 42 pick by simply offering some cash is an obvious win – cannot truly be a move upon which Marks is judged given the late time in the draft, although it should be a spark plug for conversation regarding the Nets’ direction. Hope for Whitehead is sincere; he is a prospect who excelled in college and who many believe can thrive at the next level. It should be noted that he is a Brooklyn kid, and the Nets have been known since their move as favoring splashes over practicality; it is fair for Nets fans to hope that such vain motives are not at play here. However, Marks has maintained that such is not his M.O., and the organization has indicated that it learned from those mistakes made prior to hiring Marks. All organizations can one day become great, and Marks is new blood; it would be unfair to simply accuse the Nets of adding Whitehead as a P.R. move).
Whitehead aside, Marks will be evaluated much more closely by his first signature move in the big seat: the Young for LeVert trade.
Thaddeus Young is a good NBA player, whose contributions go underappreciated by more casual fans. No, he is not a star, not close. And he is not the “two” or “three” option you surround “the star” with, when trying to build a contender. However, Young is a perfect fourth or fifth starter to surround such a core trio, and has excelled and will excel in that role going forward. He can guard multiple positions (an IMPERATIVE asset in today’s game), his speed is a problem for other 4’s, he can handle the ball, he scan score inside, and his jumper, while shaky, is serviceable. He is also underpaid at $12 million per year given the spike in the cap over the past two summers; he is simply better than many players making similar dollars that were signed last summer, and better than players who will make more than that figure this coming summer.
In part for these reasons, I advocated on this site, and on Twitter, that Young not be dealt. It was always my feeling (in short) that with the frontcourt set, the Nets could use their money this summer and next summer to address the backcourt. Marks took a calculated risk dealing Young, and doing so to draft LeVert, who, by the aggregate of accounts, is a piece with higher upside than most draftees, but also a piece with a significant foot injury history and who arguably could have been selected later in the draft.
That said, it also should be remembered that Young is not a foundation player, despite my affinity for how well he can fit with a foundation player. There are certainly reasons for making this trade. By keeping Lopez and Young, the Nets were going to have to rely, going forward, on surrounding that front line (which came with significant defensive questions, and lacks a foundation piece) with free agent talent. In addition, the timeline for that endeavor was restricted: both pieces will not be mid age veterans forever, and the Nets would be facing the conflict of having to surround them both early enough, such that both would be as productive when the Nets were ready to win as they are today.
Trading Young alleviates some of that pressure. At the moment, the Nets roster is essentially Lopez, and an amalgam of young talent which lacks a significant young prospect, but which has some potential to grow together into a decent group of talent. Now, the Nets can more comfortably, if they wish, take the longer road to contention by growing their young base of talent, perhaps waiting until 2019 when they can pick in the lottery. Maybe that path entails dealing Lopez. And, if the Nets do wish to accelerate the timeline, they do face the harm to that path that Young is a nice player on a cap friendly deal, but the loss of Young in the short term is a small blow, by no means a devastating one.
So in light of all that, I have a lukewarm position on the deal. I did not originally believe it should have been done, but I understand the Nets’ reasoning. Still, with George Hill being dealt for the 12th pick and Marco Belinelli the 22nd, the trade feels underwhelming, given Thad is closer in value to Hill than Belinelli. Nevertheless, the most encouraging aspect of the trade is that, regardless of the result or the value (which admittedly is somewhat poor), the trade shows that the Nets have a long term vision for their franchise. It is not a deal that makes a splash, or features placing the short term over the long term. It is the opposite of those things, and shows that critical thinking and pragmatism is at play in Brooklyn. Maybe praising the Nets for thinking deliberately feels like the bar is set too low (you see those concession stand prices?!), but, given the impulsive nature of the organization just months ago, it is encouraging to see.
So, where does that leave the Nets as they head into 2016 free agency? In short, the Nets have a significant amount of money to spend, with the caveats of a ton of holes to fill, a potential dearth of options, and a significant number of decisions to make.
The Nets roster at press time, with a salary cap of $94 million and projected $111 million in 2017-2018, is as follows (all numerical support provided by basbetballinsiders.com, realgm.com, or estimated by myself):
–Players under contract: Lopez ($21,165,675), Bojan Bogdanovic ($3,573,020), LeVert ($1,562,280 if signed at 120% of the rookie scale), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson ($1,359,600), Chris McCullough ($1,191,480), Kilpatrick ($980,000); Whitehead ($543,471 if signed for the minimum); Ferrell (Unreleased partial guarantee) = $30,375,526 + Ferrell’s guarantee
–Free agents (in order of importance): Brown (Restricted if Nets extend qualifying offer of $1,180,431); Larkin; Jack (team option of $6.3 million, or $500,000 buyout due June 30); Robinson; Sims; Sloan; Reed (Restricted if Nets extend qualifying offer of $1,215,696); Karasev; Ellington (Player option of $1,567,500 due June 30)
–Other salary commitments: Deron ($5,474,787 in stretched money); Jack ($500,000 buyout if he is not kept for $6,300,000) = $5,974,787
The translation of the above? The Nets have (to the nearest tenth) would have approximately $58.1 million in cap space this summer, before accounting for whether Jack is bought out or kept (a $5.8 million difference either way), Ellington’s option; whether Brown or Reed were to take the qualifying offer in lieu of restricted free agency (I would expect an offer to Brown, but not to Reed); and Ferrell’s partial guarantee (which should be under $1 million). That all means the Nets should have in excess of $50 million in cap space this summer. As for next summer? The Nets flexibility at the moment is significant; with a $111 million cap, they would be looking at a staggering $76.7 million in cap space, provided they did not add a single long term deal this summer (unlikely). The only commitments on the 2017 books are: Lopez (a $22.6 million player option), $5.5 million in stretched Deron money, team options on RHJ, McCullough, and Kilpatrick for a total of $3.7 million, and likely commitments to LeVert and Whitehead for a combined approximate $2.5 million.
Still, however, in building the team the next two summers, every dollar committed now to 2017-2018 cuts into the 2017-2018 books, which raises two issues. First, the 2017 free agency class is stronger. Second, the Nets should be a more viable option for free agents in 2017 than they are now, so they will want money to spend. The Nets need to be careful, as a result, not to overspend this summer. Still, unless they deal Lopez and truly tear it down, they will need to spend. After all, cap space, even at these levels, is not worth much if you’re losing 60 games every year and nobody wants to take your money. Accordingly, the Nets need to spend money to get to a high enough level to get good players. Still, the Nets must balance the need to spend some money against the fact that the more you spend, the less space you have. They will need to be sure that, while spending, they do not cap out their future, unless they do so by building a 55 win group. Otherwise, they will be back where they are now.
That leaves the Nets needing multiple things this summer as they try to build a winner over the long haul without the draft lottery. First off, the Nets need NBA caliber players this summer. The only clear starter on the roster at this time is Lopez. Bogdanovic has talent, but has not played at a starter level consistently, and Hollis-Jefferson, despite clear upside, needs to frankly play more minutes before he earns the label of clear starter. The rest of the young pieces are a combination of talented, but untested and far from established.
Second, the Nets draft pick and young talent dearth is still significant, even with the sincere effort to add young talent. While the Nets young talent carries intrigue, it simply does not stack up well next to teams built around multiple young lottery pick talents. The Nets, accordingly, cannot just look at the higher level free agents, like a Mike Conley, Kent Bazemore, or Al Horford, but must look at the younger free agents that could be had. The 24-28 year olds on the market who probably will not amount to much, but COULD. The Nets need to see: who on the market is a kid who is not worth all that much today, but can be given to Coach Kenny Atkinson and his draft and made 5-10% better? A Dwight Powell? A Seth Curry?
With that, this will be a pivot point summer for the Nets. Unlike Thad Young, Brook Lopez, while not a foundational star, is a very, very good NBA player, who is one of the top players at his position. Players like Thad are useful, but are obtainable every year – players like Lopez, while not as difficult to get as in total control of where they go stars, are not always available, and do not switch teams all that often.
The Nets will have to decide: do they keep Lopez, and slowly, over these two summers, add starting caliber talent around him and stock the roster with youth as they build a contender? If they do, expect the Nets to add players like Conley, like Bazemore and Horford, while leaving enough cap space in the cupboard for next summer to strike then as well. In all likelihood, even the best outcome this summer will not yield even a near contender, so the Nets need to make sure they have money to spend next summer to further build.
On the other hand, there is the other potential plan this summer. What if, despite the lack of draft picks in the near future, the Nets go in reverse, deal Lopez for kids, and start completely over? If the Nets take this second approach, do not expect them to add key free agents to the roster. Rather, expect them to use their cap space to absorb awful contracts other teams look to unload, while charging those teams draft picks as compensation for that absorption. It is inevitable that teams will look to dump their bad contracts this summer, be it for no clear reason, or because a signing is close and they need to open a little more salary room up. If the Nets head into a total rebuild, this is where they can act like vultures and pounce on the market. The clear negative: expect the Nets to lose an astonishing number of games in the immediate term if they employ this approach.
So will the Nets take the aggressive, build it now approach, or truly swing into a total rebuild? None of us know, for now, except Sean Marks. And, despite Marks’ initial honeymoon period and ability to say all the right things, what he actually does, and how well it works, will be what makes or breaks his tenure in Brooklyn.