So, what are the Nets doing?

Three days into NBA Free Agency, the Brooklyn Nets have made some changes to their roster.

The new additions: Jeremy Lin, Caris LeVert, Trevor Booker, Isaiah Whitehead, Justin Hamilton, and Yogi Ferrell and Egidijus Mockevicius (to training camp invites).

The defections: Thaddeus Young, Jarrett, Jack, and Sergey Karasev, officially, and most likely Willie Reed, Wayne Ellington, Thomas Robinson, Shane Larkin, and Donald Sloan, as well.

Some Nets fans appear to like the changes Sean Marks has made.  Some?  Not so much. Regardless of your stance, one thing is certain (and was to be expected) – the Nets, at this point, have not transformed last season’s 21-61 roster into a title contender, or anything close.

So, let’s take a dive in: what are the Nets doing?  What is the plan?

  1. First Things First: The Cap and Asset Situation heading into the offseason:

            Below are the pieces the Nets had under contract, together with their asset pool, heading into the offseason:

Roster: Brook Lopez, Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jarrett Jack, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, Sean Kilpatrick

Under 25 youth on the roster: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough

Assets through 2019: 55 pick in the 2016 draft; Boston’s 2017 first round pick; Boston’s 2017 second round pick (top 45 protected); their own 2019 first round pick

Cap Room (approximate): $46,436,000

Prospective Cap Room in 2017 (under a $111 million cap, approximate): $70,931,000, assuming no multiyear signings in the summer of 2016.

Essentially, the Nets came into this offseason with a 27 year old good starter (Lopez is a second or third starter on a good team), a 28 year old decent starter (Young is a fifth starter, maybe a fourth, on a good team), a 27 year old two year veteran with some potential in Bogdanovic, two kids, and filler – a group that formed the core of a 21-61 roster.

The Nets faced, and still face, several problems with regard to building that roster from 21-61, to a playoff or title contender.

1: despite being 23 games out of playoff contention (per 2015-2016 records), they lacked a top 54 draft pick.  They also lacked a prospective 2017 lottery pick, and figure to pick in the 20’s, and 50’s, in 2017 – where playoff teams hope for rotation players, but not starters.

2: despite the bad record, they lacked not only draft picks, but also a pipeline of youth already on the roster from which internal improvement could foreseeably come.  Players like Lopez Young and Jack (like them or hate them) are what they are.  Bogdanovic, despite just two years of experience, could be what he is, or close, at this point, given he is 27.  That means the entire internal development pipeline is two non-lottery picks who missed most of the 2015-2016 with injuries – and only one of the two players showed on court value.  Sean Kilpatrick? At 26, how much better can he get?

3: despite having $45,341,000 in cap room, good free agents, who can get a payday in many locations, make their choices based upon where, from those payday locations, they can win.  This placed the Nets at a significant disadvantage in acquiring real free agent talent.

  1. Free Agency?

The Nets could have taken the rebuild in multiple directions other than where they have gone, but each would have been fraught with difficulties – it is simply extremely difficult to build a roster from this position.

The Nets could have decided, against all practicality, for example, that their only roster assets were their two starters in Lopez and Young, and dealt away their youth to double down on those players.  What could they have gotten if they tested the market for Bogdanovic, Hollis-Jefferson, McCullough?  Could they have simply used that to further surround Lopez, then went all in on free agency?  Such a plan would not have been smart.  For starters, it is worth considering that the 12th pick in the draft netted (depending how you look at it) George Hill or Jeff Teague.  Hill and Teague are solid players.  Neither is close to a star talent.  When you consider that the 12th pick in the draft has considerably more value than Hollis-Jefferson (who was picked 22nd), and McCullough, and definitely more value than Bogdanovic, what, exactly, could the Nets have pawned off their youth for?  At best, they could have gotten a low tier starter. That would have left the Nets with Lopez, Young, a decent third starter, and absolutely no development pipeline.  The Nets would be totally reliant on cashing in in free agency.

Therein lies the problem Marks faces: free agency’s fickle nature.  For starters, look at this free agency class in hindsight, at this time.  Al Horford is not a superstar, but is the best piece to leave his team – and what intrigued him about his destination was it already built a 48 win roster through the draft and internal player development.  Bismack Biyombo is on the move, but is he making Orlando a contender; the core he augments was draft built in any event.  Dwight Howard makes his new team worse as he replaces Horford.  Chandler Parsons joins a cornerstone Memphis drafted, and another they acquired before ever playing a NBA game, for a player they drafted. Ryan Anderson joins James Harden, who was acquired by dealing draft pick considerations.  Go on down the line, and you will find more of the same.

Is this free agency group not enough evidence?  Look at the NBA’s history.  Aside from teams that snagged LeBron James in free agency (and even those teams were aided in their pursuit by cornerstone pieces they drafted), contenders, and good playoff teams, have largely been built through the draft or pieces acquired via draft pick like assets.  The Warriors, Thunder, and Spurs are obvious examples.  The Clippers drafted their two core bigs and traded talent they drafted for Chris Paul.  The Pacers and Bulls teams that once challenged LeBron in the East mainly drafted their cores.  The Raptors (they did win 56 games) drafted much of their core, and dealt a draft pick for Kyle Lowry.

NBA history shows you that you have to either draft your cornerstone pieces, or have enough of a youthful pipeline that you can trade draftees for franchise, or close, caliber pieces.  A pipeline of youth that can develop over time is a necessary element of success.  Even a team built around LeBron’s free agency, like the 2016 Cavs, benefitted tremendously from the internal development of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and Matthew Dellavedova.  The Nets?  Coming into this offseason, there was, basically, no pipeline to speak of.

III. Thaddeus Young?

            This all brings us to the pivot point of the Nets offseason: the decision to trade Thaddeus Young.

Speaking as someone who likes Young, has wanted the Nets to keep him at times, and has questioned the deal, there are risks to the deal that have to be acknowledged when discussing it.  The Nets had just two proven NBA starters heading into the offseason.  By dealing Young, one was gone.  And with free agency, as described above, not as alluring as it sounds, that was a real concern.  Couple that with the fact that Caris LeVert may never be as good as Young will be the next 2-4 years, and there is certainly risk for the Nets in making this deal.

However, there is also a clear rationale to making the deal.  By adding LeVert, the Nets bring in a first round draft pick (at 20, regardless of where some would have taken him).  The Nets also accrued more flexibility in the summer of 2016, as well as in 2017: Young makes $12.1 million next year, and $12.9 million in 2017-2018.

Young also makes that money as a piece who likely is what he is, and is at his ceiling.  The move acknowledges the reality that there are only so many “value contracts” you can have (contracts that, in a vacuum, make sense on the market) without having a star, before you are stuck in neutral with a bunch of decent talent that cannot contend on multiyear deals.  Yes, Lopez is on a good contract.  Yes, Young is too.  Suppose you add a third value deal (like say, Jeremy Lin at $11.5 million in 2016 and $12 million in 2017, as the Nets did).  Now, suppose a fourth (like say, Tyler Johnson at $12.5 million in both years, as the Nets did, pending Miami’s decision on whether to match the Nets’ offer sheet).

All of those contracts, on paper, are fair.  But that puts you, together with Hollis-Jefferson, McCullough, Bogdanovic, and Kilpatrick, at $63,128,758 in player salaries — or with about $31 million in cap room.  That cap room would have significant caveats.  First, the Nets roster still would be substantially far from title contention.  Second, $31 million in cap space does not go that far.  Even the best case scenario – signing a piece like Al Horford to the entirety of that space – would likely only create a sub contender.  Signing two mid-tier players to the allotment of space (say, Luol Deng and Courtney Lee), and you have an even worse result.

Essentially, it would be extremely difficult to take the Nets roster as of June – with just two NBA starters and no pipeline of youth — and use free agency as your prime tool to simply build out a contender.  So the Nets made a reasonable two part decision not to simply work the market at all costs.  First, they decided that, given the intricacies of roster building, they could only have so many decent pieces on reasonable deals – especially when those decent pieces do not project to improve going forward.  Second, they decided they needed more young players, to start building that pipeline of development that maybe, just maybe, could lead to some future player development down the road.

Yes, the Nets could not add top 5-10 picks to the roster – only dealing Brook Lopez (if he would even be worth one) could do that.  But the Nets now, legitimately, can hope they internally develop their own Dellavedova, or Thompson, at little cost – and as good teams do.

Enter trading Thaddeus Young, and making a sincere commitment to making the roster younger.  Enter Jeremy Lin, who is 27 himself and may not have room to improve, but whose career started later than Young’s which could lead to a higher ceiling.  Enter an offer sheet to Tyler Johnson, a near offer sheet to Allen Crabbe (that will be fun to watch play out), Caris LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead, and Justin Hamilton.  All players who, like Kenny Atkinson said during his media rounds after being hired, just may be able to get 5-10% better.

The Nets roster, at this time, reads as follows:

Roster: Lopez, Lin, Tyler Johnson (pending Miami’s decision to match), Bogdanovic, Hollis-Jefferson, LeVert, Trevor Booker, McCullough, Isaiah Whitehead, Kilpatrick, Justin Hamilton, Yogi Ferrell, Egidijus Mockevicius

Players under 25: Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, LeVert, McCullough, Whitehead, Ferrell, Mockevicius

Does that list of under 25 players the Nets have read like a murderer’s row?  Without a doubt, it does not.  But the Nets, in a short time, have legitimately stocked the roster with multiple pieces under 25, pieces that may be able to help the roster going forward through their own internal improvement.  Hamilton, notably is just 26 and nearly fits the profile.

No, this is not a Timberwolves like youthful pipeline.  But it is, at least, a pipeline: some avenue through which the Nets are not confined to signing players of a certain level, but can actually hope for improvement from within.  It gives the Nets options going forward.  They can continue adding mid-tier veterans, hope for enough internal improvement to position for a big strike, and then hope to land it.  They could go the opposite way, trade Lopez for kids, and then actually have an actual decent stable of young players to grow with (and less time before they finally control their first rounders).

Trading Thaddeus Young unlocks the Nets from a fate of having to nail free agency (not just do well, but absolutely nail it) the next two summers.  It allows for some internal development.  And it opens up their future options.  That is why the Nets did what they did.

  1. For Once, a Plan

            As a last note, there is one thing that should sincerely excite Nets fans: for the first time since the Nets traded for Vince Carter, the Nets actually appear to have a plan.

Think about some of the moves the Nets have made since Sean Marks took over.  For one, the decision to trade Young was not the type of moves fans get behind, and the thinking behind it was complex.  Clearly, given the lack of wild spending, the Nets did not deal Young for the ability so splurge with cap space.  The decision was made that too many decent starters on decent contracts was ultimately suboptimal, and that a young pipeline needed to be started.  That was a complex decision, reflective of a complex plan.

The decision to sign Tyler Johnson to a poison pill offer sheet?  It is typically the most forward thinking organizations that execute contracts that nuanced; the Nets are not taking a simple view of the landscape.  Trevor Booker was smartly targeted as a superfluous piece on a big man loaded Utah team.  Justin Hamilton was spotted in the depths of Europe, and many have called him a player they had as a sleeper in free agency.

Finally, the Nets, win or lose, are actually thinking before acting – and not just thinking about what sells newspapers.  While Billy King added younger, less heralded pieces last offseason, there was no real plan in place with regard to those pieces other than “we need young pieces fans recognize, to keep them engaged with the team.”  Thomas Robinson was a recognizable name as a failed top five pick, Shane Larkin a popular name as Barry Larkin’s son and a former Knick. “Calling up” Willie Reed was a popular hashtag before he was signed.  Andrea Bargnani may be more infamous than famous, but he was a name people knew, a player fans would talk about as a potential rehabilitation candidate on the court.  Wayne Ellington was also a known name to those who follow basketball.

This year?  Sure, Lin and Whitehead are big names, considering, respectively, their ethnicity and Brooklyn roots.  But given how cap friendly Lin’s deal is in light of the market, and the fact that Whitehead was acquired from the 55th spot on draft night by solely dealing cash, how can those deals possibly be criticized?  The rest of the roster?  Few Nets fans knew these pieces before their arrival.

Marks has a plan, a plan that does not center around simply obtaining players whose names fans can put a face to.  Every move, rather, is calculated and measured.

No, the Nets will not be good in 2016-2017.  But at least, for once, there is a sincere plan about how to get good in the future – the right way.    

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