Grading Sean Marks and Looking Ahead for Nets

It’s July 24th.  Sure, Sean Marks has said he does not know if the Nets are ever done.  And sure, trades, and smaller signings, occur in August and September, even in October.

Still, with 15 guaranteed deals signed, and the free agent market virtually barren of talent, the offseason is largely wrapped up.  Trades can happen at anytime, but teams are generally done constructing their rosters for next year, aside from opportunities that may, but won’t certainly, arise.

So with that, it is time to grade Sean Marks on his first offseason.  Before the grades, here are two general points to keep in mind:

First: There are many factors outside of a GM’s control.  For any team, so much of what happens, results wise, is outside of a GM’s control, for better or for worse.  A GM like say, Dennis Lindsey in Utah, is not regarded by many casual fans as a great GM, but has done a great job in Utah adding talent piece by piece, despite starting behind the 8 ball when pieces like Deron Williams and Paul Millsap decided to bolt.  On the flip side, a GM like Masai Ujiri is well regarded by fans — and does deserve that.  Still, he benefitted from inheriting a 50 game winner in Denver at a time when the Knicks chose to overpay for Melo (regardless of who the Nuggets GM was), and benefitted in Toronto from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan emerging beyond expectations (remember: Ujiri’s goal was to deal Lowry and rebuild. DeRozan, at around $9M per annum, was considered overpaid.  Masai is good, but has benefitted from good fortune).  With Marks, the same applies.  The Nets poor asset situation, and unattractiveness due free agents due to the record and asset lack, were and are factors outside Marks’ control.  He can still be evaluated, but those limitations — and the way they affected free agent desire in Brooklyn — HAVE to be factored into the evaluation.

Second: Not all moves, for any GM, can be fully evaluated in the year in which they are made.  The goal for all teams in their building is to construct a contender.  Not only are most teams incapable of winning a title in a given year when it starts, but most teams are incapable of constructing a title contender in a given summer.  When those teams make moves, the idea is not just to judge them in a vacuum, based on how it affects that year’s team, but to judge them while keeping in mind the future, and how it affects the future. A move to open cap space may not just be about that summer, but also about future summers.  An asset today may help build tomorrow.  All of those things must be considered: for the Nets, 21-61 last year with no top 54 pick heading into the offseason, there is no way to believe that the goal this summer was to construct the 2017 NBA champs. The goal was to position the Nets for creating a contender, in the 2018-2022 time frame.

With that, on to how Marks did.

I. The Good Things

A) Signing Jeremy Lin, Greivis Vasquez, Luis Scola, and Randy Foye, drafting Isaiah Whitehead, and the creative contract given Whitehead: The Nets needed a good point guard this summer.  They got one in Lin.  Lin was a productive Charlotte Hornet last year.  He was part of multiple good, winning lineups, thrived when he started, and finished many big games.  He is a gigantic upgrade over last year’s group.  Some will allege that marketing, or ethnicity, matters here. Frankly, I do not care about those things, and have always evaluated Lin as a basketball player: just as I would evaluate Amir Johnson, Thaddeus Young, or George Hill.  And on that evaluation, I like Lin for this team.  As for Whitehead, this is very simple: the Nets had the 55th pick in the draft, and Whitehead was never falling that low.  They got him by moving up 13 spots, and all it took to do it was a billionaire’s cash.  Whitehead’s contract: icing on the cake.  With no second round rookie scale, the second round provides for some creativity, contract wise.  The Nets, by offering Whitehead nearly $1 million per when the minimum was $543,000, were able to leverage the slight raise into 4 years of control.  Many teams only control their second rounders for one or two years, because they simply provide a small contract, and the player, knowing that, does not want to be tied up long term.  The Nets leveraged a larger initial guarantee into four years of control — two of which are team options.  Now, if Whitehead is good, he is theirs for awhile.  If he is not, he is gone after two years – and the $800-$900K lost over two years will have had little effect on building the rest of the roster.  As for Vasquez, Scola, and Foye, any rebuild needs veterans to show the young players the way: you cannot have fifteen young guys.  Scola, Vasquez, and Foye do that, but, unlike players like Nazr Mohammed and Elton Brand who also do that, do that while having some basketball left in their tanks.  There were, arguably, better players than Vasquez Scola and Foye at their price points.  But no matter what, the Nets were not getting core pieces for the future in their respective places.  The goal was about pieces who fit the rebuild: given their character and reputations these three do, very much so.

 

B) Stocking their D-League roster through summer league: So far, the adds are Yogi Ferrell, Egidujis Mockevicius, and Beau Beech.  It must be said: these are undrafted free agents who have never played in the NBA.  It cannot be said, with any certainty, that any of these players will do anything in the NBA.  To say and of these players are good NBA players, right now, is just too extreme.  Still, the Nets do need to add as much youth to their organization as possible in the hope that some of the youth pops more than most expected to date.  Can they add the next Gerald Green, Langston Galloway, or other D-League player that carved out a NBA role?  That is the goal.  The Nets recognize that this is important and that is a good thing.

 

C) Going after Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson: Yes.  The Nets offer sheets were matched. Still, going after Crabbe and Johnson was the right play.  The Nets need to add legitimate young talent to this roster that can grow.  They tried, with these offers.  The offers were the correct plays, for multiple reasons:

i) What better player was available: The Nets simply could not reject giving out offer sheets under the guise “we can sign someone better.” Player rankings are always arbitrary, but this is a nice sampling of the top 117 free agents by Tom Ziller.  Let’s break it down. Frankly, I am not going to consider players who did not make the list: if your gripes with the Nets arise from the lack of consideration of players ranked outside of a subjective list of the 117 best free agents, you are just plain unreasonable.

-First, Whether it was because the Nets never had a shot due to their record, they declined a meeting with the Nets, they met with the Nets and elected to go elsewhere (Bazemore, Marvin Williams), or they signed with their incumbent and no other suitors had a shot, the Nets simply did not have a shot with the following free agents, such that to suggest they show the offer sheets were the wrong play is just wrong: Durant, LeBron, Drummond, Conley, Horford, DeRozan, Whiteside, Dirk, Wade (it was always Chicago or Miami if you’re being realistic), Parsons (he wanted to win immediately), Batum, Beal, Gasol, Marvin Williams, Clarkson, Fournier, Meyers Leonard, Livingston, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller, Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia, Joe Johnson (he wants to win), Courtney Lee (the Knicks ready made talent factored into his decision), David West, and Darrell Arthur.

Here’s the thing: that is a lot of talent the Nets simply did not have a chance at getting. Sure, any offer to a RFA is a risk, but when you consider that those 27 free agents simply were not available, that “risk” is not all that high — who exactly is being missed out on.

-Second, nobody else on the market warranted not trying to get Crabbe and Johnson.  Dwight or Bismack Biyombo? The Nets have Lopez at center, and even if the idea is to  deal Lopez to spend at other positions, their deals are large as well. Joakim Noah, Eric Gordon, Miles Plumlee, Ryan Anderson, Evan Turner, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Arron Afflalo, Matthew Dellavedova, Ian Mahinmi, Jamal Crawford, Harrison Barnes, Jeff Green (he’s miserable at basketball and nobody seems to catch on), or Solomon Hill?  All were overpaid — and all represent bullets dodged by Brooklyn. Dion Waiters, JR Smith, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Jennings, or Ty Lawson?  First, other than Rondo, all are still on the board – the offer sheets had no effect.  Second, the Nets are trying to build a world class culture from a state of abject rubble — that takes time, and that cannot be done on the backs of players like this, who have assorted character and shot selection related issues.  Arguably, these players can be plugged into a first class culture and reigned in by it, but they cannot help a nascent culture grow, they only can derail it.   Rondo’s last 3 teams could not wait to see him go, Lance one ups that at 4.  Lawson failed in second and third chances last year, and did so miserably.  Waiters?  The Cavs could not wait to dump him, and the Thunder have shown 0 desire to keep him. Jennings?  The Bucks benefitted by dumping him, he was awful for the Pistons and they relished dumping him, and he was awful for Orlando last year – the Knicks are taking a flier and nothing more than that.  Smith did thrive in Cleveland, which is an example of a world class culture reigning a character in, but he failed in other stops — the Nets obviously do not have a LeBron like presence to keep him in line.  How does his lifestyle and shot selection impact a developing group?

-Third, the offer helps boost the Nets reputation with players and agents.  For this, think about the Clippers’ courtship of LeBron in 2010.  The Clippers were a laughingstock at the time.  Obviously LeBron did not sign there.  But word let out that LeBron was impressed by their organization.  That word was huge in helping the Clippers nab Chris Paul within two years, and then keep him long term.  Now, the Clippers are a perennial contender.  The Nets hope to have similar success here.  Crabbe talks, as does Johnson, as does their representation.  And the hope is the talk will be about how impressed they were with the Nets despite things not working out.  That can pay dividends with future free agents, especially if the things the Nets laid out in those meetings begin coming true as represented.

 

D) Not Panicking after losing out on Crabbe and Johnson by spending on the wrong pieces: To say the Nets “did not spend” this summer, is technically true given the numerous one year deals, or two year deals where year 2 is a team option, but belies the truth.  The Nets committed $125 million to Crabbe and Johnson, with four year pacts apiece.  Their belief in both players going forward was obvious.  When the offers were rebuffed, the Nets earned points this summer by doing something smart: they did not panic, overreact, and pay players they don’t believe in in the same way, just to save face.

Want an example of a panic deal?  The Celtics and Wizards vied for Al Horford with the Hawks.  When the Celtics nabbed him, the Wizards, almost moments later, gave Ian Mahinmi 4 years, $64 million.  Mahinmi is a career reserve center or pinch starter; this was a laughable overpay, an overpay that did not get the attention the Mozgov overpay got, due to it not occurring on day one of free agency, not occurring in LA, and being buried in the news cycle when the Horford news was dominating Twitter.  That does not change the cap hit of the deal.  The Wizards so obviously panicked that they struck out on Horford, and “saved face” by getting someone, in Mahinmi.  The Nets, smartly, did not take that course.  They did not pay Miles Plumlee $53 million over 4 years.  They did not give restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas — who is coming off a severe back injury — a big, long term contract his body indicates would be soon regretted.  They did not panic pay Dion Waiters simply because he is a name out there people can put a face to — the Nets would have tired of his shot selection and looked to get out from under his bad contract well before it became movable.  They did not panic pay Moe Harkless, who, in light of the Crabbe match, would not be obtainable absent a Tyler Johnson or larger offer — an offer not advisable given Harkless’ production, and inability to shoot.  The Nets seem to be prioritizing shooting and spacing from the wings, and Harkless provides neither.

What did the Nets do? Multiple things.  First, they did add Jeremy Lin to the roster.  Given the critical nature of point guard play, and the more natural synergy a pick and roll guard like Lin would have with Lopez than a guy like Thad Young, the Nets did add to the roster.  Second, the Nets added a mix of speculative youth — pieces they hope can develop, and high character veterans who can teach that youth the ropes.  Most importantly? The Nets have dramatically increased their flexibility.  Assuming Lin opts out in 2018, every single Nets contract expires by 2018 (unless the Nets pick up team options).  Not a piece on the roster is hard to move: the Nets can pivot at the deadline in any direction.  If the roster looks fairly decent, they can package kids for a veteran.  If the roster looks very bad, they can deal Lopez for kids and pivot in that direction.  With $18.8 million in cap room this year, the Nets can take on contracts at the deadline without sending out matching salaries, and charge the cap space the sending team is eating in the form of draft picks.  Randy Foye was dealt for second rounders last deadline.  Luis Scola and Greivis Vasquez are high character veterans with a little in the tank, veterans a contender may be willing to add in exchange for similar assets.

Only six Nets — Lopez, Lin, Booker, Hamilton, LeVert, and Whitehead, make guaranteed money next year, and all six are movable.  The Nets have team options on five young players, in RHJ, McCuollough, Bennett, Harris, and Kilpatrick.  They can keep all five, and enter the summer with $41 million in space while eleven players are under contract.  They can decline any options on players who struggle.  They can also easily move any of the five at the deadline.  Only four players are free agents (Bojan Scola Vasquez and Foye) and only one is arguably a future core piece in Bojan. Bojan, for that matter, is also easily movable if it is determined he is not a core piece.

The Nets are not good. Not right now. But they have optionality going forward, and that is what is most important in a rebuild. The Nets responded to losing out on a successful offseason — adding Crabbe and Johnson would have been just that — by deciding that having a neutral offseason beat having a bad one.  That was smart.

 

II. The Bad

Yes, the Nets offseason had productive aspects. Still, the Nets did make moves that, while not necessarily wanting staunch criticism (the Nets did not hurt themselves going forward), some of their moves do warrant noting as moves that may have hurt, and at least bear watching going forward.

a) The Trevor Booker contract: Booker’s contract is not a total disaster, by any means.  Booker is a useful reserve big who can defend several positions, and who has made an effort to expand offensively.  He will make a little over $9M annually, and the deal is short on years at just 2, which is a good thing.  When one sees deals given to reserves like Dwight Powell (4/$37), Jon Leuer (4/$42), Austin Rivers (3/$35), E’Twaun Moore (4/$34), Jerryd Bayless (3/$27), DJ Augustin (4/$29), and Andrew Nicholson (4/$26), the contract Booker got is defensible, from a market perspective.  However, it should be noted that other veterans that came off the board as free agency waned on may have been more helpful pieces, with smaller (or similar commitments).  Festus Ezeli was a steal on a 2/$16 deal.  Jared Sullinger was essentially banished from Boston and only signed for a 1/$6 deal. Mirza got a little much at 3/$30, but he can shoot, and that seems to be an objective with building the new program. Terrence Jones was flat out bad last year but only got around 1/$1.5, and may make good on that deal. Nene is an older veteran who is totally different than Booker (he is bigger, slower, and older), but he got just 1/$3.  Roy Hibbert has lost his way but got a friendly 1/$4 deal. Jordan Hill is not as good as his name (for whatever reason) reflects, but 1/$4 is a solid figure for him.  Pieces like Al Jefferson and Boban Marjanovic are not neat fits behind Lopez but their deals were reasonable as well.

Booker may be a solid Net. He provides an energy and athleticism element other Nets do not provide.  In light of the goal to add more talented versatile wings, the Nets may decide not to spend big at the 4 going forward. And pieces like a Nene or Al Jefferson, unlike a relatively young Booker, are less likely to grow with the roster.

Still, Booker’s deal, while not a definite overpay, was close.  That is a blemish for Marks, at least for now, and warrants watching.

b) The Justin Hamilton contract: It has to be said.  We do not know if Hamilton can produce at the NBA level, and the Nets gave him a deal that cuts into their 2017 flexibility.  That could be a mistake, if he is not a NBA player.  Still, the deal is defensible.  Hamilton can shoot the ball, and the Nets, in trying to build a team that can compete at a high level, want to prioritize skills you see on good teams — like bigs who can spread the floor.  He had a very good year in Spain last year, so of course the hope is that translates.  Hamilton also was considered a sleeper free agent by Kevin Pelton of ESPN.  His skill set is an intriguing one if it translates, and if it does, this may not be a blemish for Marks.  Still, like Booker, this contract belongs in this column, until further notice.

 

III. The debatable, and yet to be determined: the Thaddeus Young trade

 

The Young trade, like it or hate it, was a significant endeavor.  On one hand, you can certainly argue this was a bad deal for Brooklyn.  Flatly, there is a significant chance that Caris LeVert, the second rounder the Next will receive from the Pacers between 2017-2013, and the future talent signed as a byproduct of dealing Young (primarily at the 4) will all never become better than Young.  At a minimum, even if you argue for the trade (frankly, I get the rationale behind the trade, but am lukewarm about it overall), you have to acknowledge those risks in assesing the deal.

On the other hand, however, there are multiple bases justifying the trade.  First, going forward, you can only pay so many non superstars, before you are stuck in neutral.  The Nets are paying Lopez.  They chose to pay Lin.  They may pay pieces like Bogdanovic, Hollis Jefferson, and others, in the future.  Young is good, but is another non superstar to pay.

Second, the take has often been spun as LeVert (who, for the record, cannot himself be judged on mock drafts and should be judged after he actually plays games), and 2016 cap space.  But the take is more than that.  The Nets added cap room with this deal not just in 2016, but also in 2017 and 2018 (Young could opt into his deal then).  The Nets had more spending power this summer to add players like Crabbe and Johnson who they believe can grow over time with their program, instead of “is what he is” Young (although, yes, it did not work).  They  have that same ability in 2017, and in 2018.

Third, the trade represents a proactive strike in team building. The Nets, with every piece, need to decide.  Is this piece a core piece to grow with, or not?  If not, you need to get assets before losing a piece in free agency.  Thad was going to be free in 2018 assuming an opt out.  You then face the following: do I pay $15-$20 million to a non star, or lose him for nothing. The Nets avoided that by getting value for Young now. Not only that, but consider: if Thad is out the door in 2018, and the Nets are not contending in 2016-2017, that means that Thad provides no value, unless the Nets contend in 2017-2018. What is the chance of that?  The Nets decided that Young’s impact in the short term for a likely noncontender did not warrant keeping him when he a) is not getting better, and b) will cost a ton to keep. They instead got multiple assets for him: a rookie, a future rookie, and additional financial flexibility. To look at this as “they traded him to sign Booker and Hamilton” is way too simplistic, and just is not true.

Fourth, it should be noted that Young has been moved in the past for an ancient Kevin Garnett, and a lottery protected first rounder and filler. In getting a pick near the lottery, and a second rounder, it cannot be said that the Nets got a lot less for Thad than prior teams who dealt him.

So, in sum: the Young trade could be a loser for the Nets — Thad is a good player!  It also could be a winner, depending on how the roster looks 48 months from now, how good LeVert is, and how the second round pick coming down the line fares.

THE GRADE: I give Marks a solid B.  On one hand, Marks had a very good plan this summer, to add young assets the team can grow with, in Crabbe and Johnson.  When plan A did not work, he did a good job shifting to a low risk plan B which provides some intriguing pieces, all of whom are easily movable, and providing the team with flexibility to pivot in assorted directions at the deadline.  Critically, Marks did this while losing out on some mid and lower tier free agents — but nobody significant that both could have moved the program and would have considered the Nets as an option.  For all of that, Marks cannot get a below average grade, and his grade should fall in the A or B range.  As for going with a B?  Results do matter, and by not obtaining Crabbe or Johnson, despite lacking control, Marks did not substantially move the program forward — he moved it forward by starting to build a culture and grabbing Lin, but not significantly so.  For that lack of significant movement, I cannot award an A range grade, especially when the questionable deals to Booker and Hamilton, and risk of the Thad trade, are taken into account.

Marks so far has the makings of a good GM.  He gives out creative contracts. He is forward thinking about flexibility and assets.  He makes the moves he believes are best, not the move the fans want.  All of this helps the Nets going forward.

 

 

 

 

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