Strategic. Systematic. Patient. Not skipping steps along the way.
These are the sorts of phrases that Sean Marks has properly echoed during his now over 14 month tenure as General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets. Marks has been very clear in that he will not abandon his plan for instant gratification. As he told Mikhail Prokhorov when he took the job: if you want another quick fix, I am not your guy.
That message should encourage Nets fans. To date, Marks has said and done the right things, as GM. His 2016 draft, adding Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead despite only having the 55th pick the morning of, was excellent. Spencer Dinwiddie developed this year, as did Quincy Acy. Kenny Atkinson’s modern motion offense is the perfect fit for a playoff team — just watch the Boston Celtics’ playoff success. The Bogdanovic trade when compared to the Lou Williams trade of a similar vein extracted good value.
However, one caveat — as with any GM in a rebuild — must be noted. The easy part of a rebuild is the teardown. The hard part is converting from asset acquisition into player acquisition, by acquiring the correct players. Remember: Rob Hennigan was lauded for the Dwight trade and his early Magic tenure. Ultimately, when he tackled the player acquisition phase, he became a disaster. This caveat and cautionary tale are NOT to say Marks will suffer a similar fate, but is only to say that the hard part of Marks’ job lies ahead, not behind him.
To clarify, the Nets still are in their rebuilding phase. However, now standing just one year from being relatively pick debt free, and having traded every obvious veteran on hand for assets that they had (Brook Lopez is a much less obvious case), harder questions now cross Marks’ desk.
I. How good were the 2016-2017 Nets? Was the 11-13 run after the break a sign of things to come?
The most important thing for a team to assess is its place relative to other teams, or on the arc of contention. This is the case because, depending on your level, the same moves may make sense for you that do not make sense for others, and vice versa.
The “Boston trade” is a great example. The trade was a bust because the Nets killed their future for a 44-38 team. However, if the Los Angeles Clippers, sitting at 55 ish wins with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan in tow, made such a trade, the trade would have been a defensible gamble for a title. A more obvious case is the Cleveland Cavaliers dealing a first round pick in 2018 to acquire Channing Frye, or dealing Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. Such trades would be disastrous for the Nets, or shortsighted for a middling franchise like the Hornets. However, for a Cavs team with a title ready LeBron James, such trades made all the sense in the world.
The same applies to free agency. If a rebuilding team pays Tristan Thompson $16 million that kills other options without making them competitive. But for Cleveland, the contract made sense because they could not replace him without cap space and are a contender.
So what were the 2016-17 Nets? It is easy to say the Nets were 20-62, and stop there, or give full credit to their 11-13 run after the break and finish there. Both approaches are flawed.
First, while I was unable to locate the article, I recall a John Hollinger (his ESPN work was incredible and inspirational) finding in a column, to the affect that team records before the all star break are more indicative of playoff potential than post break play, despite the idea of “turning it on after the break.” The premise makes sense. In November and December, all 30 teams play to win each night. That makes results more representative of how good teams are. End of season results are less representative. Good teams, with standings leads, coast and rest more. Inferior teams tank, which skews results further.
Given that, it is true that the Nets’ improved play with Lin cannot be ignored – Lin indisputably makes Brooklyn better. However, the Nets success after the all star break must be taken, in part, with a grain of salt. Their 3-9 record with Lin before the break is a small sample, but comes from more representative game play, and only projects to 21 wins. The Nets did play 34 win ball in Lin’s 24 post break games, but their schedule was watered down, given late season tanking, quitting, and coasting. Sure, the Nets 21 win pace with Lin in the first half is skewed, negatively, by the fact that Caris LeVert was not yet in the lineup, and multiple young players improved over the course of the year. However, the skew of non playoff caliber starters is not worth 13 games.
Balancing all of these factors, the Nets are likely something like a 25-30 win team (30 toward the very high, all goes right end) as presently constituted — something better than their record, but not quite what their second half would indicate standing alone.
II. If the Nets are a 25-30 win team, what comes next? The playoffs? Not so fast.
Since 2007, 27 teams have won 20-25 games in a season (prorated to 16-20 wins for the lockout shortened 2012 season). Of those 27 teams, only four of them made the playoffs the following season: the 2008 and 2015 Celtics, the 2010 Thunder, and the 2014 Hornets. The Thunder pulled this off because they drafted James Harden, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook developed exponentially. The 2008 Celtics pulled this off by trading a hoard of assets for prime Kevin Garnett. The 2015 Celtics pulled this off because Isaiah Thomas unexpectedly became a star (they were 20-32 when they traded for him that year, and 20-12 afterward.
The only franchise that pulled this off, therefore, without acquiring a star, was the 2014 Hornets, which did so by short circuiting a rebuild in choosing to pay Al Jefferson and other veterans. The result? Over the past four years, the Hornets have alternated between first round exits and the lottery; they are stuck on the mediocrity treadmill. They reside on the treadmill with a bloated cap sheet, no real avenues to improve significantly, and Kemba Walker’s looming free agency.
Given the Nets’ lack of assets, the likelihood they acquire a star this summer is virtually nil. The worst thing they can do would be to seek out win now moves on the basis of their strong second half, and become the Hornets. If the Nets do that, then in 2019, the mantra will be “we will be able to rebuild when (players signed in 2017) expire”!
III. If the Nets decide to employ a win now approach, bad things will happen.
The harsh reality for the Nets going forward: cap space, even if you hit on players, does not get you far unless you nail superstars. Signing non stars can help average teams take the leap to good, but cannot, and will not, bring a bad team to that level. The Nets would be wise to avoid the high end of the market for this reason.
Just check the market, and remember that the cap is projected to be $8 million higher in 2017-18 than it was in 2016-17 (providing for higher salaries). Player contracts are downright scary.
The following players received $25-30 million last summer, annually: Drummond, Horford, DeRozan, Beal, and Batum. All are good, but is any a “best” player on a contender? DeRozan comes closest, but the Raptors to date are not quite contenders, and he is arguably Lowry’s second in command.
Stepping one level down, the following players received $20-25 million last summer: Whiteside, Wade, Dwight, Parsons, and Harrison Barnes. All but Whiteside and Barnes are hilariously overpaid for their current production and do not move the needle. Whiteside is good, but certainly not a franchise player. Barnes is nothing close to a franchise piece, and hurt the Warriors last year.
From there, the pickings slim, but the salaries budge only a little. The following players received $16-20 million deals: Bazemore, Anderson, Biyombo, Turner, Fournier, Mahinmi, and Deng. Bazemore disappointed, floating in and out of the core in Atlanta, and is now overpaid. Anderson is a one trick pony who worked out because he plays with a MVP caliber player in a system perfectly tailored to him; he would not help a team otherwise. Biyombo’s 2016 postseason did not translate into 2016-17. Fournier was solid, but unspectacular. The Turner, Deng, and Mahinmi signings were disasters. None of these players are needle movers, but all will take him 15-20% of future caps for teams.
From there, the list of free agents delves into pure role players. If you spend under $16 million on a player, you are not getting anything more than a 5th starter, and more likely a reserve. The following players are being paid in the $6-$15 million range by virtue of last summer: JR Smith, Gasol, Clarkson, M. Williams, Lee, Afflalo, M. Leonard, Joe Johnson, Rivers, Ezeli Delly, Henderson, Arthur, Boban, Al Jefferson, Mirza, E. Moore, M. Barnes, Dudley, Bayless. Other than “winner” discounts taken by Gasol and Joe Johnson, none of these players move the needle (and even those players are guys who can help a good team get a little better, but not franchise turners). JR Smith is purely a role player, as are Marvin Williams and Courtney Lee. Jordan Clarkson is solid but unspectacular, and being a second rounder in restricted free agency hurt his figure. Al Jefferson, Austin Rivers, Mirza Teletovic, E’Twaun Moore, and the rest — what are you really getting.
The list of 2017 NBA free agents is here. The Nets may as well forget about Durant, Curry, Griffin, Hayward, and Paul. Working from the rest of the list, the Nets could regret spending big in free agency.
For starters, consider what they can add. In 2017, the Nets, assuming a $102 million cap, have $38.9 million in cap room, $36.9 if you assume they draft in their three current places and stash the 22nd pick. That figure does not account for any of their six players on team options: Dinwiddie, Kilpatrick, Harris, Acy, McDaniels, and Goodwin.
With the numbers and list in hand, even a rosy, homer like view of free agency would not work out long term. Let’s assume — recklessly given his market value and the Nets’ status at 20-62, that George Hill agrees to a 4 year, $90 million deal to run point guard in Brooklyn, and make Lin an off guard slash supersub as he was in a Charlotte (putting Hill squarely between $20-$25 million annually). To keep things simple and avoid future book clogging, let’s assume the deal contains no raises: $22.5 million is his annual number. Now, your Nets are at $14.4 million in space, with 4 roster spots to fill. Sean Marks said the Nets need a small forward, so let’s assume the Nets add someone like James Johnson or Robert Covington, for $8 million annually over three years (again without raises — you are not getting Gallinari at this price point of $14 per). Both are ambitious values, particularly Covington. From there, rather than sign a bench piece for $6.4 million, let’s assume round out the roster by picking the options they have on Dinwiddie, Goodwin, and either McDaniels or Kilpatrick.
Is a Lopez-RHJ-Johnson/Covington-Levert-Hill-Lin-Booker-Whitehead-Dinwidde-picks rotation solid, compared to 2016-2017? Sure! But be honest. Is that roster winning a playoff series in the east, when you stack it up against the Cavs, Raptors, Wizards, and Celtics? Or the Bucks instead of the Raptors, given their potential rise under Giannis? Probably not. At best, this Nets team would be fun to watch, put fans in the seats, and be a scrappy round one out.
That is fine, you may say. That sure beats 60 losses! And the Nets can just finish the team building in 2018. However, that is where things would get complicated — the moves in 2017 affect your team building abilities in 2018.
The Nets would hit the 2018 free agent market with $50.4 million in cap space, but with Lopez and Lin as free agents. One approach can be to deal Lopez or let him walk, but if you sign Hill to force Lopez to walk, what did you really accomplish? You can also let Lin walk but that would be a blow, a blow not made up for unless you add a bigtime star free agent (which is unlikely – and the Nets would still only have $25 million or so to spend; that gets you Chandler Parsons or Harrison Barnes on this market). Let’s assume the Nets resigned both players at $35 million per combined — again, an overly rosy figure unlikely to come to be because their market values are higher. The Nets would have just $15 million in space to build the roster. Perhaps they could add someone like a Wilson Chandler, again an optimistic find, but is he getting them into the meat of a conference that includes LeBron, Giannis, a Boston team with our lottery picks, Wall’s Wizards, and perhaps still these Raptors? That feels unlikely.
From there, in 2019, the Nets would have Lopez, Hill, Lin, Chandler, and Johnson locked into about $80 million of a $100-$105 million cap. The Nets would also lose the luxury of their cheap youth with pieces like LeVert and RHJ approaching their extension years, so the cap would further bloat just to keep the band together. Even assuming no decline during 2018-2021 from pieces like Lopez, Hill, Lin, and Chandler, an assumption that is again overly optimistic given their ages, the viability of that core as a contender would be at very best, highly questionable. But Marks would be locked into it.
Given the above, the problem created by an aggressive spending strategy, as outlined above, is simple. The Nets would win more in the short term, sure. But in the long term, they would saddle their roster with pricey veterans that make them at very best good, but not great — and perhaps only makes them above average. In 2019, fans would say “we can win when Hill and the others expire” – avoid that fate NOW, by not signing these types of players. And keep in mind that the assumptions above of players the Nets recruit and see no decline from are almost reckless in their optimism.
You can perform this exercise substituting players like Millsap, Porter and KCP, and Lowry, in and out as you wish. The results would be similar to the above.
With that, the Nets 2017 summer should NOT be one of huge spending. Rather, the Nets should explore two paths depending on what the draft pick market bears for Lopez and Lin. Want to avoid tanking? Find value in bargain contracts for young players currently not being featured on other teams, like Joe Ingles. Sign veterans who may produce but be undervalued for various reasons, like Milos Teodosic. Mix that with dealing non needle movers like Trevor Booker to grow the cupboard. Use this summer NOT to saddle your cap going forward, but to improve your base. And if you get to the 37 win level at one point, THEN look to the free agent market to supplement your base — when you are ready.
If that does not work, or if the market for your players is strong, then restock. Look to acquire draft picks, move up in the draft, and see what Lopez and Lin can do to restock your cupboard. That is also an appropriate option.
What the Nets cannot do, however, is try to get it all back right now with a signing of a big name to a huge contract.
As Marks loves to say, he needs to be strategic and systematic, and cannot skip steps along the way. Signing big name free agents right now would amount to just that.