Nets Free Agency: What Should be the Plan?

The Draft has come and gone, and the Nets were certainly busy.  Brook Lopez is out.  D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov – and Jake Wiley and Jeremy Senglin, are in. The depth chart (without team options) fairly reads as follows (remember: teams carry 17 players now, and Wiley and Senglin are on two way and camp deals respectively).

C: Mozgov, Jarrett Allen, Justin Hamilton

PF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker

SF: Caris LeVert, Andrew Nicholson, Wiley

SG: Jeremy Lin

PG: D’Angelo Russell, Isaiah Whitehead, Senglin

As for cap space in free agency, the Nets have $62,649,718 in salaries (including Allen’s cap hold), leaving $36,350,282 in cap space.  This figure, it must be noted, is a maximum that will likely decrease — it assumes the Nets renounce Randy Foye (he has a $3 million cap hold), and that they let all six team options walk — in Joe Harris, Sean Kilpatrick, KJ McDaniels, Quincy Acy, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Archie Goodwin.  The Nets must decide on Harris, Kilpatrick, and McDaniels before July 1, while they have the luxury of deciding on Acy, Dinwiddie, and Goodwin after July 1.  Their overall plan, intel on player intentions around the NBA, and who they acquire, will likely dictate who they choose to keep.

As for the roster, more young upside is in place than twelve months ago.  Russell is a huge acquisition, LeVert and Whitehead have shown something, and Allen is also an important addition.

What are the needs?

As for needs, there are two glaring ones. The first is the general talent level — the team needs to continue acquiring higher end talents, like Russell.  The second is the inability of most of the roster as comprised to shoot from distance.  You may wonder: why worry about shooting, or veterans, if the Nets are in a rebuild.  The answer is simple: the most important facet of a rebuild is the growth of young talent.  First, young players grow more when surrounded by positive veteran influences, who provide guidance as to how to succeed at the NBA level, both by showing them how they work and by instructing them.  Often, those messages resonate more strongly from a fellow player — a peer — than from a coach.  Second, young players grow more easily when put in positions to succeed.  It was significant how much the Nets players grew when Lin was healthy, because Lin organized the offense and put the Nets’ young players in positions to make, or attempt to make, plays.  As the roster currently stands, the Nets’ kids will be driving the ball fruitlessly into packed paints, or unable to drive at all, because of the lack of shooting.  Acquiring floor spacers will open up the floor for the Nets’ kids, and accelerate their growth.  And for the Nets, having nine young players who are growing beats having twelve young players who are not.

Will the Nets be a draw to unrestricted free agents of significance?

Unfortunately, while Marks and Atkinson have done excellent work, the answer is “likely not.”  Bigtime free agents know they will get money and play a big role wherever they go. Their big concern: where can I win, and win right now.  The answer to that question simply is not Brooklyn, because the Nets went 20-62 last year and do not figure to be much, if at all, better.  The Nets may be healthier, see young player growth, and win 30-35 games (a stretch), but this simply is not a playoff team, let alone an authentic title contender.

So what should the plan be?

The Nets plan should essentially be as follows:

First, continue exploring the salary dump market.  Cap space is an asset, not limited to free agency spending.  Historically, teams regret big spending, unless they nail top targets.  Cap space is an asset, as Sean Marks has shown, that can be used to rid other teams of unwanted salary — at an asset charge.  In dealing Lopez and Bojan Bogdanovic, Marks brilliantly leveraged cap space as an asset in this fashion.  On a market where Nerlens Noel fetched two second rounders, Jahlil Okafor was untradeable, Serge Ibaka fetched overpaid Terrence Ross and an end of first round pick, and DeMarcus Cousins only yielded (with filler) Buddy Heild and Zach Collins) the Nets got Russell for Lopez — a WAY better young player than any of the other bigs yielded.  Why?  Because the Lakers were hellbent on shedding Mozgov’s contract, and the Nets used their cap space as an asset to leverage Russell.  Similarly, on a “deadline upgrade the bench market” where Lou Williams fetched the 28th pick, Bogdanovic, a lesser player, fetched the 22nd pick (becoming Allen).  Why? Because the Nets leveraged cap space as an asset by adding Nicholson.  The Nets should continue exploring the money dump market.

Second, target young free agents with upside.  Often that comes through restricted free agency.

Thirdresolve the shooting issue.  Even if the Nets commit some longterm money, they need to add pieces that can shoot the ball.  With how many talented young players they need to add to become a contender, they will not become one until at least 2020, so if they ink 2-3 year deals, those deals should not hurt their long term outlook.  In addition, the only critical young players they have that they must truly pay before 2020, given their long term cost control over LeVert, Allen, and Whitehead.

Fourthrounding out the roster.  This is where the Nets six team options, and vets to show the kids the way, come into play.

With that, let’s explore each option.

Salary Dumps. 

Simply put, there is no way to know what salary dumps are available to the Nets, right now.  And three factors do hurt the Nets.  First, if a team just wants to reduce its luxury tax bill, the bill does not kick in until June 2018, so the team will likely put that off until the trade deadline.  Second, most teams do not know what their plan is, right now, in the summer of 2018; they need to see how this offseason and next season go first.  Accordingly, that may make it difficult to offer teams 2018 cap relief right now. Third, and most importantly, a salary dump makes no sense unless the team losing assets has plans for how to use the newly added flexibility. Still, teams look to shed salaries for all sorts of reasons, and if a team does get in that mode, they need to find a trade partner who is not in win now mode (thus is ok with assuming dead money), and has space to park the money — that makes the Nets a primary option.  And whether teams dump salary to sign players immediately (like the Spurs did before the LaMarcus Aldridge signing), to reduce their tax bill (like the Miami Heat at the 2016 deadline), or to plan grandly for star additions (like the Lakers in the Brook Lopez trade), teams find themselves in that mode.

What are the options?  Maybe the Portland Blazers, although I believe they should not, do perform a Meyers Leonard or other big money salary dump, and the Nets can add a first round pick that way.  Maybe the Atlanta Hawks, with a glut of picks, look to offload Kent Bazemore, or recently acquired Miles Plumlee, in similar fashion. Maybe the Chicago Bulls offload Rondo before his option kicks in on June 30, to avoid his $3 million guarantee – that would be cheap, but so was selling a second rounder. Maybe Dallas kicks the tires on Wes Matthews, or Houston or San Antonio dumps a role player to make a splash, or someone else gets involved.  We cannot know for sure.  But if those types of scenarios arise, the Nets should be on the phone.

Adding young talent:

This is where restricted free agents factor in.  In deciding whether to target a restricted free agent, there are three criteria as I see it:

  1. Do you want the player?  If not, there is no point to make an offer, period.  Because, if the other team does not match, you are stuck with the player.
  2. How likely is the incumbent team to match? Usually, teams match.  So the answer is often “very likely.”  However, sometimes the answer is near 100%.  For example, as for say, Tony Snell, with the Bucks having a core three of which he is not a member, and with their being close to the tax line, there is an authentic chance they balk at signing him.  On the other hand, the Wizards just missed the conference finals by a hair, built around one of the league’s elite starting groups.  Otto Porter is their third best player, and the chance the balk on matching him is close to 0%.
  3. What is the opportunity cost?  This is a significant factor most do not contemplate, but must be weighed in conjunction with the chance the incumbent matches. In short, if the opportunity cost is high, that tends against an RFA offer – even if there is a say 25% chance of a non-match. However, if the opportunity cost is low, that means the Nets may as well go for it – even if there is a 2% chance at a non-match. By example, suppose that based on how free agency unfolds, that, after the Nets make an offer to Otto Porter (let’s assume, as realists, a 2% chance the Wizards do not match) the targets they lose during the matching period are Christian Wood, DeAndre Liggins, and Anthony Tolliver. In that case, the opportunity cost of trying to get Porter was so low that the Nets were well served trying, even if the Wizards match.  On the other hand, let’s assume a 30% chance the Jazz balk on matching on Joe Ingles, but, while the Nets wait for a match, Paul Millsap, who wanted to be a Net (not happening), comes off the board. Now, the opportunity cost of trying to get Ingles was so high that, despite the high chance of a non-match, the endeavor was foolish.

With that, who are the young free agents the Nets can target?  Porter of course is the best young player available, and fits the Nets perfectly.  But the chance the Wizards match truly is no less than 97%.  The Nets can only justify trying for Porter if their other options are so bleak that, as described above, the opportunity cost is next to nil.  Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is another.  He is not as good as Porter, but the Pistons matching is nearly as likely.  He would provide some much needed shooting.  However, the Nets’ backcourt is crowding. Tony Snell is also a fit, and would come cheaper than Caldwell-Pope, with, given the Bucks’ expensive group, an actual chance of a non-match.  He would also resolve some shooting concerns without the Nets having to buy a veteran.  Joe Ingles is a piece who possibly can be had given Utah’s financial constraints, but I suspect they keep him.  Finally, Alan Williams is a sneaky fit.  The Suns seem to have big plans, given the rumors they were shopping their 4th pick – does Williams get lost in the shuffle?  His per 36 numbers are excellent, and the Nets can use an interior presence.  I like JayMychal Green, but the Grizzlies do as well and figure to match; ditto on Cristiano Felicio.

Beyond that, the market is lukewarm.  Jonathan Simmons is a piece I like very much, but given the small sample of high level play, I worry he is the classic player who is poised to jump from underpaid to overpaid in one summer.  I have similar feelings about Kelly Olynyk.  Nikola Mirotic’s name is catchy, but he constantly falls out of favor in Chicago and there’s a reason – he is a sieve defensively and beyond inconsistent offensively. Andre Roberson can defend anyone, but he cannot shoot, yet will be paid like a guy who can shoot.  Tim Hardaway Jr. is essentially the polar opposite of Roberson, and has become overrated given his name and former Knick status.

Adding shooters:

In adding shooters, the Nets should start with the money dump market.  They would be better served using a salary dump to add a shooter while adding an asset, or add a shooter through the RFA market if possible, than simply spending money on a veteran shooter. If they do spend on veterans, the key is to retain future flexibility.  Shorter deals are better, even at higher dollars.  And the Nets, categorically, should not spend into 2020-2021, where their timeline may reside.

The most important thing here is patience.  There are always plenty of useful players on the market, despite the stress that may be induced by the hazard of names that come off the board on July 1-3.  The Nets must resist the temptation of splurging on veterans during that period.  Wait for talent to linger.  This happens every summer: teams blow through their money, so the market for certain players dries up.  That leads to teams who were more prudent obtaining bargains.  Strike then.

Ersan Ilyasova could be a piece to consider if his market is barren; a real possibility.  Omri Casspi is another: he struggled shooting last year but historically shoots well, and he is constantly undervalued. A third is Mike Muscala — he may be available cheaply given the Hawks seeming recent decision to purge, with the Dwight deal.  Maybe JJ Redick’s market dries up if he leaves Los Angeles, although I do not expect that.

Danilo Gallinari is a nice player but figures to be too pricey.  Paul Millsap is a name, but he does not fit the Nets timeline at 32. Serge Ibaka has also noticeably declined and likley wants a four year deal. Kyle Korver likley wants to win, as does Thabo Sefolosha, while CJ Miles and Patrick Patterson will likely get paid too richly.

Rounding out the roster:

The Nets, after considering the above, will decide which players on options to bring back. I would speculate that half are back.  Nick Collison and Anthony Tolliver could be veterans to balance out the roster, as could Anthony Morrow or Brandon Rush.  Reggie Bullock, Christian Wood, and DeAndre Liggins could be fringe youth to consider, as could Jordan McRae.


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