Evaluating Sean Marks’ Tenure, and Wondering What Trades Comes Next

Ever since Sean Marks arrived in Brooklyn, much of his tenure has been positively received.

To be clear, there is good reason for that. The evaluation of GM’s is based on two components. One is results. After all, the goal is to build winners, and GM’s select the players. It is incumbent on a GM to make the correct choices in the draft, to find players that fit, and to sell stars on their program. 

At the same time, results do not tell the entire picture – especially in rebuilding situations where results are not yet expected. Grading GM’s on their process also accounts for the fact that much team success, or lack thereof, is outside a GM’s control. Is David Griffin an elite GM? Or did LeBron just decide to go to Cleveland independent of him, thereby putting him on third base to start the job? On the other end of the spectrum, is Rich Cho a bad GM in Charlotte, or is he doing well despite bad lottery luck and unreasonable ownership win now mandates?

No GM can guarantee results, good or bad. All GM’s should be evaluated on whether they instill a good process. A GM instills good process by making move types and having a strategy that are sensible given the organization’s timeline and place on the arc of contention, by building a productive culture, and by having a modern vision. 

These are areas where Billy King failed, essentially by making the Boston trade – the type of trade that only makes sense if it will bring you a 55 win team for at least three years. The trade clearly did anything but. 

Marks does deserve credit for his bringing a good process to Brooklyn. He has properly recognized that the Nets are years from contention, and he has properly pursued moves that fit that timeline – stockpiling draft picks, acquiring and developing as many young players as possible, and using cap space to rent for more young players instead of on middling free agents. He has created a culture of high character for his young players to grow, and properly avoided players with talent or veterans who do not fit those values. And he has brought a modern, pace and space offense to Brooklyn that, if it is one day led by high level talent, would be a perfect fit for big time NBA success. 

However, it must be noted: this is a results business, so none of that is enough to declare that Marks is a good GM. To get there, he will have to turn this around. 

In that regard, it is too early to declare that any of Marks’ notable moves have been successes or failures. Many of these moves will take years to evaluate. 

The D’Angelo Russell trade? Good process for sure (you deal 29 year old centers and the 27 pick for a kid with that much upside in a rebuild), but given the investment in Mozgov’s contract to add Russell, Russell’s ultimate outcome as a player must be really good to vindicate the deal. Dealing Bojan for a first than choosing to use that first on  Jarrett Allen over Kyle Kuzma and others (the Nets did not deal Kuzma for Russell, Kuzma was on the board when the Nets drafted, but they did choose Allen over him)? Good process, but the result only works if Allen outplays those selected below him over time. Thad for a pick that Nets chose to use on Caris LeVert? Good process, but Caris must vindicate the decision to pass on those below him – to date the results are uninspiring.  Absorbing Allen Crabbe? Understandable given his age but the results are also to be determined.

With that, my take on Marks is that he has the correct approach, but we do not know if he is a Good or bad GM yet. 

How Marks navigates from here will go a long way to showing if Marks is good at this. The major question. How will he navigate the Nets’ much underdiscussed salary cap dilemma. 

As of now, assuming Jeremy Lin opts in given his injury, the Nets have $84,559,900 in guaranteed salary in 2018-2019, going to ten players: Russell, Lin, Dinwiddie, Crabbe, LeVert, Hollis-Jefferson, Carroll, Mozgov, Allen, and the Raptors’ first rounder they acquired(this assumes, as now, the pick would fall at 20). That leaves them with $18.4 million in cap room if they renounced all free agents – enough to add a rotation player, but nothing close to a star. That is not a lot of flexibility, for a team that is currently not close to playoff caliber.

Going forward more problems arise. In 2019-2020, the Nets will have, assuming a GENEROUS cap increase to $108 million, about $60.2 million in cap space, with a roster of Crabbe, LeVert, Mozgov, Allen, and the Raptors pick at 20. However, accounting for cap holds for Russell, RHJ, Dinwiddie, and the Nets’ draft pick (assuming they pick 10th, which frankly is ambitious) drags that number closer to $31 million. Accordingly, the Nets will have room for a near max player, but not an authentic superstar, in 2019. 

Heading into 2020, factor in salaries for $22 million for Russell and $11 million for RHJ and Dinwiddie apiece (again, being ambitious – they can easily earn more, especially Russell), the Nets cap numbers, factoring in their 2018-2020 picks, would provide for $63 million in salaries before addressing LeVert’s free agency. That would require relinquishing Crabbe after his three years under Atkinson. That would further require the Nets adding no players to the core that they choose to retain, thus relying on Russell, LeVert, Dinwiddie, RHJ, Allen, and their 2018, 2019, and 2020 first rounders. Keep Crabbe, or players like Harris and Whitehead, and things become even cloudier. 

From there, in 2021, DLO, RHJ, LeVert, Dinwiddie, and Allen would take up as much as 70% of the salary cap? If that core is not a 45 win core – and as of now it is hard to envision it becoming one – how can Marks justify that type of investment.  

Such an investment would result in a harsh reality where the Nets are stuck with their core, a core that to date has been near the bottom of the league, and stuck with no clear routes to contention. 

Continuity is not a bad thing. That is true. But in short, if a Russell-LeVert-Dinwiddie-RHJ-Allen core cannot, without major, star level reinforcements surrounding it, win games, the Nets cannot pay all five players their market value when their rookie deals expire between 2019 and 2022.

Some may feel that, given the way young players develop, that the Nets should simply pay all of these players. Then, if it’s not working, ship them out later? Nevertheless, look no further than the Crabbe deal, and the Blazers’ payroll saddled roster, to see that paying a rookie extension then trading the player is easier said than done. The Blazers cannot dump any of their middling young players without attaching assets, or in the case of Crabbe absorbing bad money. 

The best time to get value for a young player is on their rookie deal, when teams get them cheap and control the decisions they may make on them. Does Marks need to start moving players tomorrow? No. But he needs to start assessing their market value so that decisions can be made prior to the summer of 2019, when these players still have authentic trade value given their small salaries.

The reality facing Marks is he will need to make financial decisions on this core. Those business decisions extend to every single player on the roster. Despite Marks’s and Kenny Atkinson’s praise of many on the roster, there are no untouchables. Be honest with yourself: besides LeBron, Curry, Durant, Harden, Westbrook, Anthony Davis, and maybe another couple of players, who in the NBA is untouchable? Certainly not a single Net. 

Marks has not shied from business decisions as GM yet. Despite effusive praise by him and Atkinson of players like Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, and Bojan Bogdanovic, Marks shipped them away once he found deals he felt appropriate. However, it must be noted that it is easier to deal players you inherit, than players you acquire and build into talents. 

Time will tell if Marks spots the financial issues the Nets have down the road 

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