A Pivotal Nets Offseason: What Comes Next?

In the dog days of quarantine, the world has stopped.

But once the quarantine lifts, the Nets must be ready to go.

Once the 2019-2020 season ends, a two year championship window opens for the Brooklyn Nets, and it is imperative that every decision they make is directed toward maximizing their ability to win it all, within that window.

One may wonder: why is the window only two years, when KD and Kyrie indicated they intend to retire in Brooklyn? The answer? Stars in this era constantly say they are staying put, but move from franchise to franchise. Thus, for all contenders built around stars, their window closes when the contracts of those stars expire. LeBron said he would not leave Cleveland until he brought the region a title; then counted more titles in Miami at a ticket holder rally than years he played for the team; and then pledged to remain in Cleveland forever. Kyrie promised to resign in Boston. KD was reported in OKC as not being one to lust for free agency, and then in Golden State he bristled at reports he had a foot out the door. PG13 resigned in OKC and told fans “I’m here to stay.”

Stars have the right to change their minds about staying put, or to lie about staying put to avoid an awkward situation.  With that said, stars do this so commonly, that for all teams with a star under contract, it is imperative to win a title during that contract.  The future is promised to no one.

As a result, the Nets must go “all in” on their upcoming two year window.  Will going all in compromise the ability to rebuild after KD and Kyrie leave?  Maybe But the Nets are in for a rough rebuild when KD and Kyrie leave, no matter what.  There is no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Trae Young like piece to launch a rebuild around.  As a result, any move that limits this two year window to focus on a “post KD Kyrie core” is a mistake — there is no post KD Kyrie core to speak of.

The necessity of going all in on this two year window also makes it foolish for the Nets to decline trades that make the team better, on the ground that, “you need to see how it looks with this core, first.” Why do you need to see that? It is Sean Marks’ responsibility to maximize the Nets’ chance to win a title in these two years.  If that maximization means dealing fan favorites, or players who paid their dues under this regime, then so be it. Marks displayed his understanding of this when he fired Kenny Atkinson and let D’Angelo Russell walk.  You can contend that both were the two primary faces of what Marks constructed, pre KD and Kyrie.  Marks let both go because his sole obligation is to win a championship, not to reward past contributions.

Lastly, one rationale sometimes noted for the Nets staying quiet on the trade market is that they “have enough to win right now.”  Maybe, they do.  But it is Marks’ job to make the Nets as great as possible — ignoring chances to improve because what he has might be enough would be organizational malpractice.

To be clear, none of this is to say that the Nets must make a trade/transaction.  As Marks has done from day one, his stance on trades/transactions should be as follows.  If a trade/transaction makes the Nets better, and the opportunity cost is worth it, then the Nets should make the trade.  If a trade/transaction does not make Nets better, or the opportunity cost is not worth it, then the Nets should not make the trade.  If that means LeVert, Dinwiddie, and Harris get moved, then they get moved.  If that means TLC, Kurucs, and Musa are not moved, then they are not moved.

The opportunity cost of a trade, or the lost of alternatives, as mentioned above, is important.  Suppose you have $2, and a bottle of Pepsi and bottle of Sprite each cost $2.  If you buy Pepsi, you cannot buy Sprite.  That is the opportunity cost.  From the perspective of the Nets, suppose they can trade Taurean Prince and two first round picks for JJ Redick.  On value, this trade makes the Nets better.  However, the opportunity cost might not be worth it — if Bradley Beal is available, are the Nets unable to get him now, because they burned two firsts on Redick?

Lastly, before we dive into each player on the roster, let’s consider the Nets’ cap situation, as this affects the Nets’ options this summer.  In short, the Nets will be over the cap, and thus only have available to offer free agents one taxpayer midlevel of $6.025 million (which can be given to one player or distributed among multiple players), and unlimited minimum exceptions.  Using pre-coronavirus cap projections, if the Nets renounce all of their free agents (including Joe Harris.  Note that renouncing him, given his ability, would mean letting him walk), they would be $21.59 over the cap.

In short, the biggest free agency weapon available to the Nets is a touch over $6 million.  This is one reason the Nets are reportedly being aggressive in the trade market — if they want to make a significant addition to the starting linep, the only realistic avenue is a trade.

With all of this said, let’s take a look at the players.

I. The Untouchables – Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

This one is easy. Marks has built this team around Durant and Irving — they, and they only, are the core of the team. Everyone else is here to support them.  Marks should and will keep them, and explore improving the roster around them. Both will be back.

II. The Guards – Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. 

Marks should be aggressive exploring trades involving each of these players.  If the Nets are able to attain a third star, they should trade one, or both if the player is as good as Bradley Beal.  When is the last time a team with three players that excellent did not win a title?  If the Nets can get away with trading one, my preference would be to trade LeVert, due to Dinwiddie’s durability, and better body of work as a sixth man (the ideal role for either player).  However, the tea leaves appear to show that Marks prefers to keep LeVert and deal Dinwiddie.

Kyrie Irving is going to have the ball constantly next season, and Durant will obviously have it a lot as well.  The Nets starting lineup, and finishing five, should either feature a third star, or players who do not need the ball to thrive, and can play off of them. Think about, for example, how well Klay Thompson fit with Curry and KD in Golden State – or how well Buddy Hield would fit next to Kyrie and KD.

A star next to KD and Kyrie taking possessions from them is one thing.  Bradley Beal is so good that the Nets can live with Irving and KD ball watching for a little bit.

LeVert and Dinwiddie are good players, but they are not that caliber.  In a league of arguably 20-25 or so stars, LeVert and Dinwiddie simply are not at that level.  Having one of them anchor the second unit helps, but the fit between them and Kyrie, as it was with DLO before Kyrie, has been awkward by the eye test.  The numbers on Kyrie and Dinwiddie together are good, but the sample is small. The Nets would be much better served with a player who can dependably start next to Kyrie and KD, as opposed to a player who looks great in flashes but does not fit with the stars.

The Nets, with LeVert or Dinwiddie’s salary, other salaries (notably Taurean Prince), Allen’s value, and their warchest of picks, have the assets to add a star, or a very good third piece that would fit around Kyrie and KD like a glove. If they can get that player, they should pull the trigger, as opposed to continuing to force the fit of LeVert and Dinwiddie next to Kyrie and KD. If the Nets can get a player comparable in level to LeVert and Dinwiddie, who fits better, they should pull the trigger on dealing one of them.  If they can get a third star, they should do so as well, and should perhaps be ok dealing both.

The verdict: LeVert is likely to be a Net, at around 60% odds, while Dinwiddie is unlikely to remain a Net, at around 40% odds.  Marks, by all accounts, has been aggressive.  He dumped Atkinson and DLO, and would not hesitate dumping LeVert or Dinwiddie.

III. The Other Notables Under Contract – Taurean Prince, Jarrett Allen, and DeAndre Jordan

Taurean Prince is an interesting asset this summer. The Nets apparently hoped he would settle in as a solid two way wing, comprising the start of a group of players whom the Nets could use by committee to guard Giannis, Kawhi, and other starry wings.  It has not worked.  With his $12.25 million salary, his figure will help them salary match in deals for upgrades.  However, it is possible that he has negative value at this point.

My prediction and desire here are the same – Marks will try to use Prince’s salary in trades for a significant addition.  However, if that does not work, and if dealing him requires offloading assets just to move him, then Marks will keep him. He will likely be moved.

As for Jarrett Allen, his value to the Nets is not as high as to a rebuild.  Allen provides nothing to the Nets that DeAndre Jordan does not.  Both are asked to block shots, defend, rebound, and score off layups and dunks as rim runners – Allen is better at some skills, and Jordan at others, but they are largely duplicative.  The Nets, rather than paying Allen $15 million per year on an extension, would be well served using his asset value to a rebuild to bring in a significant starter, by dealing him with one of LeVert or Dinwiddie. Moreover, reports from Shams Charania, Zach Lowe, and John Hollinger all implied that Allen starting over Jordan was a source of friction among other players on the team. Once Atkinson was fired after a locker room blowup, the Nets immediately started Jordan over Allen.  What that sequence of events says about Allen’s place in this Nets core is obvious.  And that comes before mentioning that Kyrie listed out the players he sees as in the Nets core, yet omitted Allen. That was no accident.

The verdict here: Allen is likely moved to help provide the Nets with better wing play.

Finally, concerning DeAndre, he is likely to be back.  He is still productive.  KD and Kyrie want to play with him.  And, if Marks were to shop him, he would find that Jordan has negative value, requiring the attachment of picks to offload his deal.  It makes no sense for the Nets to deal a rotation player at a loss right now.  Jordan will be back.

IV. The key free agents: Joe Harris and Garrett Temple

Due to the Nets’ way over the cap status, they should keep Harris and Temple.  They are basically in “bird rights prison.” Because the Nets have Bird rights on Harris and a $5 million option on Temple, they can exceed the cap to retain both players – they can max Harris, even. However, if the Nets let either player walk, the only way to “replace” them, is to sign a player for the minimum exception.  That player will not be as good as Harris, and likely not Temple, either. As a result, they must keep both, regardless of the price.

I do expect Marks to keep both — ultimately, it will be Joe Tsai’s call on whether he is willing to spend to win. It must be noted that Tsai, himself and through sources (and through Marks) has declared his willingness to spend.  However, many owners before Tsai have pledged to spend, only to pull back on that pledge when it comes time to write the check.  Nothing is official until the owner opens the checkbook. In that vein, it also should be noted that Hollinger, Lowe, and Harris himself, have expressed uncertainty about the final outcome. Harris said he would stay “in an ideal world,” which sounds like code for “if they pay me.” The world is not always ideal.

The verdict here is that the Nets should and will retain both players.

V. The kid: Nic Claxton

Claxton is a unique player on the Nets roster.  Skill wise, he is the only big the Nets have who can push the ball, and shoot the ball (based on his G league stats).  He can pass. He profiles as a player who can guard multiple positions.  If he puts it together, he can help the Nets win a title.

With that said, Claxton is raw.  Just like LeVert and Dinwiddie, Claxton may be a trade chip, as the Nets look to add a third bigtime player to this roster. Would the Nets prefer to keep him? Absolutely.  But if a team deals a player as good as Beal, John Collins, Karl Anthony Towns, or the like (just examples), that team is likely going to seek kids far from RFA and picks in return, and Claxton fits the bill. If that team demands him, will Marks be able to keep him out of the deal? Can Marks justify not acquiring a great player in the short term because of Claxton?

I hope the Nets keep Claxton. And the verdict here is that Marks finds a way to add a bigtime player without dealing Claxton.  But this is a discussion worth having.

VI. The fringe: Chiozza, Kurucs, TLC, Musa, Chandler, Pinson, and Martin

When you are not contending for a title (ie: rebuilding, or a playoff team not in the mix), it makes sense to stock your roster (more so during a rebuild), with as many fringe young players as possible. The hope is that, among the fray, you find gems, like the Nets did with Dinwiddie and Harris. Many of these players amount to nothing (see: Anthony Bennett, Justin Hamilton, Sean Kilpatrick, and other early Marks Nets legends), but since you are not winning a title, that is the risk you take, to uncover a gem who can be significant piece down the road.

However, now that the Nets are chasing a NBA title, the risk of multiple fringe players flaking out is not worth the reward. The Nets need to stock their bench with as many win now, ready made vets as possible.

Can the Nets convince a Serge Ibaka to play for the taxpayer midlevel? A Kelly Olynyk? Paul Millsap, if we get frisky? Can they coax a Kent Bazemore to sign for the veterans minimum? A Wes Matthews? Does Jeff Teague play for the minimum to ring chase in a hopeful career revival as a third string point guard? Does Robin Lopez?

The answer to all those questions, is “who knows.” But with that said, that is where the Nets are at in terms of their roster building.  The focus on building the bottom of their roster should, and likely will, be on selling as many established veterans as possible on the idea of taking less money than they are worth to join the Nets, because they have a chance to win a title.

That makes each of these players — Chiozza, Kurucs, TLC, Musa, Chandler, Pinson, and Martin — an afterthought this summer.  If they are back, they are back.  If they sign elsewhere as the Nets chase win now vets, c’est la vie.

The verdict here is that Chiozza and Musa will be back, with the rest departing.

 

It’s title chase time in Brooklyn. After rewatching game two of the 2003 NBA finals last week, I cannot wait any longer.

Game on, NBA.

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