Despite their crummy on-court results, the Nets are rebuilding the right way
[Ed. note — this was my March 14, 2017 Newsletter. With Brooklyn’s amazing on-going offseason, I decided to share this with everyone.]
Let’s get this out of the way: the Brooklyn Nets are screwed. They mortgaged their future years ago to trade for the over-the-hill versions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in a classic “make a big splash for your flashy new owner and flashy new building” move. After acquiring Joe Johnson and Deron Williams when he was still really good, the bet didn’t seem like a terrible one, at least not to me. For a fun laugh at myself, here’s some crow that I have to choke down:
“I’ve seen some people try to bash this trade for the Nets, which I just don’t understand. The Nets made immediate improvements to their team and gave up picks that will likely now not be worth a whole heck of a lot in 2014 or 2016, who knows about 2018? But people saying they’ve mortgaged their future have it exactly wrong. They didn’t have a future, they just lost to half a Bulls team in the first round(!), now they’ve firmly ensconced themselves in the tier of contenders beneath the Heat. If Dwyane Wade has an off series next year or suffers more knee pain or an injury, it’s totally conceivable that the Heat could fall and the Nets will be as well positioned as anyone to take advantage of such a situation.”
WELP. Suffice it to say, I severely under-indexed on the Nets’ newly acquired stars’ ages and the possibility of a significant and severe decline, which is what we ended up seeing. I also didn’t predict Deron Williams’s precipitous decline, which given his age, was much less predictable than the declines of Garnett and Pierce. My full expectation was that the Nets would remain a playoff team for quite a while, thereby significantly devaluing the picks they gave up. That, uh, did not happen. I was wrong, wrong, wrong and so was then Nets General Manager, Billy King. As a result of that deal, the Nets are, as I said before, screwed.
With all of that out of the way, it’s time to start acknowledging how nice a job Brooklyn’s new front office has done in its short time in power at operating within the straight-jacket that the prior administration locked them in. In many ways, the Nets are doing a stripped-down version of the much discussed Process of the 76ers under Sam Hinkie. That may sound strange at first, as unfortunately for fans in Brooklyn and the front office that’s in place, they don’t have the ability to rack up lottery picks by simply being bad. Seemingly all of those picks are going to the Celtics indefinitely.
But the Process was never just about tanking. It was about maximizing expected value and finding as many slight edges as possible. This explains Hinkie’s seeming obsession with accumulating second round picks. The relatively low cost of acquiring second round picks (some teams still do not properly value them, I’m looking at you, Bulls) paired with the low cost of second round picks once under contract made them an easy way to get multiple bites at the apple of acquiring NBA talent before the competition for incredibly low risk and low cost. Second round picks are basically free expected value. Most of the time, they won’t work out, but sometimes you land a Paul Millsap, Gilbert Arenas, or Draymond Green. Another thing about the Process and the losing that went along with it was that it provided the space for the Sixers to try players out and see if they had anything, without worrying too much about the effect on their win-loss record.
There are echoes of this approach that the Nets are now replicating. In the mold of a venture capitalist, the Nets are making asymmetric bets. That is to say, they are making bets where their downside is capped at a very low risk and where the upside is much more substantial. There’s a reason it’s good to be a venture capitalist. The game is essentially rigged in their favor, simply because of how the math works. If one bet works out, all the relatively cheap bets they’ve made that fail are worth it.
The first of these bets was signing Sean Kilpatrick to a three year deal after having him in on a ten day contract. Kilpatrick had been a journeyman bouncing around the D-League and having a short stint in Minnesota after spending five years (he was a red-shirt freshman) at the University of Cincinnati. Kilpatrick was already 26 at the time he signed with the Nets, but he had flashed talent and the Nets had spots available and a need for young bodies with upside. Kilpatrick fit. He finished the season with 13.5 points per game in just 23 minutes per game on a very solid 57.8% true shooting. He’s regressed a bit in terms of efficiency this season, and he’s never graded out as a better than replacement level player. Still as a relatively young player who can score well per-minute, he has enough potential to provide substantial upside with little downside risk. This is the mark of a solid contract. If he never improves, very little is lost for Brooklyn. If he does improve, the Nets got him for essentially nothing. That’s how you make positive expected value bets.
In his first off-season at the helm, Sean Marks was very aggressive in restricted free agency. It was clear early on he understood what the rising salary cap would mean for contracts, as he signed Tyler Johnson to an offer-sheet at what seemed like an insane amount of money at 4 years, $50 million dollars. It turns out, though, that under the new cap environment, $15 million dollars a year is average starter money and the offer to Johnson was less than that. Given his status as a 23 year old who had already posted a -0.2 BPM per 100 possessions over his first two regular seasons and posted even better numbers in his first playoffs (admittedly in a very small number of minutes) and as a restricted free agent, ponying up that level of cash made all the sense in the world. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, Miami matched their offer and kept Johnson in South Beach.
Marks then turned his eyes towards Allen Crabbe and made an even more aggressive offer of 4 years and $75 million to try to pry Crabbe from Portland. Crabbe was also just 23 years old last season and had, like Tyler Johnson, performed better in the playoffs than his decent production in the regular season. Portland matched. Despite their lack of success, these moves showed a coherent plan for improvement from Marks right out of the gate. He was seeking to grab young talent with the potential and perhaps even likelihood to grow into being worth more than their contracts. It’s also noteworthy that Crabbe and Johnson both have the physical tools to indicate that they could be plus defenders in short order, while also contributing positively on offense. Essentially, the Nets were trying to buy their way into talent, but instead of buying access to old, decaying stars, they were looking to grab players on the upswing and sign them through to their primes.
In keeping with that theme, Marks signed Jeremy Lin to a three year deal for just $36 million that brought him back to the New York metro area for what should be his peak years, as he will be 28–30 years old during those seasons. Lin’s no star, but he’s a perfectly solid player: a fringe starter, solid sixth man and despite the injuries he’s suffered through this season, this deal was still a pretty smart one. It also marks a relative break with the Hinkie Process which somewhat infamously was devoid of NBA level point guards for much of his run as GM in Philly. Given the clear culture of development that Marks is striving for with his head coach Kenny Atkinson steering the on-court ship, it was vitally important for their to be a few NBA veterans who could meaningfully contribute and help players along. It’s been unfortunate for Brooklyn that Lin has only been able to play in 19 games this season, as he is their second best contributor, behind Brook Lopez.
At draft time, Marks flipped Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for a first round pick and a conditional second rounder. Young is a solid player, but not a particularly good fit for the Nets rebuilding timeline and good enough that if you could fetch a first for him, you do it 10 times out of 10. With the first rounder he received, Marks nabbed Caris Levert, a rangy forward who probably would have had a good chance to be a lottery pick had injury concerns not knocked his value down. Grabbing guys who have been injured is another way to increase your variance and potentially grab someone higher upside than you might otherwise have gotten. It increases your odds of getting nothing, but when you’re picking at 20, the odds are stacked against you anyway, so you may as well swing for the best talent. Beyond Levert, the Nets walked away with a conditional future second pick.
Another little swing Marks took was locking up Spencer Dinwiddie to a 3 year minimum contract deal that was only guaranteed for $100,000 in 2016–17 and unguaranteed for the following two seasons. This is the ultimate low-risk, decent upside move. If Dinwiddie had been useless, the Nets could have let him go for very little guaranteed money, but if he turns out to be a solid contributor, he’s locked in on a team friendly deal for 3 seasons. I got a focused look at Dinwiddie when he was on the Bulls’ summer league team and started on their roster to kick off the season. He’s a 6’6″ point guard and he showed some ability to shoot from distance in college, despite the results not being there early in his NBA career (on a tiny number of attempts). This season, that shooting ability has come through as he’s converting 41% of his 3s this season (on 61 attempts). He’s probably not a 41% three point shooter, but I believe in his shooting ability, especially off-the-catch. Dinwiddie is just 23 years old and his length and ability to play point guard and play off-the-ball makes him a great fit in the evolving NBA that prizes versatility in role players above all else.
Finally at the trade deadline, Marks was able to utilize the Nets cap space and Bojan Bogdanovic to take back Andrew Nicholson’s contract to nab a first round pick from the Wizards in another move, like the Thaddeus Young deal, that helped restock their crop of young players and to somewhat makeup for the loss of their pick this season to the Celtics. Less heralded, but also indicative of the attempt to replenish their young talent base was Brooklyn taking on K.J. McDaniels from the Rockets for essentially nothing in return beyond cash. The Rockets wanted to clear McDaniels’ salary to pursue Andrew Bogut and others on the buyout market and Marks and the Nets were happy to take on a young player who had shown some promise in Philadelphia before being dealt to the Rockets.
Even the moves where the Nets’ strategy of taking fliers on young talent hasn’t worked out, for one reason or another, show the overall strategy. Marks brought in former first overall pick Anthony Bennett in order to see if another change of scenery and some time in the Nets’ program with more opportunities would help turn his career around. Bennett was still just 23 years old this season when the Nets took a look at him on a minimum contract. Bennett showed the same problems he had shown elsewhere and he was assigned to the D-League and Brooklyn quickly cut bait on him. They had seen enough to conclude what 3 other teams already had. Anthony Bennett was not for them, but it was such a low risk move, that it was worth trying for a team bereft of young talent and in need of alternative means besides lottery picks to grab good, young players.
Prior to his run of fun, bucket-getting play in Dallas, Yogi Ferrell got his first chance this year in Brooklyn. He did not show very much in his 151 minutes for the Nets over 10 games, a 6.6 PER and -7.4 BPM are a pretty good indication of how bad he was. It’s worth debating whether the Nets should have hung on to Ferrell for longer than they did, given how he’s put it together in Dallas, but sometimes you’re just going to miss on guys. It doesn’t really undermine the overall strategy. That’s not a very satisfying thing to say to fans and ultimately, the Nets front office will be judged on their results, just as every team is, but for process-oriented thinkers, having a strategy that makes sense and that should produce +EV bets over time should pay dividends. In addition, the Nets let Ferrell go in order to sign Dinwiddie, who hasn’t been significantly worse than Ferrell over this full season and has more switchy defensive upside given his 6’6″ size relative to Ferrell’s 6′. It’s a defensible choice.
In just a year at the helm, after walking in to a completely bare cupboard, Sean Marks and the rest of the new Nets front office have placed a number of low-risk bets and re-stocked their coffers of young talent. Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddie, K.J. McDaniels, and the pick they just nabbed in the Bogdanovic deal are the first steps in rebuilding Brooklyn’s talent base. In Jeremy Lin, they have a competent point guard to help the development of their young guys. (Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is also still just 22 years old, and has very good potential as a lockdown wing defender who could develop into a passable offensive player, but he’s a holdover from the Billy King era, so the new regime doesn’t get credit for him). In his first free agency, Marks showed savvy in targeting young players with upside to grow into their contracts and a desire to pay for future production, not past production, which was the problem with the Nets prior strategy under their prior management. The results aren’t there on the floor, yet, but Sean Marks is running the parts of “the Process” that are available to him and making a lot of positive expected value bets. Over a long enough term, that should pay off for him and for Brooklyn.