The Process in Brooklyn

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.

Projecting the NBA using xWARP: Brooklyn Nets

Last time out, I explained the method I would be using to project the records for the 2013–14 season. There was a lot of dense explanation that I won’t cover again in this post. You can re-read it here. This post will be about updating the method to take into account new research from Jeremias Englemann on aging and RAPM and also to try to project the new rookies entering the league based on projections done over at Hickory High by Cole Patty, Jacob Frankel, and Jam Draper. Finally, I’ll show the updated results for the Bulls and also discuss what this off-season’s biggest splash-makers, the Brooklyn Nets, should look like provided their health holds up.

First up, aging. Aging affects performance, obviously. It cuts both ways. As players get stronger and smarter when they are younger, they tend to perform better year over year. Eventually, usually at around age 30 or so, they start to decline, due to the negative affects of aging and a lifetime of basketball played. Jeremias Engelmann wanted to know the effects of aging on average performance under RAPM. So he did some research and came up with the following graph:


As a result of that graph, I decided to add adjustments to the xRAPM of each member of every team based on the expected change in their performance based on the change in their age. Here are the numbers that I used, based on an eyeballing of the graph provided by Jeremias:

Age 19 to 20 = +.6

20 to 21 = +.4

21 to 22 = +.4

22 to 23 = +.35

23 to 24 = +.3

24 to 25 = +.15

25 to 26 = +.1

26 to 27 through 28 to 29 = 0

29 to 30 = -.1

30 to 31 = -.2

31 to 32 = -.2

32 to 33 = -.3

33 to 34 = -.4

34 to 35 = -.4

35 to 36 = -.6

36 to 37 = -.6

37 to 38 = -.75

Second, I wanted to try to get a projection of what rookie performance for this year might look like. I looked around for projections in RAPM of the incoming rookie class and the closest thing I found was 4 years in the league RAPM projections done by the guys at Hickory High mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, 4 year in projections don’t help me for projecting the league for this year. So I subtracted out the RAPM performance bumps those players would have expected to receive via the aging curve over the 3 seasons following their rookie year from their 4th-year RAPM projections to try to approximate a guess as to what their production might look like for this year. It is, admittedly, a janky solution. But it’s the best I could figure for the time being. If I find a better solution, I will change things and post updated results.

Okay, now on to the more fun stuff: projecting the Bulls and the Nets with the updated method.


The Bulls look more or less the same as I had previously suggested. Tony Snell’s projection is much worse as the 4-year RAPM projection had him as one of the worst projected players drafted. Erik Murphy looks about the same as I had projected him last time. I don’t expect either of them to play significant minutes so this change had little effect on the Bulls estimated win total. I believe Derrick Rose will play his normal level of minutes as he has had plenty of rest and should be back, better than ever. Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Marquis Teague project to have improvements based on their ages which helps the Bulls, while Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, and Kirk Hinrich all project to decline slightly. The rest of the major minutes contributors should be more or less the same. As a result, I have the Bulls pegged at about 58 to 59 wins, which is right in between where my two earlier projections of 57 and 60 wins would suggest. So the age adjustment did not make a huge difference for the Bulls.

One team for whom the aging adjustment did matter was the Brooklyn Nets. Prior to age adjusting their roster, the Nets looked like a 63 win team. This is how their projection shook out:


After adjusting for age, however, the Nets still look great. They project as a 60 win team, provided they stay reasonably healthy. I made a point of keeping Kevin Garnett’s minutes low relative to his career average, as he has stated in interviews that he can no longer handle the heavy minutes loads that he has been tasked with his whole career. The good news, for Garnett and Nets fans, is that it looks like he will not need to be asked to handle such heavy minutes. The Nets appear to be a juggernaut in waiting. Here are the results with the age adjustment:


I have seen the Nets compared to this year’s Lakers as a top-heavy team full of oldsters assembled together to take a shot at a title, with the implication being that the Nets will fall apart just as spectacularly as those Lakers did. I think this is wrong because these two teams could not be more different in terms of roster construction. This Nets team is DEEP. Eight of their top 10 players in projected minutes played are positive xRAPM contributors and ALL of the top 10 in projected minutes played are above the replacement level of -2.5 in xRAPM.

By way of contrast, the 2012–13 Lakers gave over 1300 minutes to Earl Clark (-4.14 xRAPM), 1175 minutes to Steve Blake (-3), plus over 1500 minutes combined to Chris Duhon and Darius Morris (-3.95 and -4.93, respectively). Steve Nash was merely above average (+.7) when he played and on top of that, he was hurt often (hence all the minutes for Duhon, Morris, and Blake). This year’s Lakers squad had little depth and suffered significant injuries to key contributors (Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, and Kobe Bryant) and saw Dwight Howard play when he likely should have been recovering from back surgery. Dwight was awesome (+5.54), but he wasn’t as great as he can be (+8.8 in 2011–12, +9.7 in 2010–11). This is not to say that the Nets will necessarily be much healthier at the top than the Lakers were, but it is to say that they are better prepared to handle injuries thanks to their far superior depth.

If these Nets stay reasonably healthy and Jason Kidd is worth a lick as a coach, they represent a significant threat to the Heat, Bulls, and Pacers at the top of the Eastern Conference. They may even be the favorites to win the regular season Eastern Conference crown, under this analysis, if not in Vegas. Speaking of Vegas favorites, the Miami Heat will be next up in this series of posts.

Image from Keith Allison via Flickr

It’s Not About Money, It’s About Sending a Message: Mikhail Prokhorov’s Money Torching Quest for an NBA Championship

Mikhail Prokhorov has clearly shown that he doesn’t care one iota about spending money as an NBA owner. In the time since he purchased the Nets franchise, he has traded for the albatross contracts of Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson, then earlier this summer he added Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry for basically a bunch of draft picks and useless players. Yesterday came word that the Nets have convinced stat-stuffing swingman and defensive savant Andrei Kirilenko to sign for merely $3.1 million a year, using the luxury taxpayer’s mini midlevel exception, after he earlier opted out of a $10 million final year with the Minnesota Timberwolves. As a result of the signing, the Nets’ owner will be paying over $186 million for the Nets roster for JUST THIS YEAR. (h/t: Devin @ TheBrooklynGame for the figures.)

As noted above, the Nets have been no stranger to spending since Prokhorov took over, but this is something else entirely. With this summer’s moves, the Proker is showing the rest of the league that money simply does not matter to him at all. He’s become the NBA’s rogue, chaotic force, hell bent on sending a message that he will build a winner, no matter the cost.

The Nets now have a starting five featuring 2 future Hall of Famers and rounded out with All Stars at every other position. Their bench now looks similarly stacked. There’s backcourt scoring and floor stretching in Jason Terry. Kirilenko’s great defense and all around solid play everywhere else. Reggie Evans’s ability to hit the glass. Andray Blatche’s post scoring and occasionally solid defense. Plus, capable point guard play holding it all together from Shaun Livingston. The whole bench has roles that fit together reasonably well with solid contributors.

The Nets have built a deep roster that should allow them to rest the old dudes from Boston and keep them fresh for what should be a deep playoff run. If Jason Kidd proves up to the task of managing the egos and crafting an offense that emphasizes ball movement, as he’s promised, the Nets could be incredibly dangerous. It’s all because Mikhail Prokhorov is determined to show the rest of the NBA that this league deserves a better class of owner and he’s gonna give it to them.

Why the Nets-Celtics Trade Makes Sense for Both Sides

At first blush, the Nets-Celtics trade reported last night, which sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph, MarShon Brooks and the Nets’ first round picks from 2014, 2016, and 2018, appears incredibly one-sided in favor of the Nets. And in some ways, it is. The Nets got the two best players in the deal, two future Hall of Famers for what amounts to a bunch of crummy flotsam from the Nets and 3 future first round picks. It’s easy to bash this deal for the Celtics.* The Celts got some picks that figure to be pretty low value in 2014, 2016, and a pick of more indeterminable value in 2018 and a bit of salary relief for two Celtics’ legends and guys who can definitely still play. That’s the bad part.

The more nuanced way to view this deal is that the Celtics had already determined they weren’t winning anything with their aging group and Rajon Rondo recovering from ACL surgery and they’ve now totally blown up their roster. In the NBA, the worst thing you can be is mediocre. So the Celtics got what they could for their guys, and they are now pretty clearly tanking to try and position themselves the best that they can for what is being touted as the best draft class since the fabled 2003 draft that brought LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony into the league.

Celtics fans would be forgiven if they weren’t thrilled with that plan, given what has happened to them the last two times they brazenly attempted to tank for top picks in the 1999 draft (targeting Tim Duncan) and 2007 draft (targeting Greg Oden or Kevin Durant). The plan, however, remains the C’s best bet to return to relevancy. They need to be bad before they can become good again. They’re accumulating assets, hoping to get a great draft pick in next year’s draft, and then hoping Danny Ainge can pull of another amazing set of trades like the ones which brought the Big 3 together. Ainge got absolutely the most value he could get from his current situation, make no mistake about that. Garnett seemingly wasn’t waiving his no trade clause unless he was dealt in tandem with his buddy Pierce. The only team nuts enough to trade for both Garnett and Pierce, at their advanced ages, given what they’re owed, was the Nets. Ainge found the only trade partner who he could realistically get to take those two deals and got the most value from them he could get. It will be interesting to see how things shake out for these Celtics, but Ainge has, rightly, blown up the Ubuntu Celtics and managed to come out of it with 4 future first round picks (including the one he received from the Clippers for Doc Rivers’s services) and the Celtics themselves will be one of the worst teams in the league next year and will have good odds of a top pick in next year’s loaded draft. Good on Ainge for making a hard choice and pulling the trigger, and kudos to Mikhail Prokhorov for being willing to spend, spend, spend to try to make his team a viable contender.

*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.