Watch Out Boston Celtics, That Brooklyn Nets Pick Might Not Be As Valuable As You Think
When Sean Marks was hired as the Brooklyn Nets general manager in February 2016, he was faced with a nearly impossible task. At that time, the Nets were 14-40 (the worst record in the Eastern conference), had unarguably the least talented roster in the NBA and did not own or have the rights to any of their draft picks for the next three offseasons. Nevertheless, the San Antonio Spurs’ front-office prodigy still took the job, and 18 months later, things are beginning to look up for Brooklyn.
The Nets are still in the midst of repaying a debt to the Boston Celtics greater than the one the Lannister family owed the Iron Bank. If Brooklyn decided to bottom out in Marks’ and new head coach Kenny Atkinson’s first season at the helm (2016-17), they would only be doing a massive favor to the team that swindled their franchise only a couple of years earlier. They still had to swap picks with the C’s in 2017, then hand them a 2018 first-rounder in unprotected fashion.
Thus, Marks attempted to utilize massive offer sheets for role players such as Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe, as it was the only viable option to improve the team in the interim. The strategy failed. While they waited for both players’ respective teams to match (or decline) the offer sheets, the free-agency market dried up, and the Nets were left with little to choose from thereafter.
With no discernible young talent on the roster, they did manage to land Jeremy Lin on an reasonable contract, though that’s where the positives ended. Lin only played in 36 games for the Nets last season but still managed to contribute 46.59 offensive points added (OPA). Projecting his impact for the length of a full season, the numbers suggest Brooklyn may have fared a bit better than sitting as the worst team in the NBA.
Using NBA Math’s FATS Calculator, we can estimate a team’s performance based on the four factors (statistician Dean Oliver’s “four factors of basketball success” consist of effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and free-throw rate), then examine how a full season of Lin might have benefited the Nets:
Looking at Lin’s on/off four factors indicates that, based on historical records of teams with similar Four Factors, the Nets would win an estimated 37.8 games if the point guard were always on the floor. With that type of impact for a full season, they would likely have picked somewhere around 12th or 13th in the most recent NBA draft. This is not to suggest the Nets would have been that good, but a few more wins isn’t out of the picture going forward, especially when considering their 2017 additions. Starting with the trade deadline, Marks had himself an active few months of roster manipulation.
His first move was to trade Bojan Bogdanovic in exchange for the Washington Wizards’ first-round pick and Andrew Nicholson’s unwanted contract before the trade deadline. Marks then flipped that pick along with an expiring Brook Lopez (the only other Net with a positive OPA in 2016-17) for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov’s albatross deal prior to the draft.
As free agency began to die down, Marks pulled another salary-dump trick from up his sleeve by trading Justin Hamilton’s non-guaranteed contract for DeMarre Carroll, as well as Toronto’s 2018 first- and second-round picks. He then effectively completed his offseason by flipping Nicholson for Crabbe’s expensive contract, thus nearly capping out the Nets’ salary.
The effect of these moves was two-fold. The additions of Russell and the draft picks improve their long-term outlook, and the salary dumps could, at least in theory, help them field a more competitive team in 2017-18:
- Mozgov: Though a net negative in his sole season with the Los Angeles Lakers, he averaged 23.12 defensive points saved (DPS) between 2012 and 2016, which would have placed him in the 78th percentile during the 2016-17 campaign. If he can bounce back to form, he can be a solid defensive anchor for a team in need of some defensive help.
- Russell: He shot 35 percent from beyond the arc on 6.1 attempts per game in 2016-17. He figures to share ball-handling responsibility with Lin but will work well as a complement off the ball, as well. He had 40.88 OPA as a 20-year-old sophomore (87th percentile) and has a ton of room to grow under Kenny Atkinson.
- Carroll : He has failed to live up to the contract to which the Toronto Raptors signed him in 2015, but he is still a solid role player and can contribute on both ends for the Nets. He limited opponents to 0.56 points per possession (PPP) in isolation last season, which ranked No. 5 in the NBA (minimum 50 possessions). Carroll also contributed a subtle 40.84 total points added (TPA) in 2016-17, which left him in the 83rd percentile.
- Jarrett Allen: The Nets’ lone draft pick, he is a lanky rim-runner and had 98.12 TPA in his sole NCAA season. He’s only 19, but he has plenty of upside as a rim-protector.
- Crabbe: He had 13.62 OPA last year, but he does not offer much beside outside shooting. Crabbe averaged 1.23 PPP (93rd percentile) on spot-up opportunities last season and hit 44.4 percent of his three-point attempts.
The Crabbe trade was perhaps the most questionable decision made by Marks. That’s not necessarily indicative of the swingman as a player, but the move essentially hard-capped the Nets for the time being and helped clear $12 million from Portland’s payroll without compensation. With this acquisition, the Nets currently have less than $3 million in cap space. Therefore, they cannot absorb any other large unwanted contracts without sending some outgoing salary, and the Crabbe money would probably have been better preserved for a mid-season acquisition.
However, it’s more likely that the Nets just wanted to field a semi-competitive team on the court, and with Crabbe serving as one of their 2016 offseason targets, he can add value to a team that desperately needs it. Marks has effectively taken nothing but cap space/some undervalued assets and begun assembling a franchise foundation, all in one calendar year.
Make no mistake; the Nets are going to be a bad team in 2017-18. ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton projects the Nets to finish with the fourth-worst record in the NBA.
Then again, so will much of the Eastern Conference. Multiple playoff teams from last season (namely the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls) will all be vying for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. With players such as Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap moving West, there has been a massive shift in TPA towards the Western Conference:
A lot would have to go right, but the Nets could put together—by Eastern Conference standards, at least—a quasi-respectable season. They will presumably still be mediocre, but so will half a dozen other teams in their half of the league, and Brooklyn will have no incentive to tank.
Brooklyn will win somewhere between 33 and 35 games next season. People may think I’m outlandish, but grouping together a full season of Lin, Russell flourishing with player-development guru Atkinson as his coach and a rag-tag bunch of veteran castoffs will make the Nets better than expected. They had only had three players with a positive TPA last year, and that number should, at the very minimum, double if they all remain healthy. With several other NBA teams expected to tank, their pick could easily slide out of the top five, which would be a minor blow to Boston and a small consolation prize for the Nets.
Looking forward, Boston is still in by far the best position throughout the Eastern Conference. It has a nice blend of talented veterans, promising young guys and future picks galore. As of now, the Celtics’ prized jewel remains the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick. However, they might want to consider moving this pick sooner rather than later as their Atlantic Division rival looks to take the next step toward relevancy.
Follow Tim on Twitter @StubbHub.