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ESSAY: T.J. Warren and Sean Marks never-ending pursuit of the (cheap) Sixth Man

The Nets lost Tuesday and it wasn’t pretty but it was no fault of T.J. Warren, the latest in a long line of vets minimum players Sean Marks has signed for his team’s Sixth Man job.

Brooklyn Nets v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Sean Marks doesn’t have a broker’s license, nor any sort of economics degree. In fact, he studied political science at Cal Berkeley before joining the NBA. Regardless, he needed to, and eventually did, stroll into the NBA’s stock exchange this summer and use pennies to turn a profit.

Unless you live under a rock, you know that the Brooklyn Nets gave new meaning to the term “mess” during the 2022 offseason. Fresh off a first round exit and with star players halfway out the door, their future became impossible to forecast.

That didn’t matter to Marks though, who had a job to do.

Much like one of the trading floors across the bridge on Wall Street, endless “noise” surrounded Brooklyn’s general manager as the NBA market opened up in late June — “noise” Marks said he ignored. To Marks’s left he found almost every other NBA executive, whispering Kevin Durant trade packages in his ear. To his left, a sea of reporters breathing down his neck.

But amidst the chaos, he kept his composure and focused on the task at hand. Despite his team’s foggy future and a budget restrained by the vagaries of CBA rules, Marks needed to reel in not one, but multiple impactful players via minimum contracts. Essentially looking for Apple shares back in 1980, Marks needed to become Brooklyn’s “Wolf of Atlantic Avenue.”

Fortunately, that’s a hat Marks has worn before.

With big names entering and exiting Brooklyn at a rapid pace over the past few years, it’s understandable to forget some of the low cost, high impact players the Nets brought on over the past few years. Having said that, I’ll start with an easy one in Joe Harris.

As the longest tenured Net, Harris signed with the team during Marks’s first off-season at the helm for the veteran’s minimum. His multiple seasons atop the league in 3-point percentage should tell you enough about how that deal worked out. Bang for your buck? Check.

Although not another home run like with Harris, but Marks hit again the following summer with Shabazz Napier. The assumed draft bust signed with Brooklyn for the minimum as well. While his game did not blossom much after, he did put up a then-career high points off the bench for the Nets. Ed Davis, who signed for $4 million, did the same in the rebounding department ... and in the locker room, as the two formed the backbone of the bench for the “Go Hard” Nets.

Across those rebuilding years Brooklyn first found, then kept Spencer Dinwiddie around, signing him to a series of team-friendly contracts until he became too good for such offers two summers ago. Dinwiddie, being the team’s first guy off the bench or even a starter depending on D’Angelo Russell or Kyrie Irving’s availability, donned that all too important Super Sixth Man cape about as well as anyone.

Playing under a less lucrative deal while still making an impact, Jeff Green took up that mantle after Dinwiddie. And now, thanks to Marks’s work this summer, the Nets find themselves getting similar returns from swingman T.J. Warren.

I’ll end the history lesson there. You should get the point by now. The Nets have made signing players to cap-friendly deals and plugging them into the Sixth Man role a habit. Warren, who hadn’t played in two years, resembles one of the many cheap, but high-quality glue guys for the team to wield over the past few seasons. One could add Yuta Watanabe and Edmond Sumner to the family tree as well. And let’s not forget. Watanabe was signed August 28 as a “camp invite” ... his words.

However, this lineage of coupon-killers off the bench is not just a reason to applaud the Nets front office. I won’t stop you from clapping, but there’s more to unpack here regarding Brooklyn’s ceiling this year, specifically in relation to Warren’s impact since coming back from injury.

It’s no secret that NBA rotations shorten up come playoff time. With games at peak importance, coaches want their best players on the court as often as possible. The Nets are no stranger to this, having followed this widely adopted strategy in each of their past four playoff appearances under Marks. But even with Brooklyn’s bench losing some run time, the Nets thrived when featuring a Sixth Man and struggled when they did not during the postseason.

In Brooklyn’s playoff victories over the aforementioned stretch, their Sixth Man (most minutes off the bench) averaged a 17.6% usage rate. In their losses, the Sixth Man averaged a 13.9 usage rate. To paint the picture better, of Brooklyn’s 25 total playoff games under Marks, their sixth man posted a usage rate under 12.0 percent nine times and seven of those games resulted in losses.

Also in the playoffs, when Brooklyn fails to attain at least 10 points from their sixth man, they lose that contest 90.0% of the time compared to 53.3% of the time when a Sixth Man does go over that mark (Brooklyn has a lot of playoff losses in this time span, so just adding this for context.)

Even for those of you who rely on the “eye test” more than numbers, I encourage you to go back and re-watch some of Brooklyn’s past playoff bouts. The team’s demise against Boston last year surely would have come via four blowouts rather than close finishes without Goran Dragic’s play off the bench.

The same can be said from the season beforehand regarding Jeff Green. Without Green’s floor spacing and clutch shooting, Durant’s 49-point Game 5 ripper against the Bucks likely results in a third straight loss rather than a pivotal victory to prolong the series. (ICYMI, Green had 27 in that contest.)

If the Nets are lucky, primarily meaning that KD recovers from his recent MCL injury and stays healthy down the regular season’s stretch, they could get similar results from Warren and consequently carve out some postseason victories.

In the month of January, Warren is averaging 13.0 points per game while shooting the rock at a 52.1% clip and a little less than 40% from deep. His ability to score especially at all three levels puts him in position to be this year’s X-factor off the bench and move the needle come playoff time. Want another stat? Warren has now scored in double digits 13 times out of 19 games. He broke 30 minutes once in those games.

Don’t count out Watanabe or Sumner either. Although neither player possesses as deep an offensive bag as Warren, they both find themselves enjoying career years. Watanabe averages a little less than seven points for the season on remarkable .556/.506 splits. Sumner is averaging a modest 6.8 points per game on .456/.281 splits.

Yes, they failed to use the taxpayers MLE this summer, but was that because free agents wondered what the Nets would look life, would they have KD and Kyrie, KD without Kyrie, Kyrie without KD? That has been reported.

Brooklyn carrying bench weapons like these into battle is vital to their chances of winning anything. But again, it’s the price tag on said weapons that make them most impressive.

With Warren as the big gun, as well as Watanabe and Sumner on their hip, Brooklyn is locked and loaded, ready to hurt Brooklyn’s opponents — but not their wallet.