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ESSAY: Trying to look forward while rooting for the present

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Denver Nuggets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets are in an odd position, maybe even a unique one, in NBA history.

They are likely to make the playoffs with a starting lineup that didn’t play together till after two franchise-changing trades in February ... but are working with a cushion supplied by their dearly departed superstars. Still seven games above .500 — half what it was before Kevin Durant went down, the Nets are now the sixth seed, a game out of the seventh seed and the play-in tournament. It all matters.

Moreover, they don’t control any of their own firsts through 2028 ... but still have 11 firsts including the Suns firsts in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029 (plus a swap in 2028), the Mavs first in 2027 and the Sixers first that same year. Only the Sixers pick is protected: 1 through 8 in 2027 and it rolls over, again protected 1-8, in 2028. And, yes, they have that huge trade exception — $18.1 million — that can be used at any point through the 2024 trade deadline.

Not to mention that the other unique aspect of their current situation: the elephant in the room. The team’s highest paid player and only All-Star, Ben Simmons, seems to be stuck in some sort of netherworld, his future uncertain. Unique indeed.

Sean Marks faced another unique situation when he arrived in Brooklyn back in February 2016, but it was decidedly different. He didn’t have control of any firsts or seconds through 2019 and other than Joe Johnson who he bought out nine days after taking over and Brook Lopez who he was looking to trade, he had no All-Stars on his roster. And of course, that team went 21-61. This one will have a wining record. So throw out any comparisons with that rebuild.

So what can we expect? Don’t ask us! We’re just speculating. One thing that does seem certain is that there will be surprises. That has been a constant in Marks tenure. In part, it’s because the Nets keep their plans, the so-called “state secrets” out of public view. Pundits around the NBA do expect the Nets to be aggressive, however, as Jake Fischer wrote days after the KD and Kyrie trades...

The Nets can suddenly jump to the front of the line whenever another franchise focal point seeks a new destination. They quite literally hold the package that just acquired Kevin Durant, and then some...

Smart money would bet on the Nets searching for pathways back toward contention sooner than anything else.

Alex Schiffer in his latest mailbag suggests the same, believing that only two, maybe three players on the current roster — Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton and probably restricted free agent Cam Johnson — carry the untouchable label.

I think everyone else on the roster is worth taking a call on to see what’s out there.

That would mean a number of players, like Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe, both on low-priced rookie deals, up to Dorian Finney-Smith, with four years and $43 million remaining, could be dealt. It also could include Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, both scheduled to earn roughly $20 million next season, the last on their current contracts. And Patty Mills, who’s scheduled to earn $7 million next season.

Here’s an exercise that might help. Let’s take a look at what Marks did when he took over back in February 2016 and see if there’s anything we can look for, any parallels. Marks did have a couple of things in his favor back them: some cap space and an owner in Mikhail Prokhorov who was at the time the richest owner in all of sports (if one whose citizenship made his control of the team somewhat tenuous.)

So what did he do with those advantages? In a 12-month period from July 2016 through July 2017, he tendered huge offer sheets to four players: $50 million for Tyler Johnson, $75 million for Allen Crabbe, $37 million (with a lot of incentives) for Donatas Motiejunas and $106 million for Otto Porter Jr. In each case, the team that controlled the free agent matched the Nets offer, but the moves let it be known that the Nets and Prokhorov were still willing to spend money, yes, even overpay. It was putting money where your mouth is. It certainly got agents’ attention.

What’s the lesson learned? Let the league know you’re willing to use what assets you have. Make it obvious. Do it quickly. For the Nets and Marks now, that’s all the draft capital acquired in February, some decent contracts of current players ... and Joe Tsai’s billions. Indeed the draft capital — those 11 firsts, eight seconds — combined with said contracts and the big trade exception could be part of a Draft Day deal(s). Marks has historically done a lot of his big deals — other than those forced on him — around Draft Day or in the days between Draft Day and free agency.

The Nets may have the 21st, 22nd and 52nd picks at the moment but as we’ve learned over the years, that can change. We rarely know much about Nets draft intentions, but there is a lot of apparent interest in Rayan Rupert, the 6’7” French point guard who plays in Australia’s NBL. Marks scouted him in Brisbane, Australia, and in Auckland, New Zealand. He also has taken an interest, it appears, in Taylor Hendricks, a 6’9” wing from UCF, traveling to Philadelphia recently to take a look. Both players are projected between the end of the lottery and No. 20, meaning the Nets will either have to move up or their prospects will have to drop.

Free agency will be limited depending on who they want since they don’t have anything other than the $7.0 million taxpayers MLE to throw around. That’s where the trade exception comes in. You may not be able to get a superstar with $18.1 million, but know this, the Nets know how to do multi-team deals to take advantage of their assets and more importantly, Sean Marks and Joe Tsai have a list, have done research and have had their salary analysts run numbers. Sure they could wait till the deadline to use the exception but if you want to make a splash, make it now. (FYI, the Nets also have a smaller $4.5 million exception to play with.)

Tsai seems as committed as ever to spend money on his team. By not going below the luxury tax threshold, the Nets passed on a chance to avoid the dreaded repeater tax which will be costly if the Nets add a lot of pieces. Yes, the February trades dropped this year’s luxury tax payments by $100 million but that was a function of getting all that draft capital while giving up highly paid players.

Finally, there’s the case of the missing man, Ben Simmons. What will the Nets do? It would be difficult and maybe more than a little foolhardy to send him out when his value is at its lowest — suffering back and knee issues and still owed $77 million after this season. A salary dump would no doubt require the Nets to attach some of that draft capital to get rid of him. Again, why do that? Still, we don’t know what’s going on inside HSS Training Center. So who knows?

There will be other issues, like how much did the departure of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the collapse of the “Big Three” hurt the reputations of Marks and Tsai? Do players and their agents still want to play in Brooklyn, the drama capital of the NBA? Is there, as Schiffer asked, a walk away number on Cam Johnson? On the other hand, Mikal Bridges sure sounds happy to be here and Jacque Vaughn who’s basically on a five-year deal offers stability. So that’s a good thing.

Bottom line: the rest of the regular season and playoffs shouldn’t be dismissed. It will offer at the very least an opportunity to see what the current roster can do under pressure, add to the narrative that will guide the decision-makers through the off-season and beyond. But once the uniforms are put away and the meetings on 2023-24 rev up, expect Marks and Tsai to be unsentimental and get ready for whatever you want to call it, rebuild, retool etc. It won’t be long.