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ANALYSIS: Who could Sean Marks get with that big trade exception?

Back at the trade deadline, Sean Marks did a lot of things, one of them was to reconfigure the Durant trade so the Nets could wind up with the biggest trade exception in the NBA, an $18.1 million piece that could come in handy ... or could it?

One of many uncertainties in the Nets’ off-season is whether — and how — they will use the $18.1 million traded player exception (TPE) generated in the Kevin Durant trade. At the time of the trade, Sean Marks reworked the original two-team deal with the Suns into a four-team trade, adding the Pacers and the Bucks to the mix. Instead of a $7.9 million TPE, the Nets wound up with one more than twice as large. It’s the biggest exception of any kind in the NBA. It doesn’t expire till next year’s deadline.

At the time, John Hollinger of The Athletic called it “one of the rare exceptions large enough to do some real damage in the offseason.”

Indeed, the TPE is a valuable license to add talent despite being over the salary cap. But with $146 million already on the books and a big new contract for Cam Johnson likely, does Joe Tsai really want to spend even more money on a team that will not be ready to contend? We’ll see.

On the theory that it doesn’t hurt to look, I’ve assembled a list of potential targets. (The table below summarizes their statistical performance over the past three seasons, with recent seasons weighted more heavily.)

The trade exception cannot be combined with other assets to acquire a more expensive player, so there is a strict upper limit on salaries. (I’ve fudged a bit by including two guys whose salary would fit before July 1st, OG Anunoby and Derrick White.) Although it is possible to split the TPE to acquire multiple players, that would dilute its value (the Nets already have the mid-level exception to add a less expensive player), so I’m focusing on players making between $12 million and $18 million per year.

I’m not including free agents (or likely free agents). A sign-and-trade would require the Nets to stay under the $169 million “apron” for the rest of the season, which would require some aggressive salary-dumping, defeating the purpose of the TPE. I’m also ignoring some grizzled veterans (does anyone think the Nets are going to invest $15 million in 35-year-old Derrick Rose?) and some guys they simply aren’t going to get, like Anthony Edwards from Minnesota and Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero from Orlando.

I’m also not listing several players who don’t fit any obvious need. Norman Powell is a good player, but I don’t think the Nets are going to spend significant assets to add a 30-year-old 6’3” wing. Luguentz Dort is younger, but basically the same guy. Tim Hardaway, Jr., Malik Beasley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Gary Harris? It’s hard to see the Nets going for any of these players, given the plethora of wings already on the roster. I’ve made an exception for Kevin Huerter, a defensive specialist and glue guy who has blossomed into an offensive contributor by significantly improving his shooting; but there’s really no reason to think the Kings would part with him.

It is crucial to bear in mind that, even with the TPE, the Nets would still have to offer enough assets to make another team want to give up an attractive player. They would have to draw on their stash of draft picks for that. They could also include Cam Thomas, a young player whose salary would otherwise be too low to get back a capable veteran in trade. (They could also send back a more expensive player, like Nic Claxton or Patty Mills, but that would waste part of the exception, since the net addition to the payroll would be smaller.)

One unfortunate pattern here, given the Nets’ current strengths and weaknesses, is that there are few offensive standouts on the list. The two best scorers, Colin Sexton and Lauri Markkanen, may or may not be available. Is Utah rebuilding around them, or are they on the trade block along with everyone else? Only Jazz GM Danny Ainge knows.

Given the uncertain status of Ben Simmons, the Nets might be tempted to invest in a point guard, but the pickings are slim. While Sexton can score, distributing is not his strength, and he gives away more on the defensive end than he adds offensively. Markelle Fultz‘s career has emerged from the ashes, which is nice, but he has still never played 2000 minutes in any season, and the Magic aren’t going to give him away. Tyus Jones is probably even more indispensable for the Grizzlies given Ja Morant’s troubles; and while he has been a solid backup in Memphis, and would be in Brooklyn, he’s not a very good shooter or defender, so probably not worth $14 million plus trade capital. Derrick White is an off-the-wall possibility, less a true point guard than a combo guard, and probably not a significant upgrade over Spencer Dinwiddie in that role, even if he could be pried out of Boston.

If he’s gettable, Markkanen would be the big prize on this list. He scores a lot and very efficiently, including from three-point range. He would add frontcourt size (7’0”/240), is a good defender, and fits the Nets timeline. Ainge would demand a lot of picks to part with him—but maybe that’s what the picks are for.

Jonas Valanciunas is another excellent scorer, rebounder, and defender. He shoots threes a bit, but not nearly as many or as well as Markkanen, and at 31 he fits the Nets’ timeline less well. Probably not a plausible fit, given the likely cost. Jusuf Nurkic looks a lot like Valanciunas; he’s big (6’11”/290), a good rebounder, and a good scorer and secondary distributor. This season he even began to stretch the floor, taking 4.2 3PAs per 100 possessions and hitting 36%. His biggest downside is availability—he’s played only a little over 4,000 minutes in the past four seasons. He probably only makes sense as part of a package deal with Dame Lillard if the Nets take that plunge.

Steven Adams is a rebounding machine but a drag on the offensive end, and it remains to be seen whether the Grizzlies want to move on from their veteran leader. There are some other bigs on the list who are excellent defenders but no help on offense. That’s probably not what the Nets are looking for unless they are dealing Nic Claxton. OG Anunoby is more a wing than a big, and more a defender than a scorer; he’s probably also one of the pricier guys on the list in terms of trade value.

Then there are the projects. Jonathan Isaac is nearing his supposed prime, but he has managed a grand total of 124 minutes over the past three seasons. Marvin Bagley III and James Wiseman have more experience, but don’t really do anything well, yet. Some fans are always eager to take a flier on former high draft picks, but Sean Marks is very unlikely to make an overpriced bet on untapped potential.

Wendell Carter Jr. is young, too (just turned 24), but in a different class from Isaac, Bagley, and Wiseman. He’s played much more, and more consistently. He stretches the floor a bit (more than half of his shots this season were from beyond 10 feet), but still scores very efficiently. He’s not as good a rebounder as you might expect given his size (6’10”/270), but he would help in that department. While he is not the offensive force Markkanen would be, he would be a workable complement to Claxton and a guy with some upside. What’s more, the Magic have a lot of bigs, so he might be pretty gettable. If he is, he’d be my value pick.

Marks has insisted that the Nets will be “going after it every year,” despite the defections of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. What happens with the TPE will be the best gauge of how serious that commitment is. An additional $18 million in salary could add as much as $90 million in luxury taxes, depending on the team’s other moves. Which—if any—guys on this list are worth that kind of investment, plus the cost of trading for them?

Of course, things can change and the Nets (and other teams) pay big bucks to capologists and others for their knowledge of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, their creativity. So like with so many other things this off-season, we’ll have to wait.