By Bryan Toporek
To pull the Brooklyn Nets out of the dire straits former general manager Billy King left them in, current GM Sean Marks has left no stone unturned. From trading away veterans to accepting onerous contracts for future draft picks and/or young prospects, Marks is expediting the unenviable process of replenishing Brooklyn’s depleted talent pipeline.
His most brilliant strategy yet, though, is how he approaches restricted free agency. While he has yet to actually land a restricted free agent, his willingness to test opposing teams’ mettle—as he most recently demonstrated with a four-year, $106 million max offer sheet for Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr., according to Shams Charania of The Vertical—puts the Nets in a no-lose situation.
Most teams hesitate to sign restricted free agents to big-money offer sheets, as it ties up cap space for days while their incumbent teams decide whether to match. Although the new collective bargaining agreement shortened that matching window from 72 hours to 48, RFAs still can’t sign offer sheets until the July Moratorium lifts at noon ET on July 6. As a result, teams interested in lobbing big offer sheets at RFAs must preserve the requisite cap space for a full week after free agency opens. In the meantime, that puts those teams at risk of missing out on some (or all) of their other potential free-agent targets.
Marks, however, pays no heed to those disincentives. Last year, he signed Miami Heat combo guard Tyler Johnson to a four-year, $50 million “poison-pill” offer sheet with a fourth-year player option. Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, Johnson’s cap hit for Brooklyn would have been spread out evenly across those four seasons ($12.5 million), even though his salary would have soared from roughly $11.5 million combined over the first two years to nearly $38.5 million over the final two. Because the Heat did match, however, his cap hit will mirror his salary structure—in other words, it will jump from around $5.9 million in 2017-18 to nearly $18.9 million the following season. (The new collective bargaining agreement gets rid of this poison-pill loophole, allowing incumbent teams to even out the cap hit for RFAs across all four years as well.)
While waiting for Miami to match Johnson’s cruelly structured offer sheet, Marks turned his attention to Portland Trail Blazers swingman Allen Crabbe, handing him a four-year, $74.8 million offer sheet with a 15 percent trade kicker. That left Portland with the dilemma of whether to overpay an unproven young contributor—after already having signed Evan Turner to an instantly regrettable four-year, $70 million deal—or to allow him to walk away for nothing. Like Miami did with Johnson, the Blazers decided to bite the bullet and match Crabbe’s offer sheet, resigned to deal with the consequences later.
Though he struck out on his first two targets in restricted free agency, those experiences didn’t deter Marks from continuing to pursue the same route. In December, the Nets signed Houston Rockets restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas to a four-year offer sheet worth upward of $37 million, according to ESPN’s Marc J. Spears and Marc Stein. The Rockets initially matched Brooklyn’s offer sheet, only to turn around a week-and-a-half later and renounce its rights to Motiejunas, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. Because he signed the Nets’ offer sheet, however, they were the only team he wasn’t allowed to sign with once Houston renounced his rights, according to USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt.
Despite going 0-of-3 on RFAs heading into this summer, Marks dove right back into that well this offseason with the max offer sheet for Porter, which Washington reportedly plans on matching, according to Chris Mannix of The Vertical. Assuming the Wizards follow through with that pledge—they have until 11:59 p.m. Saturday to make their decision if Porter inks his offer sheet right when the July Moratorium lifts Thursday—Marks could turn around and fire offer sheets at Dallas Mavericks big man Nerlens Noel, Detroit Pistons 2-guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Atlanta Hawks swingman Tim Hardaway Jr., Memphis Grizzlies forward JaMychal Green or Chicago Bulls stretch 4 Nikola Mirotic. With cap space quickly drying up across the league, the Nets remain the one wild card for teams attempting to wait out their own restricted free agents.
Regardless of whether Marks can successfully pry away a restricted free agent this offseason, there’s no downside to his strategy. The Nets owe their unprotected 2018 first-round pick to the Boston Celtics as the final payment for their ill-fated acquisition of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry back in 2013. Having no first-round draft pick gives them zero incentive to tank this upcoming season, and it also kneecaps their ability to add top-tier young talent to their core.
Brooklyn already acquired one former top-three pick in D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason by shipping out Brook Lopez’s expiring contract and the No. 27 pick and taking on Timofey Mozgov’s bloated deal in exchange. If the Nets succeed in landing Porter (taken third overall in the 2013 NBA draft), Noel (No. 6) or Caldwell-Pope (No. 8), they’d add another promising young player to their up-and-coming core of Russell, Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Isaiah Whitehead and rookie big man Jarrett Allen. Considering the dearth of budding talent Marks inherited upon taking over the job in February 2016, that’s an impressive core to have assembled in the past 18 months, especially with both of Brooklyn’s first-round picks having headed to Boston over that span.
Even if the Wizards match Porter’s offer sheet and Marks again strikes out in restricted free agency, that has its benefits as well. Portland already finds itself deep into luxury-tax territory after matching Crabbe’s offer sheet last summer, and trade-deadline acquisition Jusuf Nurkic is now eligible for an extension, too. The Heat received cap relief from Chris Bosh’s medical retirement, but Johnson’s soaring cap hit in 2018-19 could limit their ability to make a huge free-agent splash next offseason. Matching Porter would put the Wizards in luxury-tax territory for the first time in franchise history, according to Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post, likewise hamstringing their ability to sign impact free agents in future seasons.
In other words: Within the past 12 months, Marks has removed three potential free-agent competitors from the market by signing their players to bloated offer sheets. Seeing as the Nets are financially flexible in future seasons—including all options, they only have $55 million in salary on the books in 2018-19—they could find themselves firmly in a buyer’s market next summer. As ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted Sunday on Twitter, around half of the NBA could be in luxury-tax territory after this season, limiting the amount of potential free-agent suitors.
While Marks’ decision to weaponize cap space in restricted free agency has irked opposing GMs, according to Mannix, it could benefit his relationship with players’ agents down the line. According to RealGM.com, Crabbe and Russell share the same agent, Aaron Mintz, whose client list also includes Paul George, Julius Randle, Reggie Jackson, Elfrid Payton and Kris Dunn. By handing Crabbe a huge offer sheet last year, did Marks grease the wheels on an eventual Russell acquisition down the line? As The Ringer’s John Gonzalez recently noted, agents wield enormous behind-the-scenes power, so currying favor with them is a sound strategy for Marks while the Nets possess copious amounts of cap space. (That’s one area where former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie fell woefully short.)
As such, don’t be surprised if Marks continues going down the road of restricted free agency when (if?) the Wizards match Porter’s offer sheet. Though the NBA effectively nixed the effectiveness of poison-pill contracts in its new CBA, Marks’ creativity with other types of offer sheets—handing out player options, trade kickers and the like—has cemented him as the league’s most devious threat in restricted free agency.
Until the Nets dig themselves further out from the hole King left them in, Marks’ approach is a no-lose strategy.