By Steve Lichtenstein
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Sean Marks is playing NBA general manager as if it were chess.
The Nets executive's latest maneuver, in which he traded forwards Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to Washington on Wednesday for forward Andrew Nicholson, guard Marcus Thornton and the Wizards' lottery-protected first round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, showed a true understanding of the long game.
Whether or not he wins in the end, we won't know for years. Many years.
Marks may turn out to be a grand master or just another one of those con men in the park, but what stood out to me with this deal was how he needed to think three or four moves ahead before pulling the trigger.
For if you believe any of the reports that Marks was going to target Washington wing Otto Porter in restricted free agency in the offseason, this trade pretty much guaranteed that nobody is going to beat the Wiz for Porter's ongoing services, assuming that's their intention.
Moving Nicholson's 2017-18 salary of almost $6.4 million to Brooklyn created salary cap room for Washington to sign Porter to a maximum extension, worth about $25.5 million next season, according to a recent projection from basketballinsiders.com, without going over the anticipated $122 million luxury tax threshold.
Why wouldn't that concern Marks? Well, Porter leads the league in 3-point field goal percentage (46.5 percent) and plays a valued position. He's going to get paid by someone. And when the money is equal, the deciding factor for the top-tier free agents these days tends to be a team's proximity to an NBA title. Which means in Porter's eyes, Brooklyn would fall below, oh, anyone else that will want to tender to him a maximum-level offer sheet in July. The Nets went into the All-Star break with a league-worst 9-47 record.
There are Nets fans who believe that Marks was shrewd in dealing Bogdanovic, who is also a rising restricted free agent, in the hope that Washington's brass will take a long look at him as a potential cheaper option. Maybe the Wizards would then think twice about matching a maximum offer for Porter.
I think Marks looked ahead and figured he couldn't count on that either.
Bogdanovic may thrive in Washington as a scoring option off the bench as opposed to the starter's role for which he was too often overmatched in Brooklyn. I expect he will bump his 3-point rate over the league average (he's at 35.7 percent this season) now that he's on a team with true point guards, like John Wall, who will provide more wide-open looks.
But Bogdanovic's flaws -- the poor defense and ball handling -- will become apparent to the Wizards in short order. Bogdanovic is no substitute for Porter.
In a similar vein, I was also not a big fan of McCullough's game. The Nets' 2015 first-round selection (29th overall) by former general manager Billy King, who famously insisted that the 22-year-old from Syracuse should be looked at as this year's lottery pick since he needed last season to fully rehabilitate a college knee injury, played a total of 38 games in Brooklyn.
I found it telling that McCullough spent almost all of his time, if not his energy (since he was often called up to the big club for a night game immediately after playing in an afternoon game), toiling for the Nets' Long Island (I will not use the new corporate name) affiliate. With all of his team's meaningless affairs this season, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson couldn't find more than 72 minutes to give McCullough a chance to showcase his skills?
While McCullough piled up stats for Long Island, the assumption here is that he still had miles to go when it came to learning how to play the game. Man-to-man defense was a foreign concept to him and he had a shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach when he possessed the ball.
In return for two players who did not fit in his future plans, Marks received the additional first-rounder he so coveted. It should be in the mid-20s, maybe a few selections before they use Boston's slot -- you know, the one resulting from the swap originating from King's disastrous 2012 trade for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry that called for the Celtics to own the Nets' picks in the next two drafts.
Ordinarily, low first-round picks have low odds of long NBA careers, but under Marks' theory of development, this trade gives the Nets two shots at finding those outliers.
That's why the first-round asset was the target. And Marks hit it on the nose without sacrificing anything more valuable than a couple of pawns.
As for the trade filler, the 6-foot-9 Nicholson will be given another opportunity, but his confidence must be shot after losing his job to Jason Smith in Washington. According to the Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, the Nets plan to waive Thornton, which would create a roster spot for a Long Island player (R.J. Hunter? Trahson Burrell?).
Or maybe Marks is not yet finished with his work before Thursday's deadline. There's still the matter of finding a fit for Brook Lopez. It seems like every other center in the league will get traded before he does, no matter how many rumors regarding the 20.8 point-per-game scorer abound.
We're all waiting for Marks' next move.
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