Trade Analysis: Brooklyn gets flexibility, Atlanta gets (more) picks

The Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks kicked off the offseason on Thursday, when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the two clubs had come to an agreement on a two-player, three-pick trade that would save the Nets ample cash and put another pair of assets in the Hawks’ very deep well of current and future draft picks. Brooklyn can now open up a TON of cap space this summer, while Atlanta cashes in on some of their space in order to take in Crabbe’s salary, as rumors had swirled that they were interested in using their space as a dumping ground for bad contracts.

The terms of the trade, so that we have them out there:

Atlanta receives: Allen Crabbe, Brooklyn’s 2019 first-round pick (No. 17), and Brooklyn’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery-protected for three years, then two seconds in 2023 and 2024).

Brooklyn receives: Taurean Prince and Atlanta’s 2021 second-round pick.

I covered the Hawks’ end of this trade for Peachtree Hoops, which you can read here. Without rehashing too much of that article here, I am very high on the trade for the Hawks, who were not overly enthused with Prince’s negative traits and were subsequently looking to trade him over (at least) the last six months. When they were able to accomplish both of their goals – trading Prince and picking up future assets for bad salary – it’s a strong trade for them. You can read my full thoughts in that article.

For Brooklyn, this deal opens up significant cap space for them to use this summer, which was their primary motivation for making this move. Just a few years removed from the hell that was the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade, the Nets are lined up to be true contenders in the near future, with a core of good young players and ample cap space to sign at least one superstar free agent. Every indication is that Kyrie Irving will be the first shoe to drop for Brooklyn, which could give them the inside track toward a second star.

The numbers for the Nets are quite large. They can open up as much as $67.6 million in cap space without lifting a finger, though that number will drop to about $65.9 million when they guarantee the contracts of Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham; both players are good values on the second year of minimum contracts signed with Brooklyn last offseason. Either way, they’ll have enough space for Irving and another star, as long as that player doesn’t have ten or more years of service (or is a player at that level and is unwilling to take a $4 million pay cut to play for the Nets). With $34.1 million leftover after Irving’s arrival, Brooklyn will have enough space to splash the cash on another big-name free agent, whether that’s Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, another player Brooklyn deems a secondary star with Irving, or a handful of high-end role players to plug other holes the team has.

Another consideration is the $21.1 million restricted free agent cap hold for D’Angelo Russell, whose value to the Nets drops if Irving is truly in the fold. Playing the two of them together seems untenable, particularly on the defensive end. Neither are necessarily the best playmakers, either, which could make an offensive pairing somewhat rocky. Holding onto Russell’s rights until they have a commitment from a second star is the right move; they can always decline to match an offer sheet he gets from another team if that decision has to be made. Matching on a less lucrative offer sheet with a view toward a future trade would also be a smart asset play, if the Nets want to go down that route.

The timing of the trade is very interesting for Brooklyn and a strong indicator that they’re confident about their offseason exploits. When a team like New York bets on their cap space at the deadline, it’s a different animal, since there’s still over two months of the regular season and the entire postseason to be played. In this situation, the Nets struck early on a deal that opened additional space, despite not necessarily needing to do so in order to sign Irving this summer.

There will be plenty more on what the Nets can do with that additional space and their various options in their offseason preview, which will be posted here on Early Bird Rights on June 27. That piece will get into the latest rumors and what they would mean for Brooklyn.

Moving Crabbe for cap space will get the vast majority of headlines, since it gives the Nets a chance at multiple max slots, but the other bits of this trade are worth discussing as well. Prince himself is probably worth one of the two first-rounders Brooklyn sent out in this trade, though his value is difficult to pin down and heavily depends on how much one focuses on his negative traits. From a bird’s eye view, he’s a 6’8 wing who can shoot the ball at a very high level. He’s consistently shown that he’s a strong standstill and on-the-move shooter and will fit in with Brooklyn’s run-and-gun system perfectly. There aren’t a lot of players at his size who have that sort of high-level shooting acumen and in a league dominated by strategies involving spacing the floor, Prince will do that for any team he’s on.

A closer look into his play reveals some ugly warts. Frankly, outside of shooting the ball and being a wing-sized player, Prince doesn’t have any other above-average NBA skills. He’s a poor ball handler with a sky-high turnover rate despite rarely passing the ball. He’s a bit of a ball stopper and fashions himself more of an all-around scorer than solely a shooter, which could become more of an issue if he doesn’t get the ball as often as he likes. He’s been an actively bad defender for the Hawks for the past two seasons and was plagued with a severe lack of effort during Atlanta’s recent dive down the standings. To his credit, he was much better in his rookie year, when the team was more competitive and had a playoff run in their future.

The Nets targeting Prince as a player they want to bring into their team makes a lot of sense on a number of levels. New assistant general manager Jeff Peterson spent the last several years in Atlanta and was part of the front office that drafted Prince in the first place, so he’s had an up-close view over the last three years of what Prince can and can’t do. If playing for a contender will spur him to increase his effort level defensively, then the Nets have the starter-level player they paid for with the extra first-round pick they sent to Atlanta.

Additionally, Prince’s contract is perfect for what Brooklyn is building – he’s on a small salary ($3.5 million) for 2019-20 and will hit restricted free agency next summer, when the Nets will be able to give him whatever raise he deserves. By that point, the club plans to be well over the cap after their business this summer, which will make retaining Prince a matter of negotiation on his new salary.

The deal is a risk for the Nets, as deals to clear cap space almost always are, but this deal has some in-a-vacuum value that isn’t necessarily tied to Brooklyn’s ability to bring in a second star in free agency this offseason. Crabbe’s $18.5 million was a negative contract on their books for 2019-20, but how much of a negative value it was is up for debate. When he’s healthy, he can be a strong bench contributor on a good team, but he had an injury-riddled 2018-19 campaign that saw him play very poorly in the games in which he was able to feature. If his return from an April knee surgery gets him back to the player he was in the few years before this past season, then he’ll be a very useful player for a team, whether that’s Atlanta or another club.

Prince certainly has more value than his $3.5 million contract pays him. He’s a strong rotation player based on his shooting alone, but if the defensive effort level and attention to detail on some of the improvement areas of his game pick up, then he’ll be in line for a massive raise next summer and could be a part of the Nets’ starting lineup for their upcoming run to contention in the Eastern Conference. Then again, Brooklyn did give up four years of team control on a rookie scale contract to acquire the final year of Prince’s rookie deal, which is generally a poor value play. Just as the Hawks, who traded No. 15 in 2015 for the last two years of Tim Hardaway Jr.’s rookie scale contract, a trade that was lambasted at the time and remains inexplicable.

Prince is a more valuable player than Crabbe on the court, and when you account for the contract differences ($15 million more is owed to Crabbe and Prince can be a restricted free agent next year), it’s clear why the Nets had to pony up a pair of first-rounders to get the deal done. They were able to lottery-protect the future pick going to Atlanta, so as to not repeat their franchise’s biggest mistake from a bygone era.

The Nets have put a lot of pressure on themselves to come through this summer. They’re going to have to deliver on Irving and others in order to capitalize on the extra cap space created in this deal, but their confidence is clearly as high as it can be going into July’s free agency frenzy. They’ll have some other big teams in the hunt for the same players they want, but having the inside track on Irving will allow them to both divert some of their focus elsewhere and pitch to other free agents that they can come play for a very well-managed, well-coached team that already has a star commitment from Irving, should the oft-difficult-but-never-boring Irving stick to his strong interest in signing with the Nets.