It was a steep fall and a relatively quick ascent for the Brooklyn Nets. Teams who make league-altering mistakes, as the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade in 2013 was, usually don’t recover nearly as quickly as the Nets have in the last few years. Just three seasons without a playoff run came to an end in 2018-19, as the team fought their way to an above-.500 record and a Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. The rest of the series didn’t go their way, as the Sixers moved on to the second round in five games, but the NBA world took notice of what the Nets and general manager Sean Marks have built in a place that was thought to be the NBA equivalent of a nuclear wasteland in the wake of Billy King’s mistakes.
Now, the Nets are as much a free agent destination as any team in the league, with their eyes firmly set on bringing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to town. This time, they won’t have to trade the farm to get them, as both players are free agents this summer and have varying degrees of interest in what is brewing in Brooklyn. Irving seems like much more of a sure thing at this point than Durant is, though there’s very little known publicly about what Durant plans to do after tearing his Achilles in the latter stages of the NBA Finals.
Brooklyn will walk into the offseason with roughly $46.8 million in cap space, though that number can sky as high as $68.7 million if they decide to move on from D’Angelo Russell, to whom they’ll tender a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent. There’s very little risk involved in that move for the Nets, as they can always pull the qualifying offer later and Russell isn’t going to leave millions on the table to sign the QO and stick around on a much lower salary than what he’ll get on the open market. It’ll come down to Irving’s decision; if he decides to sign with the Nets, then Russell will be let go into unrestricted free agency and will have a chance to find a new home unencumbered by the burden of match rights. If Irving picks another team, then the Nets can pivot back to Russell, either through matching an offer sheet or negotiating directly with him.
The Durant piece is far less clear at this point, as nobody has any idea what he’s going to do this offseason. He may miss the entire 2019-20 season, but it won’t deter Brooklyn from going after him, though, and it will be a very interesting test case for just how much power a superstar has, even with an injury and questionable future – can Durant still get whatever he wants in free agency or will there be teams who will balk at signing a 1+1 and want him to commit for more years?
There’s reportedly some reluctance within the Nets about paying Irving without having the second max player to go with him, though the backup option is to pay Russell his market value, which isn’t necessarily all that appetizing either. If Russell is as in-demand as it seems he will be, that contract could be a bit of an albatross for the Nets – Russell’s game doesn’t necessarily translate all that well to the playoffs at this point and he has a long way to go before he’s going to be worth $20 million a year in the games that truly matter in April, May, and June. He’s a very good regular season point guard and can lead a team in that respect, but the fact that he was the third-best lead guard for the Nets this past postseason has to give teams some pause as to his effectiveness against the best of the best.
Spreading their remaining money around if they sign Irving as the sole star will be an interesting proposition, because Brooklyn will likely want to stay flexible in case they can find another superstar in the next year or two. Irving himself isn’t enough to lead a team to a championship, even when surrounded by the perfect set of role players, but he’s a fantastic second banana to another superstar, which was the Nets’ plan before Durant went down with the Achilles. Will they try to build around Irving for the long haul anyway, taking the safer route, or keep the powder dry for the 2020 and 2021 offseasons? Players like Thaddeus Young, JaMychal Green, or Harrison Barnes (if his negotiations with Sacramento break down) would be good additions on an Irving-led Nets team; they could also look to add a starter at the center position on a short-term contract if they feel Jarrett Allen isn’t quite ready to be their every-possession anchor in the playoffs.
The length on those contracts will be more important than the dollars. They’ll have plenty of money to spread around, with more than $35 million leftover even after signing Irving to max deal starting at $32.7 million for the upcoming season. If they can’t get a commitment from Durant, they may sign Irving along with a bunch of one-year contracts in an effort to get back into free agency next year, though both Taurean Prince and Caris LeVert will need raises in 2020 and will count for three times as much as they do now on their rookie scale cap holds, which dampens their available cap space significantly. Joe Harris will also be out of contract and need a new deal if they want to retain him past this season. Their books are perfectly aligned for a pair of max contracts this offseason, but actually getting those guys to sign is another complication altogether.
Should they go into the rest of the offseason with Irving alone and a boatload of money to spend, they don’t need much on the wings, as LeVert, Harris, and Prince make a formidable playoff wing rotation, but they’ll want to add a few depth pieces for the long regular season grind. The same goes for the point guard spot – Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie are a fantastic point guard rotation in the playoffs, but they’ll add another player there just to take pressure off those guys during the regular season. Adding a high-end forward would be useful to push Rodions Kurucs to a reserve role in addition to the rest of their depth additions to replace their outgoing free agents.
Their pre-free agency moves indicate that they have double-max targets in mind, but Durant’s injury complicates things, as does the general unknown with what he wants going forward. They moved Allen Crabbe’s contract and got out of drafting at No. 27 during draft night in order to clear as much cap space as possible, though they’re still slightly short of the full double-max needed for Irving and Durant. They can get there, but it will require another move or two in order to fully open that space. Whether they can fully realize their offseason dreams with both players remains to be seen, though they seem to be in the driver’s seat among teams vying for the pairing at this time. Durant’s desires and health situation are such huge unknowns that Brooklyn will have to have backup plans for their backup plans, but compared to where they’ve been for the last few years, they have to be ecstatic that they’re even in these conversations.