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What’s next for Nets? It’s a business

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The love affair is over. Now comes business.

The Nets season was indeed special. It wasn’t just that they defied even their coach’s expectations, won 42 games —their first winning season since Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett played together, won the sixth seed, etc. It was that the Nets as an organization rose to a new level in the estimate of players, pundits, et al. The Nets now look like a destination (something that wasn’t hurt by Sean Marks visit to the refs locker room or Joe Tsai’s tweet protesting Marks’ fine.)

But the reverse side of that is that the Nets will now have big decisions on who to keep, who to go after. And at the center of all that is what they do this summer with their two best players. D’Angelo Russell’s restricted free agency is getting a lot of attention, but the Nets also have to decide (at around the same time) what to do about an extension for Caris LeVert. The Nets and LeVert can negotiate a contract extension starting July 1. The contract won’t go into effect until 2020-21, but it will go a long way towards setting salary cap expectations for the future.

There is also the interconnection between those two decisions and who the Nets go after and not just who, but how high? Is Kevin Durant a possibility? Or do the Nets focus on someone like Tobias Harris?

The Russell contract may seem like it should be a no-brainer. The Nets developed him into an All-Star. He is loyal to the organization and he just turned 23. But it’s not. Be prepared for some tough decisions, as Sean Marks said.

First, there’s the question of how much he may want. Brian Lewis hinted Wednesday that unlike teammates Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, DLo appears unwilling to accept less than the market. He reportedly wants the max which in his case would be a five-year, $158 million deal, starting with a $27.5 million salary next season.

Here’s what Lewis wrote about what DLo might want....

That would be $27 million, which league sources have intimated is what Russell wants. The Nets haven’t shown themselves to being convinced he’s worth that much, and could well let the market decide.

If the Nets and Russell can’t agree on a deal, then he could sign an offer sheet and wait to see if the Nets match it. Expect any offer sheet to look like those Marks tendered to restricted free agents: max deal, money upfront, a big trade kicker, maybe a player option in the last year.

Would the Nets simply let him go? As Bobby Marks writes Wednesday, it’s very complicated, suggesting the Nets could have competition for his services from a variety of teams.

While there are certainly options for more teams (like Chicago and Phoenix) to clear room, the summer of 2019 is shaping to see seven franchises -- the Knicks, Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Pacers, Hawks and Mavericks -- with cap space north of $20 million.

The Lakers, Kings, Hawks and Clippers already have young point guards on the roster. That leaves only the Knicks, Pacers and Mavericks as the teams with significant cap space to chase Russell. That should put his annual salary in the $18-20 million range.

But the former Nets assistant GM doesn’t rule out a team offering him the max, four years and $117 million. Bobby Marks also asks the question whether the Nets, even with their deep-pocketed owner, are willing to pay at least $45 million to Russell, LeVert, and Spencer Dinwiddie in 2020-21.

Sarah Kustok thinks both sides will have decisions to make. Speaking to Carlin, Maggie and Bart a week ago, Kustok said it’s now about business. Asked if it was a no-brainer for the team to extend DLo, Kustok replied that despite his All-Star season and buy-in, money will be an issue...

“I think the organization is going to have some big decisions. I think D’Angelo Russell is going to have some big decisions. I don’t have any true insight into it, but I can say just by the comments of Sean Marks, the relationship he’s built with Kenny Atkinson, the trust they have together ... obviously putting together an all-star season. He’s a Net. He’s bought into the culture. He’s bought into the big picture, something bigger than himself. But it will be interesting to see what other teams would look to give him, what price tag will be on him.”

Russell, of course, has said repeatedly he wants to return to Brooklyn, most recently Wednesday morning during exit interviews.

“Hell yeah. I definitely want to be here. I definitely want to be here, but I understand it’s a business.”

It’s not just talk. He understands what the organization has meant for him. Of course, he also understands what he’s meant to the organization. After LeVert (who’s missed 78 games in three years) went down, he carried the team.

Then, there’s the big issue about who the Nets will pursue in free agency ... and that, too, has a DLo component. A big free agent like KD or Kawhi Leonard will require a big investment not just in money but team-building. Who does Durant want to play with? We’ve written about his close relationship with LeVert. Would he want to recruit Kyrie Irving —if he opts out in Boston? How does he feel about Russell? Same questions apply to Leonard. And how will free agents react if the Nets dump someone who they developed? What about loyalty?

But do NOT think the Nets are going to limit themselves in who they seek out in free agency. Durant IS on their radar. Knick fans can think whatever they want, but they WILL have competition for Durant and it will be stiff. The Nets have the assets —both tangible and intangible— to pursue him, to make themselves attractive to ANY free agent.

Indeed, Sean Marks will have a lot of decisions to make. Besides DLo, he has five other free agents in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, and Shabazz Napier. Most, if not all, want back. Davis is probably the biggest no-brainer. The 29-year-old was, by some metrics, the best rebounder in the NBA this season. The Nets can offer him $11 million over two seasons based on his Early Bird Rights, meaning they can go over the cap to keep him. Suppose he wants more?

Finally, there’s the elephant in the room, the $18.5 million player option Allen Crabbe will no doubt exercise. Trading for Crabbe is the single biggest mistake Marks has made in his tenure and now he gets a chance to rectify it. In fact, he has to if he wants the flexibility of adding big free agents.

There are simple options like waiving him and stretching his deal, eliminating all but $6.2 million of the $18.5 million, but that also means $6.2 million in dead money through 2022. And that’s just a half-way step.

The more likely (and perhaps painful) decision will be to bundle him up with a draft pick, perhaps the 27th pick, and/or a promising young player, and ship him out in a salary dump.

One possibility is dumping him on the Cavaliers who have a nice asset in J.R. Smith’s contract. Because he signed his current contract under the old CBA, his salary next year will count as $15.7 million for trade purposes. However, as long he’s waived by June 30, his salary would count as $3.6 million — his guarantee— for salary cap purposes. In theory, the Nets could trade Crabbe and whatever else the Cavs would want for Smith and then stretch the $3.6 million guarantee over three years, a $1.2 million hit, less than a vets minimum deal, through 2021-22. Problem is that there will be competition for Smith’s sweet deal and that means Cleveland will demand a lot.

Of course, we are ALWAYS surprised at what Marks can do with the assets he’s got on hand.

—He has three draft picks, including their own No. 17 pick, the Nuggets No. 27 pick, and the Knicks No. 31. He’s likely to see them as assets (and note that the two first rounders carry guaranteed salaries, a total of more than $4.5 million.)

—He has a yet unknown amount of cap space that will be dependent on the Crabbe contract and the team options, not to mention DLo’s deal.

—And he has an ownership with deep pockets. Among NBA owners, the combined net worth of Mikhail Prokhorov and Joe Tsai —$21 billion— is exceeded only by Clipper owner Steve Ballmer’s $41 billion.

—Then, there’s the New York market, the promise of an entree to the Chinese market, and a lot of good will.

“It is great,” Nets chairman Dmitry Razumov told The Post asked about the season. “The fact that we didn’t enjoy every moment we had it, it’s a fun experience.”

“Being here again now, with a young team and all the young talent here, it’s a different thing. Especially with being at the bottom, climbing to the top, it’s just different. And after having experienced the bad early, their development curve was just great.”

But that era of good feeling is now officially over. The offseason is about the business of getting better.

As Russell said also on Tuesday night, “It is what it is. I think every organization wants to take the next step being better than they were.”

What that organization looks like next October when the Nets head off to China for their first preseason game is guesswork. The interim will be interesting. It also will likely be filled with exciting —and yes, unpopular— decisions.

Hang on. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.