The 2018-2019 Brooklyn Nets season was indisputably a success. A 42-40 record, representing a 14-win improvement, the biggest improvement by percentage in the league. A return to the playoffs three years into their rebuild, organically, without making shortsighted moves to accelerate the timeline. A change in perception, from an organization defined by a bad trade, to one defined by its culture from management down, quality coach, and talented roster. And, last but not least, the development of D’Angelo Russell into an all-star.
The 2018-19 Nets were fun. They played an exciting style of basketball. They were likable. They were a great story. But with that having been said, Sean Marks’ goal is to construct a sustainable title contender. And while the Nets are fun and likable – and much improved, they do not have enough talent to contend without some substantial roster upgrades, and the narrative will change if they do not take that step.
The 1997 Timberwolves and 2001 Magic were fun playoff success stories. By 2003, they became stale teams that “couldn’t get out of the first round.” The 2017 Thunder, that likable team that never quit despite Kevin Durant’s departure? After a third straight first round loss, suddenly, the Thunder are perceived as a disappointment, and are anything but likable, despite the 2019 team being better than the 2017 version.
The Nets, to take their jump, might have to make some gut-wrenching decisions, “unpopular” in the words of one insider, moves like the Raptors, Celtics, and Sixers trading DeMar DeRozan, Isaiah Thomas, and Robert Covington and Dario Saric, respectively. All of those decisions hurt, on a personal level. But they were necessary for those teams to take steps to where they are today.
Which brings me to the subject of Russell’s free agency. Coming off a great season, at the tender age of 23, it would seem that bringing him back is a foregone conclusion. But if one reads some of the commentary from the Nets, and Russell, since the season ended, it would appear that, depending on circumstances, the Nets might not re-sign him.
On WFAN, Evan Roberts asked Marks if Russell is his top priority this summer. In his answer, he noted, “D’Angelo will have decisions to make. Obviously we, as an organization, will have decisions to make ... as you know, this is one of those businesses that things change quickly.”
A few days later, Russell, after his exit interview, stated, “say somebody comes here that I have to be a part of (and leave) to get them, I know that could be a possibly.” And lastly, at his season ending press conference, Marks, when asked about Russell, said, “having lived it on a couple of different sides I understand the business of it, you know, I’ve packed my bags many times.”
These quotes, juxtaposed against Marks’ compliments on Russell and Russell’s breakthrough, paint a picture: that while the Nets like Russell, it appears that if their off-season breaks a certain way, then they would accept that and move on without him. Related: even if the Nets offload Allen Crabbe, they will not be able to add two max free agents without renouncing Russell (absent some drastic gymnastics -pun intended— unloading the rest of their core).
When you think about this scenario, it appears the Nets are chasing max free agents, and that if they connect on two, they may let Russell walk. On the surface, it makes sense for the Nets to do this. If they can get two of the summer’s elite free agents (you know who they are), the Nets have enough in house, even without Russell to contend for titles. And, coming off a winning year, and a playoff appearance, the Nets can snare elite players in free agency. The pitch is there.
With that said, there is a substantial risk to the Nets, essentially, exploring the possibility of snaring two max free agents, as an alternative to keeping Russell. If they do not connect, they risk losing Russell, or compromising a relationship with him that they have done so well to build.
Let’s dig into this further. For starters, the timing of chasing max free agents may lead to Russell signing an offer sheet with another team. Even if the Nets meet with superstar free agents on July 1, they will likely have to wait days for a decision. In 2010, LeBron James did not make a decision until July 8. Dwight Howard in 2013? July 5. Durant in 2016? July 4. Typically, stars hold their meetings over the course of multiple days, then huddle with their agent and family for more days, before making a decision … while the world waits.
Why is the timeline relevant? Russell can sign an offer sheet as soon as July 1 (The matching period doesn’t begin until the moratorium ends July 6.) The Nets, perhaps, may ask him to hold off on doing that, until they see how their play for other players goes. But can Russell wait, and risk his market and suitors drying up during the wait, if the Nets connect on two stars, by which time the offering team has moved on? Would Russell, being told he is Plan B, even want to wait, when someone else has made him Plan A? There is a distinct possibility that, if the Nets chase star free agents, Russell chases an offer sheet with another team.
That could lead to a doomsday scenario. If the 48-hour clock on Russell’s sheet is about to expire, but the Nets do not have a decision yet from their max targets (say, Kevin Durant and the like), they would face a dilemma. Match on Russell and abandon your star pursuits, or let Russell walk for good, without any assurances that a max star or stars walk through the door. That would be a tough pill to swallow.
But even without this doomsday scenario, chasing max stars to essentially replace Russell, but not connecting, would expose the Nets to other risks. For starters, there is Russell’s money. Marks knows better than anyone that if a team lets its free agent sign an offer sheet, the offer sheet is likely to be extremely player friendly. If Marks were to simply agree to a deal with Russell on July 1, he would likely sign him for less than if Russell were to sign an offer sheet.
There is also risk if the Nets make Russell chase an offer sheet and he fails – despite the increased leverage to pay Russell less money. There is a history of NBA players, like Eric Bledsoe and Jeff Teague, becoming angry with their teams during restricted free agency, when left to fetch an offer elsewhere.
After Gordon Hayward left the Jazz for the Celtics in 2017, he expressed his frustration with the Jazz making him sign an offer sheet, back in 2014. He claimed, it should be noted, that this did not contribute to his leaving Utah in 2017. But that is also the politically correct thing to say. Perhaps the Jazz treating him like a business decision played a part in his returning the favor. Remember: Russell will have all the leverage as his unrestricted free agency approaches; the Nets will not. Just ask the Thunder, Cavs, and Magic. Durant, LeBron, and Dwight all stayed in restricted free agency.
Russell, of course, will be a Net next year if the Nets match an offer sheet. But if he is frustrated that the Nets made him go get an offer instead of showing him up front that they value him, then the Nets would need to rehabilitate the relationship – a relationship that, as of today, is fantastic and does not need rehabilitation. His love for Kenny Atkinson is real, for example.
Do the Nets, with all the hard work they have done to install a great culture, want to risk going down this road with the first all star this regime developed? The Nets have gotten to this point with an ethos of culture, and treating players like family. Not taking care of Russell after his breakthrough, and telling him to go fetch an offer sheet, would not align well with that ethos. And it would allow another organization, besides the Nets, to sell Russell on its program and culture. For now, Russell only knows two organizations – a tire fire, and the well run Nets. Why let it go to three?
The Nets, based on the comments of Marks and Russell after the regular season ended, may be chasing max free agent combinations that, if they came to pass, could cause the Nets to move forward without Russell. And given the need for the Nets to add talent to build a contender, the endeavor, if pursued, is understandable.
But if the Nets pursue alternatives to Russell, and are not successful, they could be exposing themselves to a host of risks that would otherwise be avoided altogether.