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Re-thinking Allen Crabbe’s future

On Tuesday night, Sean Marks met with season ticket holders at HSS. On the stage with him was Andrew Baker, his capologist. Marks knew he’d get questions on free agency. Can’t ignore the cap. So, Brooklyn’s Beat looks at the big question: What to do with Allen Crabbe?

Los Angeles Clippers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

More than two weeks ago, Allen Crabbe opted into his player option with the Brooklyn Nets for the 2019-2020 season. And for obvious reasons, Crabbe’s opt in has sparked trade speculation.

After all, the Nets, as things stand, plan to chase max free agents, but are short of max cap space. They have $30.3 million in cap space, assuming they maintain D’Angelo Russell’s cap hold but renounce every other free agent. That leaves them $7.85 million shy of Kevin Durant’s max, and $2.4 million shy of the max that Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler will command. The only non-core piece under contract and eating into space? Crabbe.

With that said, the Nets should not deal Crabbe before July 1. And here are all the reasons why.

While Risky to Wait, The Cost Is Prohibitive Unless the Nets Sign a Star in Free Agency

Trading Crabbe will likely require the Nets to surrender at least one good young player (think, perhaps, Dzanan Musa), and/or one first round pick, maybe two. While the Timofey Mozgov dump was cheaper, the Hornets charged less in assets because offloading Dwight Howard helped them escape the luxury tax. It doesn’t appear there’s any such opportunity is available this time around.

If the Nets salary-dump Crabbe, the deal, in a vacuum, would clearly be a loss. The Nets would be trading one or two valuable young assets, for nothing in return except an increase in 2019 cap space from $30.3 million to $48.5 million. For the deal to be a win, the increased cap space must yield players whose value exceed the asset cost of dumping Crabbe.

That means the Nets must get a star, maybe even a superstar, to make a Crabbe salary dump worth doing.

The Nets’ picks, now and in the future, and Musa, all have substantial value, and offer the potential of star talent at next to no cost. It’s easy to see an upward trajectory with their young core, and assume that their future firsts will fall in the late teens or twenties. It can be easy, too, to perceive Musa as a project drafted in the late 20’s. He was after all the seventh youngest player in the NBA this year, second youngest in the G League (where he averaged nearly 20 points a game).

But look at the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks and Raptors are built around Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, both picked outside the lottery. And other than Brook Lopez, every player on both teams who’s play more than six minutes per game during the playoffs was not drafted in the lottery.

For that matter, look at the work Marks has done outside the lottery, with Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Rodions Kurucs. And as for Musa, while his development, just like any prospect, is uncertain, Siakam’s growth arc was uncertain once upon a time, with even Sam Vecenie believing the Raptors should have picked Deyonta Davis.

In other words, you can win, and win big, by being smart with your picks.

If the Nets use young assets to offload Crabbe, they would be trading a chance or chances to find their next LeVert, their next Allen, or their drafted Khris Middleton. Losing that is not worth it – unless for a star.

And $30.3 million in cap space is a lot. If the Nets do not lure a star, but target solid role players in free agency to surround their core, $30.3 million should get the job done. Dealing picks and assets for a shot at extra Markieff Morris type signings would not be wise.

Certainly, there is risk if the Nets do not trade Crabbe before July 1 – the price to deal him might rise, and become more uncertain. If the Nets find a Crabbe deal before the draft, and surrender one or two 2019 picks to get him, they would select the players their trade partner wants to facilitate the transaction. That opportunity is off the table if the Nets wait until July, which means their picks may not serve as assets in a Crabbe trade any longer.

Pinson is off the table too – a team acquiring him in a sign-and-trade would become hard capped, which is not something a team can do for a player of his caliber. That limits the Nets, in a Crabbe dump, to dealing a combination of Musa, their future first round picks, and, bar the thought, Rodions Kurucs.

If a team accepted Musa and a 2020 first rounder, that would work well enough. But picks in the present carry more trade value than picks in the future, because picks in the present can help a team now, and serve as an easier selling point for a deal. If a team wants two first round picks for Crabbe, then the Nets would have to deal their 2020 and 2022 firsts.

We can all think of a Nets trade where dealing distant first rounders did not work. This is where the certainty of dealing 2019 picks – the cost is not deferred and the slot of the picks is known – helps. If a team relents on a second future first, it may demand Kurucs. The Nets might bite, but that would hurt. They would be dealing a 21 year old who started 46 games, is under team control for three more seasons, and was a face of their accomplishments in 2018-2019.

But these are all hurdles the Nets will need to work through after July 1. Remember, the Nets would only be dealing Crabbe if they secured a premium star – KD, Kawhi, Kyrie, Jimmy and the like. Controlling a player like that for multiple seasons would make up for the cost of a Crabbe deal after July 1 – even if Kurucs and a distant first rounder are included.

And the risk of a pre draft Crabbe deal – that the Nets might throw away a combination of draft picks or young players for nothing in return – is simply too great to bear. They must know what the future holds.

Crabbe’s Salary Being on the Books Does Not Stop the Nets From Meeting With Star Free Agents, and He can be Traded or Stretched After a Commitment

This is one point that gets lost, when discussing free agency. Durant, Kyrie, and the like, will obviously decide which teams they meet with in free agency – and hopefully Brooklyn is included. But there is no requirement that the Nets have a max salary slot before the meeting. Free agents can meet with any team they want to meet with.

It is true that if a team has no cap space, or is over the cap, a star like Durant likely wouldn’t take a meeting. The player would realize that the team can’t open max cap space, and a meeting would be a waste of time. The Nets aren’t in that boat – they are barely shy of max space. They can stretch Crabbe at the snap of a finger, a move that would bring them to $42.63 million in cap space (above the max), albeit at the cost of a $6.17 million dead cap hit for the next three seasons. One single trade – not a bizarre series of moves -- would bring them to the max cap space threshold.

The Nets can salary-dump Crabbe if and when a star commits to them. They can even line deals up with teams in June (or now for that matter), on the condition that a star signs first. It would be reminiscent of the Warriors in 2016, when they dumped Andrew Bogut after Durant committed to them, and the Celtics in 2017, when they did the same with Avery Bradley to make room for Gordon Hayward. The Warriors and Celtics would not have traded either player, unless they secured their big fish. Only after Durant and Hayward committed, did those deals go down.

Young assets are in demand for rebuilding teams looking to acquire assets. Marks will find a deal for Crabbe if he needs one. And if not, he has the stretch exception in his back pocket. It’s not as good but it may be good enough.

Crabbe’s Salary, and the Players or Picks Dealt With Him, Have Trade Value In Their Own Right

If the Nets do not acquire a star in free agency, they may turn to the trade market to acquire one. In doing that, any free agents they sign this summer will not be tradeable by league rules until December or January (except in a one-for-one).

If the Nets seek a star in a trade, suitors would still demand young players or picks – the same assets the Nets would have sent away if they had offloaded Crabbe. In addition, Crabbe’s large salary, if a deal develops later in the summer, could be used as ballast to match salaries in a deal to comply with CBA rules – if he is on the roster.

Crabbe’s Can Still Play, and Is Not a Locker Room Problem

The Nets will likely be competitive in 2019-2020, likely for a playoff spot and perhaps contend for a title, if only the conference level. Putting contracts aside, Crabbe is not useless in those efforts -- he is better than free agents who will receive the league minimum to fill out rosters. He shot 37.8% from three the past two years, and he plays competent defense. He turned 27 on April 9. For that matter, Crabbe could have been helpful in the playoffs if he was healthy, since Joe Harris went cold.

In addition, this is not like the situation the New York Knicks faced last year when they stretched Joakim Noah after it became obvious that he was a locker room cancer (and could not play). Crabbe has been a fine locker room presence, was active in the Nets now signature dance sequences. After all, much of the culture building under Marks and Kenny Atkinson has occurred with Crabbe in the fold.

The Nets Can Still Develop Crabbe

The Nets pride themselves on the fact that their developmental work, and performance team work, which is decidedely not limited to their young players. While Crabbe only missed seven games in 2017-2018, he coped with foot issues the past two seasons, and knee issues last year. It is fair to wonder whether his body letting him down has contributed to his malaise as a Net.

Crabbe will never be the player Marks envisioned when signing him to an offer sheet, and when he traded for him a year later. But that does not mean that the Nets cannot salvage some value next year.

The Nets have a huge offseason before them. And they very well may trade or stretch Crabbe in order to upgrade their roster. But they should only dump him if doing so leads to a star ... or better.