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Lowe: Big Two, Big Three ... or Big Tax Bill for Joe Tsai?

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NBA: All Star-Practice Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In a deep dive on this summer’s superstar pairings, Zach Lowe suggests having a Big Two rather than a Big Three might be the best solution for teams bent on long-term contention.

Having a Big Three has long been the ticket to Finals contention but with rising salaries —and rising prices for acquiring such stars, that may go out of fashion. He writes...

Is this a thing? Will more teams choose two stars and legit depth over a real Big Three? Should they? The question is especially relevant for the Clippers, Lakers, Nets and Mavericks.

Of the four Big Two pairings, Lowe likes what the Brooklyn and the L.A. Clippers have done, noting

The Clippers and Nets surround two stars with real depth that mostly skews young or toward guys in their primes. There is power and longevity in that model. Teams strip to the studs to fit three superstars. They trade away quality depth and the draft picks that would help replenish that depth. They trawl for minimum-salaried graybeards and ring-chasers. The centerpiece stars can’t count on those guys for long.

Brooklyn, he adds, is different from the Clippers, who gave up a ton of picks to pair Paul George with Kawhi Leonard. They have “a bundle of young players and a cupboard full of picks,” noting they could have two firsts next June — Philadelphia’s and Golden State’s, depending on protections.

He notes as well that if Caris LeVert excels —the Nets have him for four years and $55.1 million, counting this year, he could be depth ... or a trade asset to bring in another star down the road.

Most teams default to stars because their depth becomes too expensive. If you have to pay LeVert like a star, you might as well trade him -- and lots of other stuff -- for an actual star. The Nets, it turns out, are not quite paying LeVert like a star.

All good for next year ... and the year after, Lowe argues,

They could keep their entire core together for the 2020-21 season and end up about only $10 million above the tax line. That includes everyone important: the two stars, LeVert, Joe Harris (a free agent this summer, in line for a raise), Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, DeAndre Jordan (important assuming he actually tries this season), Taurean Prince (up for an extension now), Rodions Kurucs, Dzanan Musa, Nicolas Claxton and the draft picks the team is likely to receive. The Nets’ new controlling owner, Joseph Tsai, is obscenely rich. He can afford a $15-20 million tax bill if the team is good enough to justify it.

Then, in 2021-22, things could get dicey —or “hairy,” as Lowe calls it—for the Nets new owner.

Allen’s first veteran contract will kick in. Dinwiddie can decline a $12.3 million player option and reenter free agency in the summer of 2021 if he’s confident he can get a fatter deal. LeVert’s deal rises every season, per contract details obtained by ESPN.com. Deals for Harris and Prince might too if Brooklyn re-signs them. All of a sudden, the Nets could vault something like $25 million over the tax -- triggering a tax bill approaching $50 million. Even obscenely wealthy owners might blanch at that.

This should come as no surprise for the Nets or Tsai, writes Lowe. Next question is whether the Nets would go for a third star, say, Bradley Beal. He proposes such a deal.

I suspect the Nets would have a spirited debate about dealing, say, at least LeVert, Allen, Kurucs and two unprotected first-round picks for Beal.

Finally, Lowe argues that while Big Two’s are now in vogue, owners, GM’s and coaches are not likely to limit themselves ... even with the risks.

These are hard choices. There are lots of pathways to a championship. Each one is a long shot. Each requires luck. But hoarding three stars probably brings both the highest floor and the highest ceiling for most teams.

As Billy King, Mikhail Prokhorov and Dmitry Razumov will tell you, nothing is set in stone.