One of this summer’s most interesting free agencies will revolve around D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets.
In reality, it breaks down pretty simply: If the Nets fail to land an elite free agent this summer, Russell should be back on the team next year; if they do, however, then things may get dicey between the two parties.
Only two teams are lined up to have more cap space than Brooklyn this summer, the Los Angeles Clippers and the New York Knicks, and although those franchises do have some positive things going for them heading into the offseason, the Nets should also make quite the strong case for themselves for prospective free agents.
For starters, they’ve been able to rebuild after the disastrous Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade faster than anyone expected; they’ve fostered an impressive team-first culture that resulted in a playoff appearance this season, something even fewer people were expecting; they’re in a huge market; and under general manager Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson, the team’s public perception league-wide is the highest it’s been in quite some time.
Because of all those factors, seeing the Nets land an elite free agent shouldn’t be that surprising. It still won’t be easy, but it could happen.
But, at the same time, if that does happen, that could spell the end for Russell in Brooklyn, especially if he expects a deal at a starting value of $20 million in 2019-20 as has been reported. And after seeing the level Russell played at this past season, averaging 21.2 points and 7.0 assists per contest, and with how many teams need point-guard help this summer, him landing that type of contract seems very much in the cards.
Below we break down four potential free-agent landing spots for the talented southpaw guard.
Opening up enough cap space to make it happen wouldn’t be easy, but the Phoenix Suns make for a fascinating Russell landing spot.
Between he and Devin Booker, the Suns would be starting a tandem of supremely confident bucket-getters at either guard spot, both capable of playing off of each other, and each more than willing to take, and more importantly make, shots in high-pressure situations. The two would also assimilate well together because they have a strong bond outside of basketball, and have been close for quite some time.
Here’s what Russell had to say on the matter at Brooklyn’s end-of-year presser:
For what it’s worth, Booker has also been asked about the prospect of playing with Russell, and here’s what he had to say on the matter (via Newsday):
“I would love to play with him. He makes people around him better. He’s a dynamic player. He has the utmost confidence in himself that I don’t think will change ever. That’s why we have the relationship that we do.”
Again, though, Phoenix would have difficulty making this marriage actually happen due to the way their books are set up at the moment. Even if they remove the cap holds for all six of their impending free agents – Kelly Oubre, Richaun Holmes and Dragan Bender among them – and let each walk, that would just open up $16.7 million in cap room. Considering Russell could command up to $20 million annually on the open market, if not more, that would leave the Suns just short of the target they need to hit. They could get there by trading away a TJ Warren or a Josh Jackson, but at some point, they have to consider the diminishing returns on these moves.
Would it be worth all of those personnel losses just for a shot at signing Russell?
As was evidenced very clearly in this year’s playoffs, the Orlando Magic could use two things to go from fringe Top-8 team in the East to one who could make actual postseason noise: more scoring punch and a dynamic point guard.
Well, they would be getting both if they acquired Russell this summer.
Joining a core that includes Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Nikola Vucevic, Russell could be the missing piece for Orlando’s quest towards playoff relevance. His shot-making, creativity as a playmaker and ball-handling would give the Magic’s offense the extra oomph they lack, and would give the team’s starting five much more balance.
To open up enough cap room to make a serious run at Russell, Orlando would need to clear out the bottom of their bench by waiving cap holds on all of their restricted free agents (besides Khem Birch), let Terrence Ross walk in free agency, find a team to dump the final year of Timofey Mozgov’s contract on and trade away their current starting point guard, DJ Augustin.
Truth be told, locating a trade partner for Augustin wouldn’t be that difficult; he’s an experienced ball-handler who would do well in a role off the bench, and he’s making just $7.3 million next year. A team lacking a reserve floor general would take that on gladly.
It’s finding a suitor for Mozgov that would be next to impossible. But at least he’s got only got one year left on his deal at this point, so Orlando wouldn’t have to part with that many assets to get a rival team to take him onto their books. A lottery-protected first-round pick would probably do.
That may seem like a lot to go through for just one player, but the Magic badly need a guard who can score in bunches, and one with Russell’s blend of current production and remaining upside is not easy to find.
Plus, he’s a much safer bet than Markelle Fultz at this point.
After some midseason maneuvering at the trade deadline this year, the Dallas Mavericks have set themselves up quite nicely for free agency.
Heading into the summer, Dallas has the ability to open up nearly $39 million in cap space extremely easily, more than enough to not just land Russell, but another rotation-level free agent or two.
A starting lineup featuring Russell, Luka Doncic and Krisptaps Porzingis would be ridiculously potent (provided the big man can stay healthy, at least), and at an average age of roughly 22 years old, the trio would form the core of Dallas’ team for years and years to come.
There might be some concern with pairing Doncic and another ball-dominant guard – after all, we saw how poorly the Dennis Smith experiment went – but the fact that Russell and the Nets were able to excel with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie also taking up a lot of possessions should quell those worries.
At the end of the day, a Russell return to Brooklyn is still probably the likeliest outcome. That is, unless you’re confident the Nets will land two of their top free-agent targets, which, although there is a chance of it happening, isn’t all that probable.
On his end, Russell seems eager about returning to the Nets next season…
…but the fact that he acknowledges anything could happen speaks to there being a chance it doesn’t happen.
From Brooklyn’s perspective, Marks answered questions on Russell’s future in a pretty open-ended fashion (via The Athletic):
“Looking ahead, [Marks] and Russell will have to decide if the point guard will remain a core piece of the Nets long-term. ‘He’s obviously one of our more talented players,’ Marks said. ‘You (reporter) said that we’ll have decisions. D’Angelo is going to have decisions, too. That is a little bit of the nature of this business. But at the end of the day, our job is to continue to put talent on the floor for Brooklyn.’”
No matter what happens, Marks deserves a ton of credit, because not many teams are better positioned for a big summer than the Nets.
With north of $60 million available in cap space, Brooklyn will have the attention of elite free agents this offseason, and at this point, that’s all any team can really ask for: a seat at the table.
But even if they were to strike out on their top targets, they’ll still have the cap flexibility to bring back the young core who took them to the playoffs in 2018-19 in its entirety, led by Russell, who proved to be an All-Star-level talent this past season and probably still has another level he can reach.
That’s a pretty fantastic spot for Brooklyn to be in.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.