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The Nets Have a Tough Decision: Kyrie Irving or D’Angelo Russell?

And where they’ll land on the lead-guard question can tell us a lot about the team they hope to build—and who’s coming along for the ride

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Slow motion might be better than no motion, but you’ve got to be ready to hit the gas when the opportunity presents itself, and Brooklyn appears intent on putting the pedal to the metal when free agency opens on Sunday. After trading Allen Crabbe and the 27th pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, the Nets can now create a shade under $68.7 million in cap space—just $1.3 million away from having enough to offer two max deals: one to a player with between seven and nine years of service time (who can earn up to 30 percent of the salary cap), and another to a player with 10-plus years’ time (who can command up to 35 percent). Kyrie Irving could fit into the former slot, and Kevin Durant the latter. As luck would have it, they’ve reportedly discussed the possibility of teaming up, and Irving has reportedly grown increasingly focused on landing in Brooklyn.

But Durant’s Achilles rupture changed a great many things around the NBA, and the status of that Barclays Center team-up might have been one of them. Frank Isola of The Athletic reported on the eve of the draft that “there was a belief among several NBA teams that even if Irving joined Brooklyn, Durant would still come to the Knicks.” The same day, Brian Lewis of the New York Post reported that Brooklyn’s brain trust “might have qualms about signing the enigmatic Irving if he isn’t bringing the injured Durant with him,” given his reported contributions to a chaotic season in Boston, which deteriorated from a pledge to re-sign to “ghosting” the Celtics in eight short months.

That reported reluctance dovetails with recent comments by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that “it will be interesting to see if Brooklyn wants to have Kyrie Irving as a solo act”—especially if doing so would mean moving incumbent point guard D’Angelo Russell, who emerged last season as an ascendant no. 1 offensive option and a first-time All-Star. Despite initial rumblings that the Nets might consider an Irving-Russell backcourt, which would be long on playmaking panache but profile as a defensive disaster, Ian Begley of SNY reported that it would be “highly unlikely” for Russell to stay in Brooklyn should Kyrie come to town.

The Nets can open up two max slots only by renouncing their rights to Russell, a restricted free agent with a cap hold just south of $21.1 million, and he figures to have multiple suitors this summer. At least a handful of teams either do or could need a new lead guard, including the Pacers (though our Kevin O’Connor reports that they’re targeting Ricky Rubio), Suns, Magic, Timberwolves, and maybe even (hilariously enough) the Lakers, who sent Russell away amid some well-publicized internal strife to shed a terrible contract, but who might now be in the market for a reunion as they look to put an actual NBA roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. If any prospective suitor loves Russell enough to tender him a max offer sheet early in free agency—a rookie extension worth up to 25 percent of the salary cap, with a 5 percent raise after the first season—the Nets will have to decide whether Irving by himself, or paired with a lower-tier star like Tobias Harris, is enough of an improvement on Russell to be worth the attendant headaches that may come with him. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe said during a recent podcast, “That’s a question that’ll get you a lot of different answers around the NBA.”

The calculus is complicated. Irving is the better player—a six-time All-Star fresh off an All-NBA second team selection, a marksman who’s made better than 40 percent of his 3-point attempts in four of the past five seasons, and a half-court locksmith capable of deconstructing virtually any defense. But he comes with some glaring concerns, headlined by those nettlesome chemistry questions. During that same Lowe Post podcast, ESPN salary cap guru/former Nets assistant GM Bobby Marks invoked Deron Williams’s dour tenure with the franchise, a point of comparison that likely sent shivers down Nets fans’ spines.

Irving has also had a bracing amount of left knee problems for a 27-year-old who relies on shiftiness off the dribble. He will be more expensive, commanding a maximum $140.6 million over the next four years, compared to just under $117.2 million for Russell in that same span. (Russell also might not get the max. Irving definitely will.) He’s also coming off a dispiriting postseason performance in which he shot just 38.5 percent from the field and 31 percent from deep while helping the Bucks bury Boston beneath a hail of misfired jumpers.

Picked second overall four drafts after Irving went first, Russell has a more limited résumé, with just the one All-Star selection and no all-league honors under his belt. He’s been a less efficient offensive performer through his first four seasons than Irving was at the same stage, owing in large part to a significantly lower free throw rate, and notable struggles with both breaking down defenders off the dribble to get to the rim and finishing among the tall trees.

Forty-two percent of Russell’s shots came in the midrange last season, and he drilled 46 percent of them, according to Cleaning the Glass; the fear, though, is that even a small step back on tougher 2-pointers could crater the offensive value of a player without the burst and quickness to create crevices in coverage and slither through them to paydirt. Case in point: Russell’s struggles against Philadelphia in the playoffs, during which he shot just 35.9 percent from the floor and couldn’t create separation from the much larger Ben Simmons.

On the flip side, if Russell’s midrange mastery is for real, and he continues to develop his accuracy and pick-and-roll facilitation, the Nets would be locking him up through his ascent—he’s still only 23—and at a much lower number, affording general manager Sean Marks greater flexibility as he continues to build Brooklyn’s roster. Re-upping Russell and passing on Irving would also represent a doubling down on the culture he and head coach Kenny Atkinson have created.

“D’Angelo helped [the Nets] skip steps they wouldn’t have taken without his success,” a source recently told Anthony Puccio of the New York Daily News. “It would be hard for them to let him go.”

The Nets won 42 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2015, the reward for a “no shortcuts” rebuild that saw Marks work overtime to scrape together young talent without the benefit of top draft picks, with Atkinson prioritizing individual and cultural development to extract maximum value from the players Marks handed him. But the goal of all that roster churn and asset accumulation wasn’t being an interesting watch that gets drummed out of the playoffs in five games. It was to set the table for a return to the rarefied air the Nets haven’t occupied since Jason Kidd led them to consecutive NBA Finals berths nearly two decades ago.

Sometimes, though, teams have to make hard choices to level up. The Nets are clearly now trying to elevate their standing, and with that can come a higher class of problem. If they’re looking for an example of just how dicey decisions at that level can be, they need look no further than Boston, where the Celtics went all in on Irving in hopes that he’d lead them to Banner 18, only to find within the space of two years that Irving “just didn’t like living in Boston,” as Jackie MacMullan recently said on ESPN’s The Hoop Collective podcast, and had developed issues with coach Brad Stevens, team president Danny Ainge, and “pretty much all of us.”

“If Kyrie doesn’t walk, then Al Horford probably doesn’t leave, because you’re still contending, and maybe Anthony Davis comes,” MacMullan said. “It all comes back to that.”

And yet:

“They gambled on Kyrie Irving, and if you asked them today if they would do it over again, I think they would say yes,” she added.

Talent typically trumps all in the chase for titles, and Irving has it—more than Russell, and maybe by enough to make everything else irrelevant. If the Nets make the same wager Boston did, they’ll go in with eyes open, knowing exactly what they’re signing up for. But they’ll also know exactly what they’re giving away in the process.