Kyrie Irving’s departure from Boston has opened the door for Kemba Walker to leave Charlotte and take his place. Now an agreement between Irving and Brooklyn could turn current Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell into one of the most coveted free agents on the board.
Saturday at 3 p.m. PT marked the first moment teams could officially set up meetings with free agents. Which meant that on Saturday at 3 p.m. PT, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski unleashed a month’s worth of tampering. In addition to a surprise meeting between Jimmy Butler and the Heat, and word of Derrick Rose likely heading to the Pistons, the big news dropped at Saturday’s opening bell was that Irving and the Nets were “motivated to move quickly” on a four-year max contract. In other words, Irving to the Nets is basically a done deal.
Irving’s move to Brooklyn has been forecasted for weeks; the All-Star guard was spotted in and around New York this summer, and the consensus scuttlebutt has rarely deviated from that outcome in the past month or two. But now that it’s all but a go, the stark changes to the Nets’ reality are starting to take shape. This time last year, the Nets were still in a holding pattern. They had finished with under 30 wins for the third straight year, and though some of their young players had started to show promise, they had to fork over one last top-10 pick (to the Cavs via the Celtics) and were resigned to renting out their cap space to collect assets. Now they have Irving, a 27-year-old six-time All-Star. Who the Nets get to fill out the second max slot they created by trading away the first first-rounder they had control over in six years is still up in the air, and the amount of stories already starting to leak out about Irving’s cantankerous Celtics tenure makes you wonder whether the good on the court will outweigh the bizarre and adversarial off it. But simply landing a player of Irving’s caliber and profile is a clear sign that the franchise once deemed the laughingstock of the NBA has officially glo’d up.
But to shed their old skin, the Nets will almost certainly have to say goodbye to their only All-Star in the past five years. Amid his Irving report, Wojnarowski also wrote that the Nets have “no intention to bring back Russell with Irving on the roster,” and that they could renounce their rights to the restricted free agent guard, thus flipping him into an unrestricted free agent. That’s where this gets interesting.
Russell has his flaws. Though he averaged a robust 21.1 points and seven assists over 81 games last season, he had the second-lowest true shooting percentage among the 11 players with a usage percentage over 30 (a.k.a., the most ball-dominant players in the NBA). He’s also prone to mistakes. His erratic play can make important possessions feel like you’re riding in a car held together by duct tape; in the playoffs, Caris LeVert proved to be the steadier hand and the best player on the team. So while Russell was indeed an All-Star, it’s important to affix an asterisk—he was an injury replacement in the talent-shallow East.
Then again, he can do things like this:
When Russell is on, he is one of the smoothest players in the league. Plenty of players can reel off improbable moves in the heat of play, but Russell has the uncanny ability to put several of those moves together, in the way a world-class fighter can string together seven-punch combinations. Sure, he oftens forces things because he thinks he can make any play at any time. But that’s because more often than not, he can make any play at any time. And though he’s been involved in more melodrama in four seasons than most pros who haven’t been a LeBron teammate go through in their careers, he’s still only 23. Players this talented—no less with an All-Star season already under their belt and the pedigree of being a top-two pick—don’t become available at this point in their careers. Which is why his possible entrance into unrestricted free agency could dramatically shift the balance of power in the NBA.
The Timberwolves are the most intriguing option. Karl-Anthony Towns enters his fifth season free of a kamikaze teammate and with a renewed understanding of his prodigious powers. In 20 games after the All-Star break, the 23-year-old put up 28.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists with a 53.3/42.9/81 shooting line; that’s MVP-level stuff. The problem was the players working off him. Andrew Wiggins has been lost into a black hole (say hello to Ozzie for us, Drew), Jeff Teague is playing out the string, and Robert Covington was injured. Throw Russell’s pick-and-roll slaloming and deep 3-pointers into the mix, along with a few switchy, physical wings on the perimeter like Covington, Josh Okogie, and no. 5 overall pick Jarrett Culver, and all of a sudden the Wolves look like the type of team that could crash the top four in a wide-open West. The team surely seems open to the idea; Yahoo Sports reported earlier on Saturday that Minnesota had scored a meeting with Russell, despite not having much cap space to sign him, and Towns has been yelling into a microphone about wanting to play with his friend D’Angelo.
The nuclear option is the Lakers. After making a last-minute trade to open up a max slot (or close to it for players with seven to nine years of service), Los Angeles’s glamour franchise is swinging for the fences. Kawhi Leonard is interested again, and will speak with a Lakers contingent—and/or Magic Johnson? Who the hell knows anymore—within the next few days. But if they can’t get the best free agent available, why not turn attention to their best recent draft pick? Magic, in his brief but memorable stint as team president, cast out Russell two years ago to clear a path for Lonzo Ball and to dump Timofey Mozgov’s contract; to be fair, Russell needed a change too. But with Magic and every single player from Russell’s last stint in L.A. gone, and the team in need of an outside threat to play off of effectively two bigs in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a Russell return makes a whole lot of sense. James seemed impressed by how fearless Russell was in March, when the young Nets guard eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs. Imagine what he could do on James’s side.
The Clippers could pivot to Russell if Leonard and some of the other elite veteran free agents look elsewhere. The Knicks could try to save face by turning a Nets rounding error into a treasure. A mystery team—the Pelicans?—could get into the mix. It’s all in play. Irving’s quick decision provided Brooklyn a clear and stable path after years of prioritizing long-term flexibility above a competitive team, but it also created more chaos in what figures to be the most frenzied offseason in recent history.