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Boys, Bye: The Next Phase of the Nets’ Rebuild Is Set to Begin

Things are looking up in Brooklyn, but there are still questions about this team’s future. What should they do with D’Angelo Russell? Can they lure a big free agent? And what about the role players?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Nets got into more scraps in their first-round series with the 76ers than they had wins. After a 122-100 blowout loss in Game 5 on Tuesday, the Nets are headed home with a number of fines, technical fouls, and memes on their résumé. But hey, they stole Game 1 and gave the Sixers a quick scare. Not bad for a team that won a lowly 20 games just two seasons ago and was the source of much mockery after their trade with the Celtics went awry. That they competed and made the playoffs without having a single lottery pick since 2010 is a triumph for their management, scouting, and player development. It may be a cliché to praise Brooklyn’s system at this point, but it has provided results and given the franchise a future to look forward to.

Here are three questions that the Nets are facing this offseason:

Should they re-sign D’Angelo Russell?

Russell had a season of revival. After being maligned in Los Angeles at the start of his career, the point guard put together career highs across the board, became an All-Star (because of injury replacement), and helped lead the Nets to the playoffs in his second season in Brooklyn. It was also a contract year. But any motivation is good motivation, and for Russell, who is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, his redemption came at the perfect time.

The issue, from Brooklyn’s perspective, is that this kind of season may have just ratcheted up Russell’s price tag by a substantial margin—but that’s not a bad problem to have, especially for the Nets. Russell may command a lot of money this summer—perhaps near max money—and it will not matter whether most of us think he is worthy of it or not. The Nets may want to keep him, and because of his restricted status, there’s bound to be a team that at least forces the Nets’ hand. How ironic would it be if the offer-sheet strategy the Nets themselves employed the past few years to force teams into bad contracts were now used against them with Russell?

At a max price, though, how to keep Russell is a tougher question to answer. He’s been great for most this season (despite shooting 3-of-16 in Game 5) and is the youngest of the Nets’ three-headed offense, which also includes Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, but his shot selection, defense, and ability to get to the rim and draw fouls are still lacking. In the end, the Nets’ decision may come down to what else they could do with the potential cap space they will have if they do not re-sign Russell, though the likeliest option is that they will simply pay their young star.

Can they sign a big-name free agent?

About that. The Nets can free up more than $50 million in cap space this summer, which is nearly enough for two max slots. The problem? They have competition, and the free agents who would demand those slots have been constantly linked to other franchises. Kawhi Leonard? Clippers or Raptors. Kevin Durant? Knicks. Could the Nets end up having to “settle” for Jimmy Butler? And should Kemba Walker want a new home, would you rather pay a max to a 23-year-old Russell or a soon-to-be 29-year-old Walker?

Of course this all depends on what kind of window the Nets want to create for themselves. Making the playoffs this season was inspiring progress, but the next step in the process is far more important. Getting Butler may gain them the notoriety they are craving as the stepbrothers to the Knicks, who will be vying for free agents themselves, but it could stump the kind of culture and style of play Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are trying to instill in the franchise. And yet that is the Nets’ selling point to prospective free agents. Come here for the culture, for the potential growth, for a proven system with talented young players, and help take us over the top. The question is this: Will it work?

What will they do about their role players?

The Nets also have a few other important decisions to make regarding the role players who have been a large part of their rise this season. Noted Ben Simmons instigator and future media star Jared Dudley is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, as is DeMarre Carroll (who made a cool $15.4 million this season—the second-highest salary on the team behind the $18.5 million they are paying Allen Crabbe for another year). Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who has slowly but surely come along as a nice small-ball 5 option, is a restricted free agent. Brooklyn’s main focus, of course, will be on the star prospective free agents and Russell, but the Nets should be careful. If Brooklyn wants to keep any of the aforementioned three players, making them wait until the Nets get the rest of their free agency figured out could cost the team.

Managing their financial freedom (and limitations) will be a crucial part of the Nets’ decision-making. Unlike the Sixers, they can’t concoct a win-now plan, but rather need to look two or three years ahead. LeVert, who is arguably the Nets’ best player, will make a ridiculously low $2.6 million next season and should be in line for his own big pay day next summer. Joe Harris will also command a huge raise once he hits free agency in 2020. If attention and respect are the blessing of a rebuild gone right, then the curse is having to make tough decisions and time them perfectly. Marks has a lot of those on his plate for summers to come, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have it any other way.