The Brooklyn Nets have shot the first flare signaling the true beginning of the NBA’s free-agency arms race, almost one month before free agency officially opens. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday that the Nets have traded wing Allen Crabbe (but perhaps more importantly, the $18.5 million remaining on his contract), the no. 17 pick in the 2019 draft, and a 2020 lottery-protected first-rounder to the Atlanta Hawks for forward Taurean Prince and a 2021 second-rounder. If the Nets didn’t already have your attention as a major player in the Great Player Migration of 2019, they’re commanding it now.
By knocking Crabbe’s contract off their books and inheriting Prince’s meager rookie salary in return, the Nets can realistically create up to $68 million in cap space, enough to sign two free agents to maximum contracts (depending on years of service), never mind acquiring another via trade. As of today, the second-highest-paid Nets player for the 2019-20 season currently on the team is Joe Harris; Brooklyn’s cap sheet is as pristine as Adrian Peterson’s baby-esque knee. They’ve spent half a decade in a purgatory of their own creation through the 2013 trade with the Boston Celtics, unable to reap the draft benefits of their poor records for just as long. But under the shrewd stewardship of GM Sean Marks, the Nets have found resourceful ways to acquire young, inexpensive talent anyway, creating the groundwork for not only a consequential 2019 offseason, but their first playoff appearance in four years. Still, it’s at least a little funny that they shipped away their first entitled first-round pick in six years, two weeks from draft day.
The Nets have clearly done their homework; they might not be mere dark horses, but possible front-runners for the services of the NBA’s elite free agents. Stephen A. Smith noted earlier this week that Kyrie Irving has given “every indication” to the Nets that he intends to sign with the team this summer after opting out of the final year of his contract with the Celtics. Wojnarowski confirmed Irving’s interest in Brooklyn on Thursday. They’ll likely also be among the suitors for Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and Kemba Walker, and are one of the teams expected to make a big push to trade for Anthony Davis. With Thursday’s deal, the Nets have become Clippers East: an inviting, subcultural answer to an antiquated legacy brand in the Knicks (or the Lakers), hoping to flaunt managerial competence as a winning formula over a nebulous sense of prestige. Both the Clippers and Nets have grand ambitions—not one superstar, not two—but the pool of high-level talent and the number of coveting teams do not align. There will be a handful of teams with all the cap space in the world and nothing to show for it come September. Will the Nets be one of them?
While the impetus for the trade would seem to indicate that there is reciprocal interest from the free-agency market, it does complicate the team’s situation with restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell, who is 23 and coming off an All-Star season. It will be a precarious dance for both the Nets and Russell. This trade was made specifically to open up a second max-level contract; if the team were completely sold on their future with Russell, perhaps they wouldn’t have given away first-round picks in order to create all that space. The trade now throws chum in the water for teams that could use another star-level initiator to pair with their current first options, like the Pacers with Victor Oladipo, or the Jazz with Donovan Mitchell.
While the writing may be on the wall for Russell, there remains a possibility that he’ll stick with the team. There is always a chance that Brooklyn will come up empty this summer, especially given the fickle personalities of some of the top free agents involved. Luckily, the Nets are still in a position to be flexible while remaining competitive. The addition of Prince only bolsters the Nets’ collection of young, cheap, versatile, and athletic talent. He is the type of player any playoff team would covet: a combo forward who can defend multiple positions, hit 3s (a career 38 percent 3-point shooter), and make plays for himself and others. While he had a stagnant 2018-19 season due to injury, his current rate of productivity is likely more valuable than whatever the no. 17 pick would have yielded. Whether he is meant to be a complementary piece to incoming star free agents, or part of a package for a much larger trade down the line, the Nets have once again swooped in on a player undervalued by his own team, and paid a respectable amount for his services.
The Hawks also managed to win their side of the trade, sticking to the tried-and-true formula of absorbing flotsam in order to stockpile future assets. Now with the no. 17 pick to add to their stable, the Hawks will have three first-rounders in two consecutive drafts; and if his 2018 haul is any precedent, Atlanta GM Travis Schlenk has a master plan that he’s sticking with. He is building a team of the future, modeled after the teams he helped construct as an assistant GM of the Warriors; Trae Young and Kevin Huerter represent two pieces of the puzzle, but there are others. With six 2019 draft picks in total, all within the top 45, the team has the opportunity to move up and take advantage of the teams in the top five that are on the hunt for copious talent more than a cohesive identity. Woj reported that the Hawks could look to move up with a package featuring their no. 10 pick, perhaps with Cleveland at no. 5; trading up for a defensive-minded wing like Jarrett Culver or Cam Reddish would make sense.
Both Atlanta and Brooklyn are winners, perhaps not surprising given the pedigrees of their respective front offices. Where the Hawks are sticking to their timeline, the Nets, who seem dead set on overthrowing the Knicks as Kings of New York, are seemingly accelerating theirs. After a few quaint seasons as the fun, young team on the come-up, they’re ready to become the superteam that the franchise had promised back in 2013. There are no guarantees in the free-agent market, though—at least none expressed to the public. There is still the possibility that the Nets will run it back with a team led by Russell, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen, and bank on internal improvement over the next half-decade. But the Nets have also carved out the space to transform their team beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Versatility has become the name of the game in the NBA. That evidently applies to its front-office wars, too.