D’Angelo Russell could transform Nets

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Two years ago, the Nets paid $20 million in luxury tax for an old, losing team that wouldn’t have its own first-round pick for the next four years.

Bleak is an understatement.

Yet, Brooklyn acquired a 21-year-old potential franchise player this summer.

The context isn’t as pretty.

Before D'Angelo Russell became available, he had to alienate his teammates by recording and posting a video of one discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé. He had to disappoint with his maturity and work ethic. He had to demonstrate that he wasn’t ready to carry a team on the court.

To get him, the Nets had to surrender their best player – Brook Lopez, who’s on an expiring contract. They also had to relinquish the No. 27 pick in this year’s draft. And they had to accept Timofey Mozgov‘s toxic contract, one of the NBA’s worst.

But the Nets still got Russell – a far more valuable player than anyone thought they would have at this point.

Russell needs development, on and off the court. He will test the culture Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are building. But Brooklyn faces little downside in betting on its ability to reach Russell – and immense upside.

Just because Russell didn’t set the NBA on fire by age 20 doesn’t doom him to obscurity. He has flashed enough of the talent that made him the No. 2 pick just two years ago. Point guards tend to develop later. He might still be a star in the making.

Though far from a sure thing, Russell is now the crown jewel of a young core that also includes Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and No. 22 pick Jarret Allen.

Again without their first-round pick this season, the Nets aren’t cleanly incentivized to turn all playing time over to the youngsters – which would usually come with the upside of more losing and a higher draft pick. So, Brooklyn added helpful veterans, leveraging their bad contracts.

Though overpaid (three years, $48 million remaining) and primarily the cost of getting Russell, Mozgov can still play. He should start at center.

DeMarre Carroll (two years, $32.2 million remaining) came with sweeteners (a first-rounder and second-rounder) from the Raptors, who just wanted to dump salary. The Nets need the draft picks, but they could also use Carroll in the wing rotation. Brooklyn even unloaded Justin Hamilton, forcing Toronto to eat his $3 million salary, in a clearly helpful deal.

The Nets also traded for Allen Crabbe (three years, $56,332,500 remaining) without getting a draft pick, a more curious arrangement. Sure, Brooklyn offset costs by sending Andrew Nicholson (three years, $19,911,007 remaining) to the Trail Blazers. But Crabbe’s trade value now is determined by his actual salary. Considering the immense luxury-tax savings for Portland, the Nets probably should have extracted a pick. They apparently just really like Crabbe, though. After all, they signed him to this contract with an offer sheet the Trail Blazers matched last year.

This summer, Brooklyn took its annual foray into high-priced restricted free agency with Otto Porter. Like with Tyler Johnson‘s and Crabbe’s teams before, the Wizards matched.

So, the Nets turned to a smaller, sensible signing. Their big addition in free agency? Tyler Zeller. Though merely a passable player, Zeller is a big upgrade at center, where Brooklyn had just a 31-year-old who looks incapable of playing huge minutes and a raw rookie.

Despite resources flushed away years ago, the Nets are trying to win as much as they can now while setting themselves up to win a meaningful amount later. They’re threading that needle pretty well.

Offseason grade: B+