DETROIT – With D'Angelo Russell sidelined by a knee injury much of last season, Spencer Dinwiddie stepped in as the Nets’ starting point guard and played better than the more ballyhooed Russell ever has. Russell could do nothing but watch as another viable contender emerged for the job everyone assumed was Russell’s to grow into.
But Russell says he wasn’t fazed by Dinwiddie’s breakthrough season, which earned Dinwiddie third place in Most Improved Player voting.
“Guys are thirsty for opportunity in this league,” Russell said. “You give guys an opportunity that have prepared for it, they’ll take advantage of it.”
Russell might as well have been talking about himself, too.
After years stuck losing and surrendering its first-round pick, Brooklyn suddenly has two young point guards with potential to handle the starting job long-term. Big decisions near on both players.
Russell has the better pedigree. He was the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft and acquired for a haul – the No. 27 pick last year’s draft (which the Lakers used on Kyle Kuzma), Brook Lopez on an expiring contract and cap space used to absorb Timofey Mozgov‘s toxic contract.
Dinwiddie was a second-rounder in 2014. He washed out with the Pistons and Bulls then played in the D-League.
But Dinwiddie has closed the gap. While questions swirled about Russell’s maturity and work ethic in Los Angeles, Dinwiddie was grinding with a motivation to return to the NBA.
Yet, Dinwiddie said he doesn’t see himself competing with Russell.
“Not at all,” Dinwiddie said. “No. 2 pick. Franchise PG. Future and all that good stuff.”
Maybe Dinwiddie is just toeing the company line. Russell has reclaimed his starting role entering the season, sending Dinwiddie to the bench.
That’s probably the right move. Russell’s ceiling his so much higher. While Dinwiddie’s virtue is his steadiness, Russell brings dynamic scoring and playmaking ability. He can create shots and throw passes Dinwiddie would never dream of.
But Russell also gets himself into trouble with turnovers and forcing jumpers. His creativity and shot-making lag behind his perception of those skills. Dinwiddie is also a much stauncher defender.
Maybe it’s just fine 25-year-old Dinwiddie is ahead of 22-year-old Russell. Point guards tend to develop later, and Russell’s leap could be coming this season.
That’s why it’s hard to see Russell agreeing to a rookie-scale contract extension before Monday’s deadline. There’s a canyon between his production and potential. Most likely, he’s heading toward restricted free agency this summer.
Dinwiddie will become eligible for a contract extension Dec. 8, three years after he signed his current deal. But unlike Russell – who could theoretically sign an extension for a max salary – Dinwiddie’s extension is capped at about $47 million over four years. Though it’s possible he could draw more in unrestricted free agency next summer, Dinwiddie – who has only once and only barely exceeded a minimum salary in his career – sounds open to locking in sooner. Not that he expects an offer.
“If Sean Marks calls to give me a contract extension, I’ll take it,” Dinwiddie said. “But until he does, I’m looking forward to being a free agent.”
Dinwiddie’s doubts about the Nets general manager’s plan seem valid. Even if Brooklyn wants to keep Dinwiddie, there’s value in doing it through free agency. If not extended, he’ll count just $3,146,575 against the cap until re-signed. The Nets could use their cap space then exceed the salary cap to re-sign him to a higher salary through Bird Rights. If extended, he’d immediately count next offseason at his 2018-19 salary.
Russell said playing for a new contract “always” motivates him. He’s definitely positioned to cash in with a strong year. One of the big external threats who could override even major progress from Russell – Kyrie Irving – effectively took himself off the market.
Dinwiddie, on the other hand, said he’s more focused on the court than motivated by his contract situation.
“That’s all I can really afford to look at,” Dinwiddie said. “You look at my role – second-round pick, out the league, now back in the league, obviously good season, don’t matter, back on the bench, all that other stuff. So, all I’ve got to do is continue try to help our team win games.”
If he isn’t discouraged by his move to the bench, Dinwiddie should do that and press Brooklyn’s decision-makers.
Would you rather have Russell or Dinwiddie? (Yes, that’s a real question.) If Russell and assuming Dinwiddie would come cheaper, would you rather have Russell or Dinwiddie plus the additional salary-cap flexibility?
The Nets could keep both beyond this season. They have plenty of room to spend. Maybe Russell emerges as the starter and Dinwiddie settles in as backup. Or, even if it’s harder to see Russell accepting it, vice versa. The two can play together at times.
More likely, the Nets are heading toward a decision between their point guards. It could be revealed through contract extensions, in free agency or even later. But based on where Dinwiddie was last season and where Russell wants to get, Brooklyn might not be big enough for the both of ’em.