LOS ANGELES — With the NBA world focused on the Finals—and to a lesser extent a potential resolution to the Anthony Davis saga—the Brooklyn Nets made a move that could foreshadow a major play in free-agency this summer for not one, but possibly two max-level free agents.
On Thursday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Nets agreed to send their No. 17 pick in June's draft, along with a protected first in 2020, to the Atlanta Hawks for Taurean Prince and a 2021 second-rounder. The key to the deal, which isn't likely to be executed until July when the Hawks have cap space, is the dumping of Allen Crabbe's $18.5 million salary from Brooklyn to Atlanta.
Shedding Crabbe's deal could get the Nets to roughly $68 million in cap space this summer, and that's enough to sign two players at the middle-tier maximum salary (approximately $32.7 million), with talents like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker or Jimmy Butler potentially available. While Brooklyn doesn't have quite the room to sign Kevin Durant at his max of roughly $38.2 million and one of the aforementioned stars, it will be awfully close at about $35.8 million.
Signing Durant for slightly less or dumping another player (possibly even Prince's $3.5 million for next season) via an additional trade could be a relatively easy solution. Make no mistake: Brooklyn has high aspirations for the offseason and the cap space to compete with the neighboring New York Knicks.
It's unclear if the lure of Madison Square Garden gives New York the advantage, but the buzz around the NBA for months has indicated the Nets could be a viable destination for stars this summer, even prior to the Crabbe move.
What does the trade mean for Nets All-Star D'Angelo Russell, who will be a restricted free agent this summer?
Unsigned, Russell will take up $21.1 million of the team's cap room—problematic if the goal is to sign two key free agents. If the Nets intend on keeping their 23-year-old point guard after his breakout season, they'll have up to $47.4 million to spend on other players, after which they can pay Russell up to $27.3 million for the first season of a multiyear deal.
It's enough cap space to sign any single max player—plus another $10.2 million to 15.6 million for other free agents or possibly to re-sign Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Jared Dudley.
If the Nets go in a different direction and need cap space for a pair of stars, they'll first need to let Russell become an unrestricted free agent. It would be similar to the how the Los Angeles Lakers let Julius Randle go last summer, unfettered to sign with the New Orleans Pelicans.
What the pending trade also probably does is take the Nets out of the running for Davis. In giving up their pick in the upcoming draft, along with a protected first in 2020, Brooklyn won't have any significant draft assets to offer New Orleans, outside of the 27th pick (from the Denver Nuggets). That isn't close to the Knicks' No. 3 or the Lakers' No. 4, which are both likely available for the All-Star forward.
Depending on the protections on the 2020 first to Atlanta, the Nets won't be able to trade a future first until two years after that selection conveys, per the Stepien Rule. If the Pelicans are eager to accumulate draft picks for Davis, Brooklyn isn't the right partner. That's even with ties to Trajan Langdon, who recently moved from the Nets to the Pelicans to become general manager under top executive David Griffin.
Langdon may think highly of Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa, but would the Nets decimate their depth—an asset the team may rather use to attract free agents—and would that package be enough for Davis without significant draft considerations?
That doesn't seem likely.
Along with the Boston Celtics, who can offer forward Jayson Tatum, the Knicks and Lakers appear to be the obvious front-runners for Davis. The Los Angeles Clippers might be able to build an enticing package around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and future draft considerations, but they may be more focused on adding to their solid core—although Gallinari can be had in a trade if Los Angeles can be the team to steal two max free agents.
Handicapping the Davis market may be a fool's errand. Few expected the Toronto Raptors to swoop in and steal Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs, and they are now just two wins away from an NBA title.
A dark-horse candidate could jump into the fray, or the Pelicans could try to exercise patience if they don't get suitable offers. Given Davis' 2020 free-agent status and desire to relocate—coupled with New Orleans presumably landing Duke's Zion Williamson with the No. 1 selection—a trade should happen when teams have draft picks available in June and cap space in July. However, neither will last long if the Pelicans hesitate too much.
Meanwhile, the Nets are well-positioned for the summer. After an impressive run to the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, Brooklyn could make a huge jump if general manager Sean Marks can land a star to play with Russell or—difficult as it may be—let him go and reel in two stars in July.