In the 2018-19 NBA season, the Brooklyn Nets managed to rebuild themselves into a playoff team after a half-decade of damage done by the disastrous Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Jason Terry trade with the Boston Celtics in 2013. Now, the next phase of general manager Sean Marks' job begins with one huge victory and a lot of uncertainty.
The Nets have been preparing for this summer for some time. Earlier in June, they officially opened up a second max salary slot by unloading veteran guard Allen Crabbe to the Atlanta Hawks. Now, they're on the verge of securing a free-agent commitment from Kyrie Irving, the first legitimate superstar the franchise has ever signed as an outside free agent.
They're also expected to be one of the four teams to meet with Kevin Durant, a close friend of Irving who has long been thought to be interested in teaming up with the All-Star point guard. Landing Durant would be a play for the future because he's almost certainly going to miss all of the 2019-20 season recovering from a torn Achilles suffered in the Finals with the Golden State Warriors. Even with that caveat, signing the future Hall of Famer would be the best-case scenario for Brooklyn.
The Nets are in a unique position: They have the cap space for two stars and enough young supporting players already in the fold to be a playoff team regardless. In 2019, they rebounded from three consecutive lottery seasons to secure the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the first round. Their core players are only set to improve in the coming years, and they're currently in the brief window where they're all on cheap rookie deals.
However, that window is coming to a close soon.
Promising young wing Caris LeVert is eligible this summer for a rookie extension, which would kick in after the upcoming season. Big man Jarrett Allen will be up for the same deal next summer and is due for a huge pay increase after the 2020-21 season. Marks has been planning for this, knowing this summer is his chance to significantly upgrade the roster to put Brooklyn back into serious contention in the East.
Signing Irving is the first step, and even that is a gamble on the strength of the culture Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson have built. Irving will be the de facto replacement for point guard D'Angelo Russell, who is expected to leave Brooklyn this weekend as a restricted free agent. Russell is a poster child for the kind of success the Nets have had under the Marks regime.
When he was traded to Brooklyn from the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2017, the 2015 No. 2 overall pick carried with him some concerns about his maturity after two disappointing seasons. In two years with the Nets, he blossomed into an All-Star.
Irving is a clear upgrade in talent over Russell, but he has many of the same concerns Russell did coming in. After a disastrous season in Boston, there's plenty of cause for worry about the effect he can have on a locker room. The Nets are betting the foundation they've built will be enough to house those concerns comfortably.
If Durant doesn't come with Irving, Brooklyn will have other options, but they'll be costly ones. They'll likely be monitoring both of the Sixers' free-agent wings: Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler.
Butler, also a friend of Irving dating back to their time together with USA Basketball, has been linked to the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and both Los Angeles teams; he may also re-sign in Philadelphia. With Brooklyn seemingly out of the running for Kawhi Leonard, Butler is the clear-cut next-best option on the market if they miss out on Durant. Adding an Irving-Butler duo to the core of LeVert, Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie and young forward Rodions Kurucs would vault them into the upper tier of the Eastern Conference.
Harris, a New York native, could also be an option, albeit a costly one. Like Butler, Philadelphia has sent signals that they want to keep Harris, and it will likely take a max or near-max offer for another team to steal him away.
Harris is squarely in the second tier of free agents available; he's a terrific secondary scoring option but a notch below the Durant-Irving-Leonard-Butler level. Signing Harris to pair with Irving would make the Nets better this season, but unless LeVert or Allen blossoms into a superstar in the coming years, their ceiling could be limited.
The Nets are in a great position either way. With Irving coming in, they could still entice Durant to sign, allowing him to rehab for the entirety of next season while staying competitive in the Eastern Conference playoff race. If he doesn't join, they could turn to one of the other big names on the market or keep their options open with trades down the line.
Brooklyn has been preparing for more than a year to make a splash this summer, and with Irving all but sealed up, the Nets have accomplished part of that goal. What they do to follow that up will be crucial.