Brooklyn Nets: Sean Marks deserves praise, but 2019 cap situation not simple

The narrative surrounding the Brooklyn Nets this offseason has GM Sean Marks creating 2 max contract slots for 2019. The reality is not nearly that simple.

Hey, have you heard the Brooklyn Nets will have enough cap space in the summer of 2019 to take on two max contracts?

If you’ve been anywhere near the NBA news buzz the last couple of weeks, that’s been one of the dominant narratives, even as LeBron James headed to Hollywood and DeMarcus Cousins helped the Golden State Warriors break the NBA.

Narratives, however, are seldom as simple as they seem once you add in some of that pesky reality.

Let’s get this out of the way first — Nets general manager Sean Marks has done a wonderful job this offseason, primarily by finding another GM who would take Timofey Mozgov‘s contract and its $16.7 million hit for 2019-20 off Brooklyn’s ledger sheet.

Marks doubled down on the acquisition of Dwight Howard‘s $23.8 million contract for 2018-19 by trading Jeremy Lin to the Atlanta Hawks for the rights to Isaia Cordinier in exchange for a 2025 second-round pick and giving Atlanta the ability to swap second-rounders with Brooklyn in 2023.

That opened up enough cap space for this season to deal Isaiah Whitehead‘s non-guaranteed $1.5 million deal to Denver in exchange for the expiring contracts of Kenneth Faried ($13.8 million) and Darrell Arthur ($7.5 million).

The Nuggets sweetened the deal with a top-12 protected 2019 first-round pick as well as a 2020 second-round selection.

That ramped up the “two max contract slots for 2019-20” narrative once again and left some Brooklyn fans pining for the tandem of Kyrie Irving (an unrestricted free agent next summer) and Jimmy Butler (an unrestricted free agent next summer if he declines his $19.8 million option).

The Irving-Butler marriage rumors were sparked earlier this month when Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reported the two All-Stars wanted to team up in 2019-20 with an Eastern Conference team.

Two max slots, they said. Irving and Butler want to play together, they said. It’ll be easy, they said.

Reality, however, can often have the effect of pouring a bucket of icy water on those runaway dreams of championship banners behind Butler and Irving.

Per Early Bird Rights, the salary cap estimates for 2019-20 are currently $109 million. As it currently stand, the Nets are committed for $8 million to Joe Harris for the second year of his two-year deal and roughly $1.9 million for the second year of Dzanan Musa‘s rookie deal.

That’s it — commitments for $9.9 million. Max contracts, here we come, baby!

However (and this can be an expensive “however”) …

Allen Crabbe has an $18.5 million player option for 2019-20.

D’Angelo Russell ($21.1 million) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson ($7.4 million) can become restricted free agents and between them have cap holds of $28.5 million.

Jarrett Allen ($2.4 million) and Caris LeVert ($2.6 million) have team options totaling $5 million that must be accounted for.

Then there are the unrestricted free agents.

The Nets are looking at cap holds totaling $64,8 million for the five players due to become unrestricted free agents on July 1, 2019, including DeMarre Carroll ($23.1 million), Faried ($20.6 million), Arthur ($14.2 million), Ed Davis ($5.3 million) and Spencer Dinwiddie ($1.6 million).

Throw all that together and you have $33.4 million in guaranteed money (Harris, Musa and the Crabbe option) and $93.4 million in cap holds.

If the 2019 offseason started right now (which would be weird since it’s almost a year from now), the Nets would actually go into it $23.2 million over the projected $109 million salary cap.

Do they have flexibility? Sure. The current figures from Early Bird Rights indicate the Nets could create up to $63.8 million in cap space. That’s still considerably less than the $71 million figure that has been in circulation.

Per reports, the Nets are not talking extension with Russell right now, so it appears the regular-season-eve deadline to get a rookie-scale extension done will pass and Russell will hit restricted free agency next summer.

The same deadline exists for Hollis-Jefferson, who has done a very solid job as a small-ball 4 in coach Kenny Atkinson’s system and affords Brooklyn with tremendous frontcourt defensive versatility. If DHJ had a consistent jump shot, those extension discussions would be on full blast.

The Nets would up in purgatory for five long years because former general manager Billy King swung for the fences in acquiring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013 with hopes of contending for a title.

When that plan went sideways, Brooklyn was left with no draft picks, little cap room, a rapidly aging roster and little depth.

So a “sign Irving and Butler to max deals” scenario becomes much more tricky in reality, because doing so would leave the Nets with five players and no depth.

Crabbe’s situation is a huge X-factor.

On one hand, the salary cap crunch doesn’t appear to be as tight next season; there should be money out there.

On the other hand, is a wing whose been a full-time starter for one season (ostensibly two by next year) going to comment $18.5 million or more per year as an unrestricted free agent? Given what could be on the market next July, Crabbe likely wouldn’t be a top target.

And that doesn’t answer the questions about Russell or Hollis-Jefferson, or any of the unrestricted-free-agents-to-be.

Narratives can be fun. Who doesn’t like to dream big? But the reality is that the Brooklyn Nets will be in better cap shape in 2019. Better, but not “two-max-slots” better.

At least not if they want to have a functional roster moving forward.