Brooklyn Nets: Risks, rewards of re-signing D’Angelo Russell

Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Whether or not the Brooklyn Nets re-sign D’Angelo Russell could come down to a balance of risk vs. reward.

There are risks vs. rewards for the Brooklyn Nets regarding the potential re-signing of D’Angelo Russell to a long-term max contract in relationship to the NBA landscape and the changes it may undergo during free agency beginning on July 1.

The landscape of the NBA could drastically change this offseason with superstar free agents set to hit the market. Depending on how the landscape changes could determine whether or not D’Angelo Russell is worth signing to a max-level contract with Brooklyn.

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For example, if Golden State re-signs Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to long-term deals, the Warriors would remain the odds-on favorites to win another title and continue their dynasty.

If the 76ers re-sign Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler, or both somehow, they will be major contenders in the Eastern Conference for years to come.

The Milwaukee Bucks aren’t going anywhere either. Giannis Antetokounmpo is locked up long term and the Bucks will have cap space in 2020-21 to go after another star, which would make them the favorites to win the East for the considerable future.

The Knicks have over $60 million in cap space and by the end of July could be a better team than Brooklyn.

These above scenarios are likely, so where does that leave the Brooklyn Nets from a competitive standpoint with or without Russell going forward?

The Nets ranked 18th in opponents points per game during the regular season and seriously struggled to rebound in the playoffs. They only ranked 15th in points scored per game and 21st in assists per game.

In all three of these major categories they ranked below half the teams in the NBA.

These team stats scream for the Nets to sign a true facilitator as well as more efficient scorers, especially in the post and better defenders. How does Russell factor into this obvious path to improve the team?

The deeply concerning stat is the 21st ranking in assists per game. They were also close to the bottom of the league in shooting, ranking 24th at a dismal 44.9 percent overall.

This is largely due to the fact that Russell is a volume shooter and the Nets have isolation players and no true post player. Despite their efforts to use good ball movement, it never resulted in high team assist totals.

It’s also a woeful stat considering Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie missed considerable portions of the season. They thrive in isolation situations, so this poor assist team ranking could have even been even lower had they both been fully healthy.

What kind of 2018 season would Russell have had if LeVert and Dinwiddie were fully healthy? The Nets had no expectations to be a decent team and Russell had the green light to shoot all season long in a contract year. These factors may have superficially inflated Russell’s statistics making him appear better than he actually is.

Marc Pincus of Bleacher Report, he expects the Nets to extend Russell to a five-year maximum contract worth $158.1 million.

Before Nets general manager Sean Marks even considers this, he should consider the following:

Such a move would leave the Nets with only enough cap space to chase one other star in free agency and exhaust most of their cap space trying to round out the roster, assuming D-Lo would even attract a top-five free agent to Brooklyn.

That’s not to mention they’d have some cap problems trying to sign LeVert after next season if they go this route.

In four years in the NBA, Russell has only played at least 80 games in two of them.  In 2016-17, he played 63 games. In the 2017-18 season he played just 48 games.

Yet he is being considered for a max level contract by multiple teams based on one single All-Star season in which he was a selected as an injury replacement.

Despite no expectations and a perpetual green light to shoot, Russell still only managed 21.1 points per game shooting a low 43.4 percent from the field. He averaged 18.7 field goal attempts per game and made just 8.1 of them.

He also averaged 3.1 turnovers per game, which should be a red flag when considering signing any point guard in the NBA to a max deal. He did this in a weaker Eastern Conference as well.

This begs a crucial question: Was Russell’s breakout All-Star season a fluke or was it a sign that he is a franchise cornerstone player for years to come? Was this his ceiling, his floor or somewhere in between? Most likely, it was somewhere in between.

Regardless, it was a great season for Russell who helped propel the Nets into the playoffs as a sixth seed. However, his poor performance in the playoffs has to be analyzed whether we want to or not.

In the playoffs Russell averaged 19.4 points per game shooting only 36 percent from the field. He shot 32.4 percent from deep. He averaged a measly 3.6 assists and 2.8 turnovers as well.

In all fairness this was his playoff debut, but that excuse didn’t stop LeVert from playing excellent postseason basketball. The better excuse is Russell was being guarded by an elite defender in Ben Simmons.

Simmons will likely be re-signed by Philadelphia after next season. Even if he’s not, the 76ers are likely to retain Jimmy Butler, another elite defender.

If putting an elite defender on Russell is all it takes to neutralize him in the playoffs, why should Marks make him the franchise cornerstone for the Brooklyn Nets? How far does he think Russell could lead Brooklyn as its centerpiece?

Other teams besides Philadelphia would likely implement the same strategy guarding Russell.  In the playoffs elite defenders become the norm, not the exception.

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Is Russell built for postseason play? Despite his inexperience, this is a fair question given his style of play. While his postseason performance is a small sample size, it certainly raises some doubt regarding this question.

Russell is not too difficult to game plan for defensively, as the 76ers proved. He struggles against larger athletic defenders. He looks to shoot first. He does not post up opposing guards. He does not finish well around the rim. He does not get to the free throw line a lot.

If you take away his hot spots, what real threat is he?

If Marks does re-sign Russell to a long-term max-level deal it would speak volumes about the direction he is taking the team in.

Such a signing would mean Marks would be content to simply have a respectable playoff team for the next four to five years and no viable plan to make the Nets bona fide title contenders any time soon.

In an article earlier this year by Matthew Schmidt,  ClutchPoints compared Russell’s style of play to Damian Lillard. The article asked if D-Lo would ever be as good as Lillard?

Let’s assume D-Lo does become as good as Lillard, which is a big assumption. Aside from hitting some big series-ending clutch shots in the playoffs, Lillard has never even been to the finals.

Furthermore, examine players like James Harden, an NBA MVP candidate. He, like Russell, is a volume shooter but is a much better finisher around the rim, arguably a better facilitator and much better at getting to the free throw line, yet the Rockets seem to be going nowhere.

I am not saying Harden is not worth a max contract because if he was surrounded by better players, the Rockets would be a true contender, but they aren’t. The same goes for Lillard. The same could be said for D-Lo, but to a much lesser extent as he is still largely unproven.

Russell is nowhere near as good as Harden or even Lillard for that matter. The Nets as a team aren’t as good as Houston or Portland either. So what would re-signing Russell realistically accomplish for the Nets?

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The changing landscape of the league is an important factor in deciding what to do with D-Lo. However, the major problem is that the potential NBA landscape change would be occurring at the same time of D-Lo’s contract negotiations if he is not renounced by July 1st.

This is where the ultimate risk vs. reward comes into play. If Marks thinks it’s too risky to renounce D-Lo, then the odds are the Nets will take a safe route and re-sign him. The reward would likely be playoff contention for four to five years.

This is good business for Brooklyn as it would keep the Nets relevant, but not true title contenders, even if they add another star.

For the Nets to become true title contenders they would almost certainly have to gamble by renouncing D-Lo to free up the cap space to go after two superstars. Is Marks willing to take that risk?

This riskier move of renouncing D-Lo would theoretically make them title contenders if they land two of the top five  free agents, especially if they can sign Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.

It’s worth mentioning that renouncing D-Lo does not mean the Nets don’t want to keep Russell. It only means they won’t have the right of first refusal and the Nets would also forfeit their right to offer a fifth year on a potential max deal.

They also would lose Bird rights, meaning they would have to sign him into cap space.

Theoretically, the Nets could renounce D-Lo, chase the top free agents and if they strike out, circle back to re-sign D-Lo for four years if he doesn’t sign with another team.

While this is highly unlikely to happen, it is not impossible for D-Lo to exhibit patience and explore a multitude of options. While he may have four-year max deals waiting for him from other teams, he could ultimately decide to stay in Brooklyn if his ego isn’t bruised from being renounced.

If Brooklyn can’t get the two stars they want and D-Lo still wants to remain with the Nets, Brooklyn could and would most likely offer him a four-year max contract for roughly the same amount as other teams.

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This is certainly something D-Lo, his agents and Marks can discuss prior to any bold renouncing happens.

This scenario would be ideal for Marks and Brooklyn, but not so much for D-Lo. However, in the end D-Lo would have the final say in which team he elects to play for next season when some of the major free agency smoke settles.

Older Nets fans remember when Kenyon Martin was seeking a max deal after his first All-Star season. In 2003-04 former Nets GM Rod Thorn instead signed and traded Martin to the Denver Nuggets for three future first-round picks.

Martin was injured just one season later after Denver acquired him and was never the same impactful player after the injury.

This was a shrewd, but ultimately clever move by Thorn.

Although the K-Mart sign-and-trade happened in a different era under a different Collective Bargaining Agreement, Marks could also potentially look to sign and trade D-Lo in similar fashion.

Like K-Mart was, D-Lo is a fan favorite and All-Star, as well as a lottery pick. The gravity of the K-Mart deal was significantly greater as the Nets were contending for titles back then. However signing and trading Russell might not be such a bad route to take.

The Nets have many team flaws that need to be addressed and Russell may not be the superstar to lead them as a title contender.

Signing and trading D-Lo for future picks and players could help the Nets in several key areas like roster depth, future potential and more cap flexibility if the right deal presents itself.

It could also address the major flaws in the team’s overall defense, scoring efficiency and team assists on a nightly basis.

The future NBA landscape could change drastically depending on how things turn out in this year’s playoffs, especially regarding the fate of the Golden State Warriors.

Sean Marks will likely take all of this into consideration before deciding what to do with Russell.

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The moves he makes this offseason will tell us if the franchise will be content to just be in the playoffs for consolation prizes or if the Nets are keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize … an NBA championship.