Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell isn’t perfect, but he has to stay

Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell Kyrie Irving (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell Kyrie Irving (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

The Brooklyn Nets have their sights set on some marquee free agents this summer, but retaining D’Angelo Russell must remain a top priority this offseason.

The Brooklyn Nets put themselves back on the NBA map last season, finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 42-40 record before falling in a hard-fought five-game series to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Now, for really the first time in the franchise’s history, the Nets are in contention for some marquee free agents this summer.

Kyrie Irving appears the most likely to make the move to Brooklyn and speculation was only fueled further by reports that Irving had severed ties with his longtime agent to join Roc Nation.

His new agency is owned and run by Brooklyn’s own Jay-Z, former minority owner of the Nets, and its president, Michael Yormark, is the twin brother of Nets’ CEO Brett Yormark.

Of course, Kyrie changing agents does not mean that he’ll be donning black and white next year, but many reports around the league have stated there has been “mutual interest” between Irving and the Nets for some time now.

The start of the Kyrie era, though, could also signal the end of D’Angelo Russell’s time in the borough, with questions being raised about whether the two could play together.

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Forget the fit.

The Nets must keep D’Angelo Russell even if Irving signs and the logic goes beyond well beyond just concerns about the on-court pairing. On the court, of course, Russell broke out last season, earning his first All-Star appearance en route to leading the Nets to the playoffs.

He garnered attention from fans across the league, gracefully gliding his way around screens into pull-up 3s and high-arching floaters and finished the year averaging 21.1 points and 7.0 assists a night.

Granted Russell has his flaws and there are doubts as to whether he can replicate his shooting performance from this season, but at just 23, Russell is bound to continue to improve in seasons to come.

It’s his impact off the court, though, that truly makes him indispensable to this Nets team. After just two years in Brooklyn, Russell has managed to create a buzz around Brooklyn that even Jason Kidd couldn’t when he led the franchise to back-to-back Finals.

Free agents across the league want to play at the Barclays Center because of the culture the Nets have developed. When Kyrie Irving complained about how his Celtics team was playing unhappily, he cited the other teams’ bench celebrations as an example of them having more fun.

While he didn’t mention it explicitly, Irving very well could have been referring to the Nets, whose dancing on the bench has been a staple of NBA Twitter. Nets general manager Sean Marks credited Russell for much of that camaraderie.

"“But again, I give D’Angelo a heck of a lot of credit. All the guys, they’ve all bought in to being something bigger than themselves, cheering each other and rooting each other on. D’Angelo is definitely the head of that snake.”"

Magic Johnson traded D’Angelo Russell because he “needed a leader” and recently went on First Take to say that Russell’s departure was largely caused by the FaceTime incident with Nick Young. But in Brooklyn, D’Angelo has erased all potential worries about his character.

Through much of the prior campaign, and earlier last season, Russell would often find himself on the bench during late-game situations as Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert handled the guard duties. But he never complained, and instead, took his chance when it was given.

After LeVert’s injury this season, Russell truly came into his own, and became the Nets’ go-to late-game performer. Marks said about his point guard:

"“D’Angelo has shown that he’s a Net, and what he’s done out there for this whole year, he bought in completely. His leadership skills have continued to grow.”"

More than anything, though, Russell gives the Nets a homegrown star that they can cheer for. Yes, he was drafted by the Lakers, but his two years in Los Angeles were met with low levels of success and Russell really came into his own in Brooklyn.

You can just see how much clinching a playoff berth for this Brooklyn organization meant to him.

It always means a little more to fans when they’ve seen a player grow and turn into a star, like Nets fans have with Russell. It’s the reason why Damian Lillard is so revered in Portland.

It’s the reason why, even though he’s won two championships there, Kevin Durant never really felt like a true part of the Warriors. The rest of the core (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) were all drafted by the organization.

The fans watched them go from rookies just out of college into All-NBA players. It’s the same reason why even though LeBron James was the best player on the court for his Miami team, the Heat were always Dwyane Wade’s team.

The Brooklyn Nets are in this position because they have done things the right way in the Sean Marks era.

Unlike the Lakers and the Knicks, who focused all of their attention on opening up cap space to make a superstar signing, the Nets built from the bottom up, focusing on player development and building a winning culture.

Now, armed with two max slots, Sean Marks is ready to make a splash in free agency and rightfully so – the Nets have a chance to leap into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference with some shrewd signings.

But, sacrificing your 23-year old All-Star who put you in this very position to sign a marquee free agent doesn’t exactly fit the bill.

The question of whether Russell and Irving can fit together is valid, given that they are both ball-dominant guards who are below average on the defensive end.

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But even if Kyrie Irving decides to come to Brooklyn, the Nets owe it to themselves, and their fans, to keep their own homegrown star in D’Angelo Russell.