Allen Crabbe of the Nets looks on during the second...

Allen Crabbe of the Nets looks on during the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets at Barclays Center on Feb. 6. Credit: Jim McIsaac

When the Nets’ season ended with a surprising playoff berth, general manager Sean Marks predicted their winning record would put the franchise in position to get in the game for top-tier free agents. On Thursday, Marks backed up that claim by trading Allen Crabbe and his $18.5 million salary to Atlanta in a move designed to make the Nets a huge player in the free agent market.

The Nets will give up Crabbe, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft and a 2020 lottery-protected first-round pick to the Hawks for forward Taurean Prince and a 2021 second-round pick, according to an ESPN report that an NBA source confirmed to Newsday. The deal won’t become official until July 6 when teams can begin signing free agents, but it will give the Nets $46 million in salary cap space and the possibility of making other moves that could allow them to sign two maximum-salary free agents.

Multiple reports have indicated the Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, who grew up in New Jersey as a Nets fan, has a strong interest in signing with them. He is eligible for a maximum contract starting at $32.7 million per season. But it also means the Nets might be in play for Warriors free-agent forward Kevin Durant, who is eligible for a maximum contract starting at $38.2 million.

Season-long speculation linked Durant and Irving as a package deal headed for the Knicks. But reports that Irving is more interested in the Nets have shifted the focus. It would be a coup if the Nets could land Irving and Durant, but that would require them to renounce the cap hold of roughly $20 million on All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell and they still would have to clear more space to create the $70.1 million of cap room necessary to sign Durant and Irving.

Of course, the Nets also can sign Russell, who will be a restricted free agent, and add one other top-tier free agent from a class that also includes such stars as Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Dix Hills native Tobias Harris, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic and Khris Middleton.

The Nets’ ascension under Marks and Kenny Atkinson from a league-worst 20-62 record in 2016-17 to their current power position has been remarkable. As Marks said after the Nets were eliminated by the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, “We’re not satisfied. We know that this is just one rung in the ladder that we continue to climb here, and it’s a step in the right direction.

“It’s going to attract free agents. People are going to want to play here. They’re going to want to play for Kenny. They’re going to want to play in Brooklyn, and I think we have a lot going for us.”

Ironically, this is the first time in four drafts that Marks was poised to exercise the Nets’ original first-round pick, and he traded it and next year’s first-rounder to go after free agents. According to the ESPN report confirmed by Newsday, if the Nets’ 2020 pick is in the lottery, it will convert to a 2021 lottery-protected pick and that would convert to a 2022 lottery-protected pick. After that point, it would convert to two second-round picks.

The Nets still control the No. 27 overall pick and the No. 31 that leads off the second round of the June 20 draft.

But the sacrifice of two first-round picks was offset to a great extent by the acquisition of Prince, a 6-8 small forward out of Baylor who is only 25 years old. He averaged 13.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists last season and, most importantly, hit 39.0 percent from three-point range and is a solid defender on the wing.

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