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Nets find themselves in mix for Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and other top NBA free agents

Celtics guard Kyrie Irving dunks against the Knicks

Celtics guard Kyrie Irving dunks against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 1. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Never mind the bleak landscape Sean Marks surveyed when he became general manager of the Nets three years ago. Even one year ago, the notion of the Nets emerging as the leading contender for free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving was unimaginable.

But with the NBA free agent market set to open at 6 p.m. Sunday, June 30, the Nets are on the verge of taking a giant step toward title contender status. Irving’s camp has broadcast far and wide his interest in joining the Nets, and Kendrick Perkins, a former teammate and a confidant of Durant’s, told ESPN the Nets are the most likely team to sign two-time NBA Finals MVP Durant even though he suffered a ruptured right Achilles tendon that will keep him out of the 2019-20 season.

“I think the Nets are the frontrunner to land KD,” Perkins said. “I’m not ruling out the Knicks, but I think the Nets are the frontrunners and people are not giving them their [respect].”

Durant’s status is clouded by his physical condition, but if he opts out of the final year of his contract with the Warriors, multiple teams, including the Nets, will line up to offer a four-year contract worth $164 million even though he will spend the first year in rehab. As a less experienced player, Irving commands a four-year deal worth $141 million, and multiple NBA sources have told Newsday the Nets are his preferred destination.

It will take $70.9 million to sign them, and ESPN salary cap expert Bobby Marks says the Nets have $68.67 million of cap room if they allow restricted free agent point guard D’Angelo Russell to walk, leaving them about $2.3 million short. But they have the flexibility to cover that shortfall if needed.

Asked on draft night if Nets owners Mikhail Prokhorov and Joseph Tsai have the patience to invest so much money as part of a plan that will require forbearance (because of Durant’s injury timetable), Marks said, “They’ve given me no reason to think that support is waning or lacking at all. It just makes us stronger now with our ownership group since Joe has joined on. It’s definitely a plus for the organization having the ownership group that we do.”

Russell was a key ingredient in the Nets’ climb to a 42-40 record before their first-round playoff elimination by the 76ers, and he earned All-Star recognition and fan favorite status. Losing him would be a blow for many fans, but the Nets have arrived at the point where such a major move no longer would seem intemperate.

“I definitely don’t think it’s skipping steps, but I also think we’re at a different place as an organization right now,” Marks said. “Three years ago, certainly, it would have been skipping steps. But now where you have a group of young guys coming up that have proved to the league that they’re NBA players, now who comes to pair up with these guys?”

Assuming Irving takes one of the Nets’ two max slots, it’s highly likely Russell will be allowed to depart whether they sign Durant or not. Should Durant choose to sign with the Knicks or even opt into the final year of his deal with the Warriors, the Nets still have one max salary slot available without further maneuvering, and the gaping hole in their lineup is the need for a power forward who is a reliable three-point shooter.

At that point, the Nets might set their sights on 76ers free agent Tobias Harris, a Dix Hills native coming off a season in which he averaged a career-best 20.0 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 39.7 percent from three-point range.

Harris is well-acquainted with Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, fits the Nets’ style of play and certainly would meet with the Nets, an NBA source told Newsday, if they move on from Durant.

Harris and Irving were teammates on the 2010 U.S. team that won the Nike Hoop Summit, although Harris was injured at the time, and they played together in earlier junior tournaments. Of course, Harris can re-sign with the 76ers for more money than the Nets can offer and will have other suitors.

But after creating so much cap space, Marks has positioned the Nets to be in the ballgame for the cream of the 2019 free agent crop.

New York Sports