What seemed like an impossible dream when Sean Marks took over three years ago as general manager of a Nets franchise that was bankrupt in terms of draft picks and talent is on the verge of coming to fruition when free agent negotiations open at 6:01 p.m. Sunday night.
Marks has them perfectly positioned as a top-tier free agent destination with nearly $69 million in salary cap room and a talented young core group remaining from a 42-40 playoff team. Multiple NBA sources have indicated to Newsday that point guard Kyrie Irving is a virtual certainty to sign with the Nets, and it could happen quickly because Irving reportedly has been courting forward Kevin Durant and can signal his commitment by agreeing to a maximum-salary deal worth $141 million over four years.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Durant expects to talk with four teams — the Warriors, who can offer a five-year deal worth $221 million and the Knicks, Nets and Clippers, all of whom can offer four-year deals worth $164 million, although the Clippers require several moves to clear a path. Wojnarowski and ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne also reported on Saturday that Durant and Kawhi Leonard are discussing the possibility of teaming up in which case they likely would choose the Knicks or Clippers.
The Nets are focused on adding a point guard-power forward combination. Although early reports said they would consider pairing Irving and restricted free agent All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell, an NBA source told Newsday that is unlikely. Marks plans on landing two top-tier stars, and the gaping hole at power forward is a prime concern.
On Friday, the Nets made a qualifying offer to Russell to maintain his RFA rights, but that was a defensive measure should Irving have a last-second change of heart. That offer can be rescinded if they need to clear cap space for a second high-end free agent.
Every team shopping in the high-rent district is willing to sign Durant to a super-max contract even though he will miss the 2019-20 season while recovering from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. That catastrophic injury could be the tipping point that pushes him to leave the Warriors and the extra $51 million available to him.
Following the injury, Durant headed straight to New York, where Dr. Martin O’Malley, the foot specialist who performed previous surgery on Durant, repaired his Achilles tendon. O’Malley happens to be part of the Nets’ medical team, and Durant might appreciate the structure they have in place for medical and conditioning needs of all their players with an eye toward “load management” practices to keep them healthy.
If Irving signs with the Nets and a core that now includes Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince, they clearly are ahead of the Knicks in terms of development and the ability to compete for an Eastern Conference title.
But should Durant bypass the Nets, they must pivot to find a power forward with three-point shooting ability. The obvious choice is 76ers free agent Tobias Harris, a Dix Hills native who is well-acquainted with coach Kenny Atkinson and would command either a max salary or close to it. But other cheaper candidates might include Marcus Morris, Julius Randle or even former Net Thaddeus Young.
Obviously, the major casualty in the Nets’ high-stakes dealings might be Russell. He embraced the Nets’ development plan, but he struggled in the playoff loss to the 76ers as his shooting percentage fell to 30.8 percent from three-point range and his assists dropped from 7.0 to 3.6.
Irving is a clear upgrade in terms of athleticism, ability to get to the rim and three-point shooting. He was a disruptive force in the Celtics’ locker room last season, but with the Nets, he would have a comfort level near his South Orange, N.J. home and he might thrive in coach Kenny Atkinson’s point guard-friendly system.
The big question is whether Irving can convince Durant to join him in, of all places, Brooklyn.
Kyrie Irving: Since deciding to leave the Celtics, Irving has signaled his intention to join the Nets with unmistakable clarity. He is the linchpin in the Nets’ free-agent plans and should agree to terms quickly in an effort to recruit Kevin Durant.
Kevin Durant: He reportedly will talk to four teams — Warriors, Knicks, Nets and Clippers, and can get $51 million extra to stay with Warriors. Won’t play next season while recovering from ruptured Achilles but is top-three talent in NBA.
“Stretch” fours: Technically, Durant is a small forward but would play PF with Nets. If they miss on him, Dix Hills native Tobias Harris seems a clear cut second choice. Cheaper alternatives include Marcus Morris, Julius Randle and Thaddeus Young. If they have room, the Nets also might explore adding Durant buddy DeAndre Jordan at center or bring back valuable Ed Davis as backup.
— GREG LOGAN