The 2018-19 season was an encouraging trial for the Brooklyn Nets. Finishing 42-40, they earned the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.
While they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round in five games, making the playoffs was a feat for Brooklyn based on little to no one expecting them to compete in the Fall festivities back in training camp.
Plus, the Nets young core came into its own this season. D’Angelo Russell finally played like the star guard the NBA had been waiting for, averaging a team-high 21.1 points per game and establishing himself as the Nets franchise player.
Meanwhile, second-year center Jarrett Allen became the team’s defensive anchor inside, denying shots and finishing off all-oops on the other end of the floor.
Caris LeVert had an encouraging season on both ends of the floor, but offensively in particular, averaging 13.7 points per game in the regular season and a team-high 21.0 points per game in the playoffs; Joe Harris was one of the best three-point shooters in the association, shooting 47.4 percent from beyond the arc in the regular season; Spencer Dinwiddie had a superb season, played through injury, and averaged 16.8 points per game off the bench; big man Ed Davis reeled in a team-high 8.6 rebounds per game in just 17.9 minutes a night.
Now, Russell is a restricted free agent and will likely command — and receive — the five-year max which comes out to be roughly $31 million a season. Even though it’s a lot of money, Russell will get that deal from some team, and he appears to have found a home with the Nets. Re-signing the Ohio State product should be the Nets’ top priority to go along with bringing in players to build a contender.
After signing Russell the Nets will have roughly $24 million in cap space. To create more room they could ship off the expiring $18.5 million salary that Allen Crabbe holds for the 2019-20 season.
There are ways general manager Sean Marks can make a splash with and without moving money.
Here are three realistic free-agent targets for the rising Nets.
3. Julius Randle
There are few players who had a bigger breakout campaign than Randle in the 2018-19 season. In his debut season with the New Orleans Pelicans, the forward came into his own as one of the best frontline scorers in the NBA.
Averaging a career-high 21.4 points to go along with 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game (both in the starting five and off the bench), he was an integral source of offense in head coach Alvin Gentry’s rotation.
Randle is a two-way player. He’s an elusive scorer inside, can stick the outside jump shot (Randle shot a career-best 34.4 percent from beyond the arc this season), cover his man at a high level, push the ball up the court, and hit the boards. This skill set would bode well in the Nets rotation.
The Nets have several impactful wings, headlined by LeVert and Harris. They also have the athletic Rondae Hollis-Jefferson three-point shooting Rodions Kurucs, and, if they re-sign him, defensive-minded Jared Dudley.
But adding a frontline scorer and/or post threat would do wonders for head coach Kenny Atkinson’s offense. Randle could start at the four, with two of Harris, LeVert, and Dudley starting out on the perimeter and Allen at center. Randle would fill all the holes.
He could be their inside scorer, spread the floor, and create more chances for Allen to finish inside. Having a legitimate and proven go-to scorer alongside Russell would take the Nets offense to the next level while deepening their rotation.
With a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the Pelicans with the Anthony Davis fiasco, it’s unknown where re-signing Randle will fall on their to-do list.
Meanwhile, the Nets can provide him with a definite starting role and the chance to compete in the East.
2. Tobias Harris
If the Nets want to add a gritty scorer, Harris fits the bill.
While he’s on a gifted 76ers team, Harris seems likely to leave Brotherly Love given the organization’s financial commitment to Joel Embiid, as well as potentially Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler. The Nets offer Harris the chance to be a primary scorer.
Harris has quietly been one of the most steady forwards in the NBA for quite some time, but his game has been on the big stage in recent memory. He can play in isolation, attack the rack, and is an accomplished defender. Averaging a career-high 20.0 points and 7.9 rebounds per game while also shooting a career-best 48.7 percent from the field in split time with the 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers this season, he has grown into a highly productive source of offense.
The Nets need a second bonafide scorer, and Harris has exemplified the ability to serve as such a player throughout his career. With the Nets he could start at either the three or four and be the interior scorer they need to open up an opportunity elsewhere and take pressure off their backcourt.
While playing by Russell’s side would be a heavier burden than the one he currently has with the 76ers, coming back home (Harris attended high school in Long Island, NY) and putting the Nets into contention would be a great way for Harris to peak his career.
Competition for the forward will likely be stiff as his skill set warrants a near-max deal, but Harris could be the player that catapults the Nets into the top half of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
1. Jimmy Butler
Sure, the 76ers likely didn’t acquire Butler to let him walk in free agency, but the Nets offer Butler a chance to join a team where he could be more adored and take on a bigger role. Before the regular season began, Butler was rumored to have interest in being traded to the Nets; he’ll have the chance to join them this summer.
Butler is an elite two-way player. He can play in the high post, or in isolation, while also shutting down his man on the defensive end. He can serve as a primary or secondary scoring option, as him averaging 20-plus points per game in four of the last five seasons proves.
Before this season Butler was the number one/two scoring option with the Minnesota Timberwolves and previously the Chicago Bulls, but his ability to coexist alongside other stars has come into question. This season he has silenced some critics by flourishing alongside Embiid and Simmons.
Butler could very well be the Nets number one scoring option, but that could also benefit Russell. This season he proved to himself and the Nets that he can take on the burden of being the primary source of offense, so in the scenario that Butler has an off night, or misses time due to injury, Russell can take over. Plus, if the Nets want to win the East, they need to beef up their roster.
Marks and company have a compelling pitch to Butler: With a duo of him and Russell, among other improving players, the Nets would be a threat to the top of the conference.
They can also offer the opportunity to revive the negative stigma that surrounds his game. Butler could help lead the Nets, a team he supposedly had interest in playing for, to prominence.
If the Nets want to make an enormous free-agent splash, Butler is their best bet.