The Brooklyn Nets enter the 2023-24 campaign absent a superstar following the trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In a league where a top-tier star is required to compete for a title, that reality casts a bleak shadow over the upcoming season.
However, there's reason for hope that Brooklyn could soon re-enter the inner circle of contenders.
After trading Durant and Irving, the Nets are armed with seven tradable first-round picks. That includes three distant unprotected firsts from Phoenix (2027, 2029) and Dallas (2029), which should be highly coveted around the league. Brooklyn also offers the allure of the New York market and a chance to play alongside a budding star in Mikal Bridges.
But what player could be available to launch the Nets into the NBA's upper echelon?
Giannis Antetokounmpo's future has been the talk of the league following a series of headline-worthy offseason comments. The two-time MVP made it clear he's willing to leave Milwaukee if there's a better situation for him to pursue a title:
“I'm a Milwaukee Buck. But most importantly, I'm a winner. I want to win,” Antetokounmpo said on the 48 Minutes podcast. “And I have to do whatever it takes for me to win. And if there's a better situation for me to win the Larry O'Brien, I have to take that better situation.”
"I'm a Milwaukee Buck, but most importantly I'm a winner. … If there is a better situation for me to win the Larry O'Brien I have to take that better situation."
Giannis on his future with the Bucks. pic.twitter.com/XzucRXtmOv
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) September 13, 2023
Antetokounmpo is extension-eligible this season but has emphasized that he will not be re-upping at this time. The 28-year-old is under contract in 2024-25 before a player option in 2025-26. His recent comments put pressure on Milwaukee to exhaust all assets to maximize their title hopes this season. If the Bucks fall short, they enter a precarious situation next summer with a potentially unhappy Antetokounmpo's contract expiring.
And in that case, expect the trade rumors to begin to swirl.
But Antetokounmpo is just one of several stars who could be on the move as early as next season. After missing Ben Simmons for the entire 2021-22 campaign, Joel Embiid is entering another year with a disgruntled co-star, James Harden, demanding a trade. Having never made it past the second round in seven seasons with Philadelphia, how long before the 2022-23 MVP's eyes begin to wander?
Embiid is entering the first year of a four-year, $213 million supermax extension. However, as we've seen with Durant and Damian Lillard, that carries little weight in assuring he will remain committed to the 76ers.
Cleveland is in the same position as Milwaukee in regards to Donovan Mitchell. The four-time All-Star is under contract in 2024-25 before a $37 million player option in 2025-26. There is doubt within NBA circles that Mitchell would sign an extension with the Cavaliers, and the 27-year-old has well-documented interest in coming home to play in New York. With another young star in Darius Garland already in the backcourt, all options will be on the table if Cleveland exits the playoffs early this year.
Luka Doncic could soon join the group after Dallas finished as the league's tenth-worst team in 2022-23:
“Team sources have acknowledged to ESPN that fear exists that Doncic, who publicly and privately expressed extreme frustration this season, could consider requesting a trade as soon as the summer of 2024 if Dallas doesn't make significant progress by then,” ESPN's Tim MacMahon wrote following Dallas' elimination.
The prospect of landing one of these tentpole stars is why maintaining flexibility will be Nets GM Sean Marks' top priority in 2023-24. It's why Brooklyn has refused to enter the Lillard sweepstakes with Portland desperately trying to find an offer outside of Miami.
The Nets have an intriguing 2023-24 roster with ascending talents in Bridges, Cam Johnson and Nic Claxton, as well as a blend of youthful additions and steady veterans. But rest assured, Brooklyn will be one of several teams waiting for the superstar dominoes to fall in the next year.