After inheriting a 21-win team after the 2015-16 season, Sean Marks has earned praise by players, coaches and pundits alike for his ability to improve the culture and stability of the once dysfunctional Brooklyn Nets. In the past two years, numerous players acquired by trade or by free agency and have had career years under Marks’ and coach Kenny Atkinson’s modernized system.
Joe Harris is the template for what Marks was setting out to accomplish when he took over what was considered the toughest rebuilding job in the NBA. Harris was cast away by the league after an injury ended his 2015-16 season. Before the injury, though, Harris was barely seeing the floor with both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic.
Marks and Atkinson signed Harris to a minimum deal, but instilled confidence in the former ACC player of the year by telling him they saw him as their Kyle Korver. In the two seasons since, Harris has shot a blistering 40 percent from the 3-point line in close to five attempts per game.
Now, Harris is signed to a two-year, 16 million dollar deal. While Harris is one of the team’s many feel good stories, his 14 million dollar raise is an indicator that the Nets will be facing some difficult decision during and following the upcoming season.
The Nets will be looking to retain Spencer Dinwiddie, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and D’Angelo Russell. All three players are integral to the team’s rotation and idenity, and all three are slated for restricted free agency. With a league wide shift trending towards positional versatility, the trio should all be in high demand.
That is not good news for Brooklyn.
The Nets project to have close to $60 million in cap space in the summer of 2019. After several years of missing the playoffs, Brooklyn could be planning on bursting back into contention by signing a free agent All-Star (or two).
So far, the Nets have been linked to both Celtics guard Kyrie Irving and Timberwolves forward Jimmy Butler. They also have strong ties to Kawhi Leonard, with Marks having been his general manager when the two were with the Spurs organization.
In order to have cap space for a top-tier talent, the Nets may have to let go of one or more of Dinwiddie, Russell and Hollis-Jefferson. It is possible the Nets could delay their extensions until after they utilize their cap space. However, the fact that all three are restricted free agents could mean that the Nets have a small window before one or more of the trio negotiates and signs an offer sheet with another team.
That makes this season a critical one for the Nets’ future. Ideally the Nets will be able to retain all three players while landing a big name free agent or two. That is no guarantee, and the 2019 off-season could be affected by a number of different scenarios the Nets may find themselves in this year.
If the team is clicking on all cylinders and all three have career years, it may force the Nets to allocate their money wisely. In particular, if both Dinwiddie and Russell thrive, the Nets may have to decide which ball-handler is worth major money. If Irving is indeed a Nets target, Brooklyn would most certainly cut bait with at least one of the point guards assuming both Russell and Dinwiddie fetch big money offer sheets.
For Hollis-Jefferson, he can price himself out of Brooklyn if the Nets decide to pursue elite wings like Kevin Durant or Butler. Hollis-Jefferson has so far proven to be capable on both sides of the ball but it doesn’t seem likely for him to ascend to that level. If Brooklyn has to drop big money to keep one (or both) of their point guards and has eyes on a swingman, Hollis-Jefferson could be a goner.
The Nets ideal plan is to keep all three on reasonable deals while adding talents like Leonard, Butler and/or Irving. If that were to happen, however, it likely means that the Nets young core wouldn’t have taken the next step in 2018-19.
Either way, the Nets are in an unenviable position. This season will be make or break for the current core. If they falter, they would likely be looking at a new team that presumably overpaid for potential. If they succeed, they may make it impossible to reel in some of 2019’s best free agents while maintaining the backbone of the team.
Harris’ deal shows what Marks’ loyalty can do for a player’s financial security. At the same time, it proved that the team’s starters could be expecting salaries of at least that much but likely more. It remains to be seen which 2019 free agents Marks sees as part of the completion of what will have been a three-year rebuild.