Around eight months ago, the first seeds were planted of a possible ‘SuperFriends’ backcourt when Devin Booker told Newsday he would love to play with best friend D’Angelo Russell sometime during his career. When that message was relayed back to Russell, he mentioned how nobody thought Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry would team up either.
Of course that made both fan bases in Phoenix and Brooklyn perk up. Now, as we inch closer and closer towards free agency, the possibility actually seems more realistic than originally thought.
“We’ve seen him since Ohio State and all the things that he can do. I mean, he has the ‘clutch gene,’ he has the ‘it factor.’ I would love to play with him. He makes people around him better. He’s a dynamic player. He has the utmost confidence in himself that I don’t think will change ever. That’s why we have the relationship that we do.”
“Wow. I mean, you never know. It’s not something I really can control. But no one would ever have thought KD and Steph would be on the same team either. When you come from a long relationship, if you end up on the same team one day, that would be really great.”
The Brooklyn Nets had a resurgent season back into the playoffs after Russell snapped out of his early season snafus on the way to his first career All-Star berth and finalist to win Most Improved Player. Russell turned into a star in Brooklyn, but could GM Sean Marks be eyeing his replacement this offseason?
According to SNY’s Anthony Puccio, the Nets are the favorites to land Kyrie Irving if he indeed decides to leave Boston, which seems all but a certainty at this point. Irving is a wildcard, because everyone thought he would be Knicks bound originally.
Puccio’s report also relays how Brooklyn is intrigued by the possibility of pairing Irving with Russell in their backcourt. The question is would Irving rather have Russell, or bring one of his superstar buddies like Kevin Durant or Jimmy Butler along with him instead?
Brooklyn is only a few quick and easy steps away from having the capabilities of adding two superstars into their cap space this offseason. The first requires trading Allen Crabbe’s $18.5 million expiring contract, which has a strong possibility of happening on draft night with Brooklyn armed with two first-round picks. Expect the Nets to flip Crabbe along with either the No. 17 or No. 27 overall pick.
Then, the second step would be one where you know Irving is bringing someone along with him. Simply renounce Russell’s restricted rights and allow him to walk free as an unrestricted free agent. From there, Brooklyn could also simply waive the non-guaranteed contracts of Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham if they want to use their draft picks to add more young talent.
Boom. All of a sudden, the Nets have one of the most attractive destinations for two max free agents to join their strong culture built by Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson. Also, they would still have very attractive young assets like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen.
So, what if Irving does don the black and white in July? Do we really believe Irving would want to go into another situation with more young players like Boston without some outside help joining him. Honestly, I doubt it. That’s where his good friend Kevin Durant comes into play — and could cataclysmically shift the entire NBA playing field.
Nobody is talking about Durant to Brooklyn right now for obvious reasons. The Knicks have Madison Square Garden, but do their young pieces stack up to Brooklyn’s? Outside of Mitchell Robinson, who showed some legit promise as a force defensively, there are no real promising pieces aboard there unless Kevin Knox reaches his full potential.
Could Durant spurn the diehard Knicks for their crosstown rivals? Don’t be shocked if he does, but it all depends on Irving. I’ll say this: a starting lineup featuring Irving, LeVert, Joe Harris, Durant, and Allen would be a real threat year-in, year-out if those two signed on the dotted line.
This all leads us back to what happens from Russell’s point of view if the Nets do indeed pull off the coup of the summer landing Irving and Durant. If Russell’s rights are renounced, he would be free to pick whatever team he wants.
The Suns are one point guard away from believing they could finally make a leap, and you know Booker would vouch for his friend if this scenario goes down. Phoenix has said they are looking more for a combo guard than an actual floor general, which leads us further down the Russell rabbit hole. Both Booker and Russell could play off one another with no issue taking turns handling the primary ball handling duties. Russell has shown he’s definitely capable of pulling it off playing alongside Spencer Dinwiddie, same goes for Booker as his metamorphosis towards a Harden-esque creator is coming closer to fruition.
What would be the path to clearing the requisite space to chase Russell, though? There are multiple avenues GM James Jones could go down to accomplish this. (Note: All of these include the Suns keeping the No. 6 overall pick, which is a first-year salary of $5.8 million.)
The first option would simply be stretching the final year of Tyler Johnson’s $19.2 million expiring, which immediately frees up $12.8 million in space, and then trading one of T.J. Warren or Josh Jackson for extra cap flexibility ($32 million if Warren is dealt, $28.2 million if it’s Jackson).
Another scenario revolves around trading Johnson, attaching an asset such as the 2020 Bucks first-round pick with him. Immediately, Phoenix would have enough space to realistically sign Russell to an offer with $28.5 million in room, but, if they wanted to address their issue at power forward as well, they might as well dump Warren or Jackson. If that occurs, the Suns would have enough space to sign Russell and also chase names like Al-Farouq Aminu, Nikola Mirotic, or Thaddeus Young.
Truly, if Jones and Co. are placing their chips in the middle of the table for Russell to become available soon, it relies on Brooklyn becoming the new hotbed of basketball. Irving alone won’t be enough for the Nets to let go of their young and ascending lead guard, who’s still only 23 years old until February.
Waltzing into the 2019-20 season, this could be the Suns’ starting lineup if they play their cards right — and Brooklyn hits the proverbial free agent grand slam: Russell, Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Aminu/Young/Mirotic, and Deandre Ayton with Mikal Bridges as the versatile swing forward averaging 30 minutes per game off the bench.
Who knows if that’s enough to take the leap from last in the Western Conference to being on the doorstep of the No. 8 seed, but it’s a great start and an ideal way to set a foundation for new head coach Monty Williams. The core of Booker, Ayton, Russell, Oubre and Bridges would be set in stone, now all you have to do is be patient and wait for it to pay dividends later on.