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Kyrie or D'Angelo? How Brooklyn could handle a difficult decision

The ripple effects of Kevin Durant's catastrophic injury touched almost half of the league's teams, but two weeks later, the team hit the most as free agency approaches could be one that Durant crumpled: the Brooklyn Nets. 19659002] For weeks, most plugged-in reporters have pegged Brooklyn as Kyrie Irving's preferred choice.

The Nets over the past month have telegraphed their intention of pairing Irving with a second max-salaried superstar. Durant has been widely assumed to be that star. Four days before Durant toss his right Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Nets agreed to trade Allen Crabbe and two first-round picks to Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Taurean Prince and a second-round pick-up of $ 1

5 million in extra head space. They opened about $ 2 million more space on draft night by trading the No.

Depending on where the cap ends, Brooklyn is one or two minor moves from cracking the $ 71 million in space required to sign both Irving and Durant

Doing so will cost them D'Angelo Russell one way or another. Before Durant's injury, that was a no-brainer. There are maybe a half-dozen guys who have proven they can be the best player on a championship team. Durant is one.

In separating from LeBron James, Irving aspired to be one of those players. The Irish boxed one horrendous midranger after another and bizarrely broke Boston's defense in demanding to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.

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The apex version of the 2018-19 Celtics was perhaps the most fertile ground possible for Irving to prove himself as a championship-level alpha. In dissecting what went wrong for Boston, not enough attention has been paid to Gordon Hayward's traumatic injury injury in the opening one season earlier

People forget now, but there was legitimate debate going into that season over whether Hayward – or even Al Horford – was Boston's best all-around player. There was no question Irving was the Celtics' best scorer and orchestrator. If Irving could emerge as the rare Best Player On A Championship Team, it would be in a scenario like that – when he stood as the best of three A-minus-level veteran stars who complemented each other, backed by a strong supporting cast

We've never seen that team

The Nets without Durant might be able to approximate building such a team around Irving, but it's no sure thing. It's unclear why Brooklyn would want that after watching Boston implode. No: Irving is the All-Star that lures the A-plus superstar – that is, Durant.

Now Durant is injured. His plans in free agency are muddled. He could miss all of the next season. We do not know how he will look at his return or whether he will ever be the same player. Ninety percent of Durant is still an All-NBA-level guy. But what if the other 10 percent is the difference between that and the top-five overall player who can indisputably work as the No.

The uncertainties over Durant's intentions have created a dilemma for Brooklyn: Is Irving worth it on his own

The Nets have billed themselves as Team Character and Culture. They helped grow Russell into an All-Star. They know him, and he knows them. Russell is four years younger than Irving. His salary is $ 5.4 million lower than Irving's.

Irving may not be a poor character – you get divergent answers about this – but he's a volatile presence. He overwhelmed Boston's locker room and was a key ingredient in detonating Celtics' chemistry before they developed any. Brooklyn can not know what he will do to the environment that Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson have so carefully nurtured – only that it will change forever the moment he enters

Adam Glanzman / Getty Images

It is facile to present this the moment is only a choice between culture and talent – nothing is that black-and-white – but it is partly a choice between culture and talent

Irving is better than Russell. The only questions are how much, and whether the talent gap justifies the culture shock. Russell's exact salary matters in answering.

I interviewed about 30 team executives, and there was almost universal agreement that at their respective maximum salaries – with Irving earning "only" $ 5.4 million more per season – swapping Russell for Irving is worth it even if Irving comes without a second star. But what if Russell can not find a max deal – or if the Nets leverage the extra year they can offer in a discount on the annual salary

A majority of the executives – about 75 percent – said that on talent alone Irving was still worth $ 8 million to $ 10 million more than Russell. But about half of those said if the gap gap widened to that level, concerns about chemistry would have been leaning toward sticking with Russell in scenarios that did not include Durant.

(Thought exercise: Where is Russell finding a mega deal the Nets pass The Bulls just drafted a point guard The Utah traded for one The Dallas has a point forward, intel on what the Mavs might do with their cap space is all over the place Orlando can open about $ 18 million in room only by The Suns will sign a veteran point guard, and Devin Booker has campaigned for Russell – a close friend, but other voices within the Suns may not share Booker's unabashed enthusiasm, sources say. about $ 14 million or so in cap space as of now.Will see how Phoenix approaches the point guard market.Indana will have a hole in the position if Darren Collison leaves, and they will look at lots of targets-including Russell. But they have so far fo cused on Ricky Rubio, sources have said.

(There is at least a kernel of truth to the Lakers' interest in a reunion, sources say, but L.A. has a lot to sort out. Russell fits the Knicks' timeline in case they strike out on bigger fish, but all indications are that New York will pursue short-term deals in that scenario, sources say. The Minnesota Timberwolves' pathway to a Russell deal is dark.

Russell-or-Irving is likely to be a discussion only because Caris LeVert suffered a gruesome-looking foot injury in November and missed three months. Before that injury, Levert looked like Brooklyn's best player and long-term cornerstone. It was LeVert receiving a fringe All-Star buzz.

With LeVert injured, Atkinson had no choice but to hand the offense to Russell. Russell's exerted degree of ownership was almost astonishing. Russell averaged 62 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. Only two players – Trae Young and Tony Parker – topped that figure. Only two other full-time starters cracked 50: Kemba Walker (55.8) and D.J. Augustin (50.9).

What Russell did with all those chances has become something of a Rorschach test. Brooklyn ranked 18th in points per possession and scored at about the same level whether Russell played or sat, per NBA.com data

Given the talent around him, that's not a bad result. Brooklyn provided decent spacing for Russell's pick-and-roll work, but the raw talent was underwhelming: a promising second-year rim runner in Jarrett Allen; an ace shooter in Joe Harris; and a combination of raw wings (LeVert, Crabbe, etc.); and a rotating cast of stretch power forwards who belonged to smaller reserve roles. Russell made real strides in that context. What would Russell do as he gains experience and the talent around him improves?

Russell's personal improvement came entirely into honing skills he was already good at while steering even further away from weaknesses. Only 17 percent of Russell's shots came within four feet of the rim, the lowest mark of his career – and one of the lowest among high-volume ball handlers, per Cleaning The Glass. He earned just three free throws per 36 minutes – tied for his career low

He redirected more offense into the midrange and floater zones. Russell is good at those shots. He hit 46 percent from both areas – elite numbers! The follow-up questions are how much better Russell can play this style and how far any team led by Russell playing this style can go. There is an upper bound on midrange shooting. The Nets can not expect Russell to hit 50 or 55 percent over any season. That's the reason why Brooklyn has chosen the status quo – Russell has to improve on other things

He did some of that last season. Russell drained and career-best 37 percent of his shots from deep; his ability to hit off-the-bounce 3-pointers bends opposing defenses. Irving can hit the same high-wire shots, and he has nailed at least 39 percent from his six seasons.

Russell's crafty old-man game has grown craftier. He is a great hit-ahead passer in transition. He is a great hit-ahead passer in transition. He has shown a knack for flinging the crosscourt lasers that catch the defenders leaning the wrong way:

But there is a meaningful gap in explosiveness and athleticism between Russell and Irving. Russell just does not get to the basket, and his trepidation deprives the Nets of some profitable scoring chances – even when avenues to those chances are staring them in the face

Look how much daylight Russell has behind and in front of him :

An off-the-bounce midanger out of that – even an open one – is a win for the defense. Russell's game stood in a score-first direction last season. That was somewhat out of necessity, but his passing was not as good as it should have been. That's one way for Russell to improve without going overboard changing his shot selection. Better passing organically leads to better shots – for the passer and his teammates.

Russell's careful, crisscrossing guile can work against him when it amounts to overthinking.

In his first playoff appearance, against Philadelphia 76ers, Russell faced a smart, huge, dialed-in defense that game-planned for him – and assigned Ben Simmons to smother him. Russell shot 36 percent and averaged just 3.5 assists per game. That five-game loss is a teensy sample. But it is a data point. It was Russell's first taste of life as a No. 1 option in the playoffs.

If you do not fear your penetration, they can stick closer to the shooters; those same crosscourt lasers can not catch help defenders leaning the wrong way if they never lean at all:

Russell has decent straight-line speed – he flashes it so rarely that it almost stuns you – but even when he hits

Irving produced 1.08 points per possession any time he shot after a drive or kicked into a teammate who fired right away – 30th among 265 players who recorded at least 100 drives, per Second Spectrum research . (1969), Russell averaged 0.97 points on such plays – 124th.

Russell averaged 0.97 points on such plays – 124th. He blew by defenders on just 12 percent of drives – 232nd among that 265-player sample. He can not exploit switches with the same cruel efficiency as most top-line point guards. Irving recorded blow-bys on nearly 25 percent of his drives – a huge rate for a ball-dominant player.

The Nets can sign Irving solo without losing LeVert, Harris, Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie or any other core young player aside from Russell. In theory, they could keep Russell alongside Irving; sliding Russell into a secondary role would nudge him into more catch-and-shoot 3s. But that non-solution could irritate both players. (Signing Durant without Irving would rush Russell in the same direction, but that seems unlikely in the wake of Durant's injury.) The Irving-Russell backcourt would bleed points on defense

Without a second star, the Nets could roll their cap space over and sell Irving-plus-youth core to the next classes of free agents and disgruntled superstars. Of course, they could pass on Irving and sell their current core – with a re-signed Russell – the same way. (19659002) Another non-Irving / Durant alternative: Re-sign Russell and use the Durant slot for a second -tier free agent – perhaps Tobias Harris, who fills an urgent need at power forward. That's a good team! It would cost less, and if the Nets inked either player at below the max, the gap could matter.

Can it become a great team? You can not rule it out, especially with LeVert having reemerged in the postseason as an efficient 20-point scorer. But Irving bumps up the chances of reaching greatness. Irving and a mostly recovered Durant bump them up even more in the 2020-21 season. Nets will not risk getting caught in "pretty good" status

These types of pay-cap and free-agency windows do not open all that often. Levert is already eligible for a big-money extension on June 30. (Prince is too.) Next summer's free-agency class is lighter on stars. It could be a few years before the next group of game-changing 30-and-younger superstars hits unrestricted free agency.

A smart team can act boldly in the present and have faith it can sort out the future later if things go poorly. Irving on a max deal through his prime should be movable. Brooklyn has no bad contracts. The Nets are pick-neutral going forward.

And things might go badly. Irving has left bad vibes with two franchises. But if he signs up with the Nets, he will never be able to bellyache about anyone else determining his destiny for him. He will be closer to the family. He will have access to a cutting-edge sports science team. (Irving has a history of knee issues.) And he will have to know on some level that alienating a third franchise will deal with a fatal blow to whatever is left of his reputation

Almost no one inside the league thinks this is an easy decision. The Nets could talk in either direction. But the bet is that if Irving wants to come, the Nets will sign him – with or without Durant – and figure out the rest later

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