It is a common refrain that teams do not make deals during the NBA Finals. A refrain myself, and many others, have expressed.
Not the Nets and Hawks!
The terms of “the trade” have been reported by Adrian Wojnarowski, and supplemented by Zach Lowe. They are as follows:
-Hawks get: Allen Crabbe, Nets 2019 first rounder at 17, and Nets 2020 first rounder, lottery protected. If the pick falls in the lottery, the protection rolls into 2021, and then into 2022. If it rolls as far as 2023, then the pick becomes two second rounders
-Nets get: Taurean Prince, Hawks 2021 second round pick
Purely in a vacuum (meaning, just the parts of the deal), the Nets, of course, do not “win” the trade. Two first round picks – one in the middle of the first round, and another likely to fall in the 17-25 range, are worth more than Taurean Prince to a team not contending for a championship (which is where the Nets are, as of today).
Alas, to state the obvious, the Nets did not make this deal in a vacuum. They made it to pursue the top free agents on the market. Before this trade, the Nets, if they renounced every free agent except D’Angelo Russell, had $30.3 million in cap space. The number now? $47.3 million, with Crabbe’s salary, and the cap hold for the 17th pick, being replaced by Prince’s salary, and one additional incomplete roster charge added to the mix (2 pieces in, 1 piece out).
At $47.3 million in space, the Nets have sufficient cap room to sign Kevin Durant ($38,150,000 is his max), or any other max free agent (the max for the others is $32,700,000). If the Nets were to renounce Russell, they would have $68.3 million in room, — in excess of the $65.4 million needed to sign two max players not including Durant, although just shy of the $70.85 million necessary to sign Durant and a second max player. Nevertheless, with a gap that tiny, the Durant/”second max” scenario could easily be achieved by dumping a smaller piece.
The million dollar question? Will this trade work out for the Nets? That depends on one thing: do they connect on their max targets, or not.
As I wrote on Netsdaily.com, I was opposed to trading Crabbe before July 1. My concern? That he would be traded at a loss, that the trade would only become a win (albeit a massive one) if the Nets connected in free agency in July, and that, with a deal being done in June, whether the Nets would indeed connect in July would be uncertain at the time of the deal.
I still hold this concern because, as I stated, this trade is a negative in a vacuum, and only converted into a positive through a major free agency or trade haul for a star.
Sean Marks, certainly, has taken a big risk here. If the Nets do not connect in free agency, they will, combining the Timofey Mozgov deal with this one (that was a similar money dump for 2019 space) have traded two first round picks, and two second round picks, for nothing except Prince, and the ability to sign additional role players in 2019. With a weak 2020 free agency class, the Nets will have effectively boxed themselves into the middle of the standings, barring a superstar leap from Russell or Caris LeVert, or a superstar acquisition with a non lottery pick.
That would be a deserved black eye on Marks’ resume. And that Marks chose to acquire Crabbe would magnify said black eye (Andrew Nicholson, if stretched this year, would make close to what Prince will in 2019-2020 — Marks’ Crabbe acquisition is what necessitated this deal with Atlanta in the interests of max cap space. Mozgov was acquired as the price to get Russell, so Marks cannot be criticized for acquiring him).
As a result, if the Nets strike out on all the big summer catches, then the Nets will have had a bad summer. A bad summer that would genuinely call into question whether the Nets should have pursued a rebuild through the middle, or whether loading up on high end draft assets these three years and tanking in 2019, with their pick, was wiser. There is no way around that.
With that said, there is more to the deal — if the Nets connect, rather than strike out, then they will have had a PHENOMENAL summer. A summer that could transform the franchise into a powerhouse. A summer that could make this Nets rebuild an example for teams to follow, for years to come.
To start that analysis, it should be noted that Marks has taken steps, at the outset, to mitigate the damage if the Nets strike out. For starters, Marks paid a lower price to get rid of Crabbe than I suspected. My sense of the situation was that a young asset or two would be relinquished, with nothing in return except cap space. The Nets, in lottery protecting the 2020 pick being conveyed, ensured that they would not lose a lottery pick, or established young player, in dealing Crabbe. I worried that they could lose just that. While Mozgov was dealt for less, the Nets’ eating Dwight Howard got Charlotte under the tax, which caused a decrease in asset price and made the asset price, in a sense, incomparable. No such deal was available this go round.
In addition, and as another positive, the Nets gain Prince — as opposed to dealing for a piece like JR Smith only to cut him moments later. Prince can play. He has been somewhat up and down in his career, but has shown some flashes of being a strong wing. He has shot over 38.5% from 3 over the past two seasons. He has shown he can play good defense, in spurts. He is rangy. He got better as the season progressed, fitting in as a valuable piece around Trae Young. To date, Prince has not shown he can be a consistently reliable playoff rotation player. But he has all the tools to be that player – the type of rangy, athletic wing who can shoot the 3 and guard multiple positions on the other end. Teams need as many of those players as they can grab in the modern NBA. If he puts it together, he can be a very valuable role player for the Nets. Kenny Atkinson has specialized at taking talents like Prince, and molding them into what he needs. There is genuine hope that Prince can become a critical cog for the Nets — long term.
Prince, it also must be noted, affects this trade in another positive way. Yes, if the Nets strike out, it would be preferable to have the first round picks, than to have Prince. In that instance, as many shots at high end talent as possible beats a non star rotation player. But if they connect, and are a contender in 2019-2020, having Prince — and all he can provide as a strong defender and 3 point shooter at the wing in the playoffs — beats having the first round picks.
Another mitigating factor here? The Nets, while depleting their assets a touch, may still trade their 2019 27 pick, the protected portion of their 2020 pick (15-30), and all their future picks, because the Stepien Rule only applies looking ahead. Their ability to be in play for Anthony Davis and other trade targets (if desired) is only slightly altered by this deal.
The final, and largest, mitigating factor here — that part of becoming a great GM is taking risks, and those risks paying off. This trade could be a precursor to Sean Marks building a powerhouse in Brooklyn. Pat Riley took a risk in 2010 throwing assets in Biscayne Bay for a shot at the Heatles. Danny Ainge took a risk dealing for Ray Allen in the hopes it would get Kevin Garnett to say yes. Masai Ujiri took a chance on Kawhi Leonard, Sam Presti on Paul George.
If this risk works — if Marks is able to use his newfound cap space to lure a superstar to Brooklyn; or to lure two? Then Marks immediately puts himself in the conversation for executive of the year. He steps up from a GM who has shown good qualities and can martial a rebuild, into the rarified air of the best GM’s in the sport. The GM’s who have constructed title contenders – the Daryl Morey’s, the Ujiri’s, the Presti’s. It takes this rebuild and makes it not just a fun, feel good story, but a model for how teams should rebuild in the future.
Marks constructing a title contender from ash in four years? That would make the Nets one of the NBA’s preeminent organizations.
As for the “concern” that the Nets could be looking at a payroll with two max players, LeVert and Prince on extensions, and some combination of Russell, Dinwiddie, Harris, and trade targets on big money deals in 2020? If you want to win big, you have to spend big. And Mikhail Prokhorov and Joe Tsai have quiet the checkbook.
A rebuild, a GM, an organization, ultimately gets judged on its most significant transactions. How well you do in your largest moves, the moves that chart your course for years to come, defines whether you are successful or not, and to what degree. That matters way more than counting individual good and bad moves in a vacuum.
Marks, in mortgaging multiple future assets to open a massive amount of 2019 cap space, has just made, arguably, the biggest move of his Nets tenure. It could result in the Nets having 2 superstars, and the league’s best role players foaming at the mouth to play for them. It also, if they strike out, could result in the Nets being stuck in the middle, faced with hoping that a non lottery pick, D’Angelo Russell, or Caris LeVert evolves into a tentpole superstar around which a title contender can be constructed.
How the next 35 days go will define this Nets rebuild, and Marks tenure in Brooklyn.