Russell in limbo as Nets chase ‘big fish’
Brooklyn’s lone All-Star waiting for franchise to make moves
There is perhaps no better example of the Nets’ patient approach to building a winner here in Downtown Brooklyn than D’Angelo Russell.
The previously enigmatic point guard matured greatly under the guidance of head coach Kenny Atkinson last year and has already paid off on general manager Sean Marks’ assessment that he was well worth trading for two summers ago.
Nevertheless, Russell is stuck in wait-and-see mode as the Nets’ brain trust busies itself with the upcoming June 20 NBA Draft at Downtown’s Barclays Center and what should be a frantic free-agent signing period, which officially kicks off on July 1.
“I definitely want to be here,” Russell said, still about a month away from entering restricted free-agent status.
“But I also know it’s a business.”
Russell, who turned 23 in February, went a long way toward making the Nets relevant in the Eastern Conference this past season.
He averaged just over 21 points and seven assists per contest to earn his first-ever NBA All-Star selection, albeit after Indiana’s Victor Oladipo was unable to participate in the festivities due to injury.
But more importantly, Russell, who was sent packing from Los Angeles to Brooklyn with some disparaging comments from former Lakers Team President Magic Johnson in the June 2017 swap that included Nets center Brook Lopez, emerged as the Nets’ undisputed floor leader this past season.
He helped Brooklyn return to the NBA playoffs for the first time in four years and spearheaded the charge to the franchise’s first winning season (42-40) in half a decade.
In other words, he was very good for the Nets’ “business”.
None of that, however, has secured Russell’s spot on the only roster he has claimed to want to be a part of this summer.
That’s because highly touted soon-to-be free agent guard Kyrie Irving is rumored to be interested in becoming a Net, and the team has also been mentioned in talks regarding the acquisition of New Orleans superstar center Anthony Davis via a potential sign-and-swap that could include Russell.
“I’m not going to play that role like I don’t know what could possibly happen,” Russell told the New York Daily News last week, admitting that several “big fish” would have to find homes before he can find his ultimate landing spot.
“Say somebody comes here that I have to be a part of [a trade to acquire them], I know that could be a possibility.”
The possibilities, of course, are endless this time of year.
With the NBA Finals in full swing, pending free agents like Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker, Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Tobias Harris, better known as the biggest of the big fish, are on several teams’ wish lists.
The Nets have the option of signing one of these stars and keeping Russell, but first they must seriously consider swapping Russell out for the capability of bringing two big-time free agents to Brooklyn.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith intimated Tuesday that Irving, who has been rumored to be headed to the New York Knicks alongside Durant this summer, is more likely to be playing on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues next season.
“[Brooklyn] is where he wants to go, not the New York Knicks,” Smith said.
Does the potential signing of Irving mean Russell will have to shop his talents elsewhere ahead of July 4 weekend?
Or does it simply mean that he and Irving will be Brooklyn’s one-two punch going forward?
Russell, who spent last weekend in Spain taking in the Champions League soccer final with teammate Joe Harris, doesn’t have an answer for that.
And Marks may not know either until he does his due diligence to consider every option available for a team that appears to be on the cusp of serious contention in the East.
“We’ll have decisions. D’Angelo is going to have decisions, too,” Marks readily ceded during his season-ending press conference at the team’s Sunset Park-based training facility following the Nets’ playoff elimination at the hands of the 76ers.
“That is a little bit of the nature of this business,” he added. “But at the end of the day, our job is to continue to put talent on the floor for Brooklyn.”
Marks has done that, thanks in large part to Atkinson’s mastery in the realm of player development.
Russell, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie are just three of the players the Nets have watched blossom into key pieces of the team’s foundation over the past several seasons.
But now the appeal of luring superstar talent for big-time money begs the question of whether Brooklyn can sustain what it has built, or continue to make strides, without unloading its best player from a season ago.
“I just want to stay in this moment and not speak too soon about anything,” Russell noted when asked about the possibility of being jettisoned from his second team in the past three seasons despite enjoying the best of his four NBA campaigns here in Brooklyn last year.
Though he won’t learn his fate any earlier than the next two weeks or so, when the Nets host the draft and perhaps find a way to pry Davis loose from New Orleans with two first-round picks, a second-rounder and maybe Russell as well, the Louisville, Kentucky native seems to understand his place in this ongoing drama.
“There are a lot of fish out there that need to find destinations,” he told the New York Post last week.
“So, whenever that time comes then I have decisions to make on my own, I think I’ll be well ready for it.”
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