If you thought the NBA’s transaction season could wait until after the Finals, well, you thought wrong. The Nets effectively declared themselves part of the fray as free agency approaches, moving veteran guard Allen Crabbe and the $18.5 million left on the final year of his contract to the Hawks, attaching the No. 17 pick in this year’s draft and lottery-protected 2020 first to incentivize Atlanta, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Hawks will send forward Taurean Prince and an unprotected 2021 second-rounder to the Nets in return, and now own six picks (three in the top-20) in this month’s draft.
While the deal has few immediate on-court surface implications, it’s a significant domino and statement of confidence on the part of Brooklyn, who are now prepared to go all-in on a free agent class that’s expected to be headlined by Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. It’s a shrewd bit of maneuvering by the Hawks, who have done well gathering assets and building for the future over the past couple seasons. Let’s break it all down.
The Nets didn’t fall backwards into the chance to net not one, but two max-caliber free agent this summers. Years of operating carefully and drafting well under GM Sean Marks has left Brooklyn with a strong collection of young players already on the roster, and propelled them back into the playoffs this season in a way that has to be taken seriously. By offloading Crabbe, they can now create enough cap room to sign one max player; if they choose to let restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell depart, they can create two max slots, while also retaining quality players like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris to round out the roster.
The takeaway here: Brooklyn has become a viable win-now situation for elite talent, and is doubling down. Wojnarowski also reported that the Nets are a serious option for Kyrie Irving, whose future has been trending away from the Celtics. Brooklyn can now come to the table more seriously in potential meetings with Durant and Leonard. They have also been mentioned as a suitor for Anthony Davis, although that option would have to involve trading much of their current talent as a baseline, and the Nets just dealt away their flexibility in terms of future draft assets (the earliest first-rounder they could send out would be 2022).
As far as Russell is concerned, it’s early to call, and the Nets can match any offer, but other teams will undoubtedly believe they can pry him away with a big enough offer sheet, gambling on Brooklyn’s desire to pair two stars. The former Lakers castoff just made his first All-Star team at age 23, and emerged as the team’s best player. He’s certainly not a natural fit with Irving, but the Nets still benefit from going into the off-season with Russell as a bird in hand, as they can match any offer.
Regardless, it’s an inarguably grand statement of intent from the Nets, particularly with the rival Knicks also readying to court the same star players, with two max slots in hand. The Clippers and Lakers will also make themselves destinations. The Nets are going to be in that mix, and be able to offer a seriously attractive situation on and off the court. They still hold the 27th pick in this year’s draft, and with so many recent draftees on the roster already, giving up 17 and the 2020 first is a relatively small price to pay, provided Brooklyn doesn’t strike out this summer. With an apology for the lazy metaphor, it’s not quite a home run, but they just loaded the bases.
This is exactly the type of deal the Hawks should have been looking to make, knowing that cap space was their greatest operational asset going into the summer, and still looking long-term as they assemble their team around 20-year-old Trae Young. Atlanta now holds a league-high six draft picks: Nos. 8, 10, 17, 35, 41 and 44, and will be flexible actors over the course of the next two weeks. The 25-year-old Prince was extension-eligible this summer, but may not have been the right long-term investment anyhow, and the Hawks are well-positioned to fill the small forward position in the early part of the draft.
Coming into this week, the Hawks were thought likely to make a deal or two going into the draft—they won’t roster five or six rookies next season anyway, and as Wojnarowski reported, they’d been looking to potentially deal the 10th pick and keep No. 8 for themselves. This trade now allows them to more feasibly move upward in the draft if they choose. Atlanta has frequently been tied to three top-10 prospects: Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, and rather than wait for whichever one fell to the eighth pick, they should have a viable pathway to moving up and picking the one they prefer. The Cavaliers, who hold the No. 5 pick, would be natural trade partners, with at least two of those players likely to be available at that spot, and with Cleveland continuing to compile long-term draft capital as they rebuild.
The thought around the league as of this morning was that Atlanta was instead looking to move upward in the draft, and this trade facilitates that. The Hawks conceivably have enough ammunition to move up as high as the Knicks’ and Lakers’ selection at three and four, although at this stage, both selections are valuable trade assets for New York and L.A. to offer in packages for star players. It would be hard to see either team parting with either pick prematurely until there’s more clarity with New Orleans and Anthony Davis, who continues to seek a trade away from the Pelicans.
There’s really not much downside to this deal for the Hawks, who will and should be happy taking on other teams’ bad money to further their future prospects. Crabbe, 27, has just a year left on his deal, and will give them additional shooting on the wing and have immediate functionality. What will be more fascinating is seeing what Atlanta and Travis Schlenk opt to do with all their picks. It’s not a bad problem to have.