Although the Nets no longer have to worry about their most important possible free agent, there’s still plenty of work to be done when NBA free agency opens Thursday at 6 p.m. ET.
Five of the eight other Brooklyn players who saw at least 10 minutes of action in the team’s first-round sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics can become free agents, including starters Bruce Brown and Andre Drummond.
How can the Nets, who also must incorporate newcomer Ben Simmons after his addition at the trade deadline, improve on last year’s team that had to battle through the play-in tournament just to get swept by the Celtics?
And what are Brooklyn’s options with Irving now that he is heading into the final season of the contract he signed in the summer of 2019? Let’s break things down for Brooklyn.
Kyrie is in — now what for the Nets?
Brooklyn will now have seven players under contract ahead of Wednesday’s option deadline, when both the team and another guard have decisions to make. The Nets have a choice on second-year forward Kessler Edwards, who would make the minimum salary if his option is exercised after Brooklyn replaced his two-way contract with a full NBA deal at the end of last regular season.
Meanwhile, Patty Mills must decide on a $6.2 million player option after signing a two-year deal with the Nets last summer. Whether Mills exercises his option shouldn’t necessarily be taken as showing his interest in returning. Brooklyn offered Mills the most money possible using the taxpayer midlevel exception last summer but would be able to give him a 20% raise this year using non-Bird rights if he becomes a free agent.
Brown will be an unrestricted free agent after signing for his qualifying offer last summer, when he was restricted. After his role fluctuated in the first half of the season, Brown thrived following the All-Star break, averaging 14.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists while making 47% of his 3-point attempts — not previously a strength. Given that Simmons mirrors some of Brown’s defensive strengths and previous weaknesses as an off-ball shooter, it will be interesting to see how much the Nets value re-signing Brown.
All four veteran Brooklyn centers will be free agents. Drummond, who started after being included in the deal bringing Simmons to the Nets, is unrestricted. Brooklyn would need to use the taxpayer midlevel exception to offer Drummond more than 120% of his minimum salary using non-Bird rights. Drummond emerged ahead of buyout pickups LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, whose value is diminishing at ages 37 (Aldridge, by the start of training camp) and 33 (Griffin). The Nets would probably be better served with younger options in those spots.
Those options include Nic Claxton, a restricted free agent at age 23 after three years in the league. Claxton was coach Steve Nash’s top option at center off the bench in the playoffs, averaging 10.5 points on 79% shooting and 6.3 rebounds in 24.5 minutes per game. Claxton’s ability to anchor a switch-heavy defense could make him a coveted player, forcing Brooklyn to give him a sizable raise after Claxton made the minimum on a deal signed as a second-round pick.
Lastly, veteran guard Goran Dragic will be an unrestricted free agent after joining the Nets via buyout in February. Dragic played well in the playoffs, but he might not have as large a role on next year’s team with Simmons (back) and Joe Harris (ankle) returning from injuries.
Nets have limited options for improvement
Despite all the free agents, Irving’s option will put Brooklyn over the projected 2022-23 luxury tax threshold entering free agency. That limits the Nets to using their $6.4 million taxpayer midlevel exception to add outside free agents — if they decide not to use it to re-sign Drummond.
After adding guard insurance with Mills last summer, Brooklyn would be wise to target 3-and-D role players with the midlevel this time around. Nicolas Batum of the LA Clippers and Otto Porter Jr. of the Golden State Warriors would be ideal fits who can complement Kevin Durant and Irving with their shooting, decision-making and defensive versatility.
T.J. Warren of the Indiana Pacers is another interesting option if the Nets are confident he’ll be healthy after missing all but four games of the past two seasons due to recurrent stress fractures in his left foot.
Surely, Brooklyn will explore the trade market, as well. If Mills returns, the Nets could try to deal from a surplus of quality shooters on the perimeter after adding Seth Curry in the Simmons trade to Harris, Irving and Mills. But Harris’ value is likely to be at a low point after ankle surgery ended his 2021-22 campaign in November, while Curry’s value salary ($8.5 million) would make it challenging to get a quality player at a position of more need in return.
Looming over all these decisions for the Brooklyn front office is whether ownership is willing to sign off on another massive tax bill. It was one thing for the Nets to go deep into the tax last summer, when they were favorites to win the championship. After an early playoff exit, Brooklyn might have to justify how much added salary can translate into a deep playoff run this time around.
Why a trade is still possible for Irving
By exercising his player option, Irving removes the most vexing scenario for the Nets: the possibility of him leaving for another team via free agency with them getting nothing in return.
There are, however, still plenty of ways the Irving-Brooklyn relationship could play out over the next year.
Irving could continue working with the Nets toward an agreeable long-term contract. As ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes, Irving is eligible for an extension through June 30, 2023, as a player in the final year of his contract. It’s possible the two sides could revisit negotiations during the season if Irving is healthy and productive.
Alternatively, Brooklyn could still trade him. In some ways, Irving exercising his option makes a trade easier than trying to find a mutually agreeable sign-and-trade deal if he became a free agent. Sign-and-trade restrictions would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for Irving to be traded to a taxpaying team like the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent.
In a worst-case scenario, where the Nets are ready to move on from Irving entirely by midseason, his expiring contract could allow them to take back longer-term deals from a team looking to create salary flexibility. For example, Brooklyn could send Irving to the Charlotte Hornets for Gordon Hayward, a move that would reduce the Nets’ tax bill this season but allow the Hornets to shed Hayward’s $31.5 million salary in 2023-24.
That’s the bad news for Brooklyn management on what should be a happy day: Irving exercising his player option doesn’t answer the questions about his future with the Nets; it just pushes them back a year — if that.