Kyrie or Russell: The Nets Have a Decision To Make
On June 23rd, 2017 Sean Marks and the Nets traded franchise center Brook Lopez along with the 27th pick in the NBA Draft to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nets had been trying to trade Lopez for a while, as the effects from the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade were being felt hard. Lopez was the last piece remaining from the failed 2013 super team, as Pierce found his way to Washington, Garnett was traded to Minnesota, Williams was bought out and Johnson left the team in free agency. Lopez left the team, marking the end of an era that contained the Nets franchise leader in points, two playoff trips and an All Star appearance.
In exchange for both Lopez and pick 27, the Brooklyn Nets received the second overall pick of the 2015 NBA Draft D’Angelo Russell, along with Timofey Mozgov. It was a controversial move at the time, as Russell was recently outed by him teammates for posting a video to social media of his teammate Nick Young. In his time with the Lakers, Russell did not live up to the expectations of being a top pick in the draft from Ohio State. In his first two seasons in L.A., Russell averaged 14.3 PPG and 4.0 AST on 40% shooting. Their President of Basketball Operations at the time, Magic Johnson, was impatient with the young guard, trading him to Brooklyn and selecting Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick in 2017.
GM Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson were beginning their second year in control of the Nets, promising a culture change, and guard D’Angelo Russell was going to be the face of the turnaround. The Nets were at rock bottom when Marks took over in Brooklyn, with the team having no picks and little talent to work with. The Nets were the laughing stock of the NBA, but the lack of resources didn’t phase the Nets, and the rebuild begun.
In his first season in Brooklyn, Russell suffered a knee injury, which required surgery leading to Russell being absent for 34 games. In addition to the injury, Russell didn’t show much improvement on the court, having a similar statline to his second year with the Lakers. Fans were questioning whether or not we will ever see the player we saw at Ohio State, if Russell could ever turn into anything more than a serviceable starter.
2018 was going to be a prove it year for Russell, it was make-or-break for the young guard with this being the last year on his rookie contract. Nobody knew what to expect in his second year working with Kenny Atkinson, as Russell has shown flashes in prior seasons, yet he’s never been consistent. In his first 13 games of the season, Russell was averaging the same 15 PPG he’s been putting up the previous two seasons, and his shooting hadn’t improved.
All of the sudden, Caris LeVert, the most talked about player on the Nets at the time, went down with a serious injury. The Nets were left out to dry without Caris, who emerged as a leader through the team’s first 13 games. The next couple weeks of the season were rough for Brooklyn, losing 10 of 12 games. All of the sudden, something changed as the Nets held a players only meeting. The next game, the Nets came out at home to take down the Toronto Raptors in overtime, lead by Russell’s game high 29 points.
From that point on, Russell broke out, becoming the leader Brooklyn desperately needed. The Nets won 9 of their next 10 games, and improved from 8-18 to go 42-40 on the season, the Nets best finish in a season since 2014. From the time of the players only meeting to the end of the season, Russell went on to average 22.6 PPG, 7.5 AST and shooting 44% from the field.
Russell went on to earn an All-Star appearance, gain consistency in his performances and lead the Nets to the playoffs. In addition, Russell is going to be in the top three of the voting for most improved player. It was a marvelous season for Russell, gaining praise around the league from players such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Perhaps his greatest performance was dropping a career high 44 points coming back from a 25 point 4th quarter deficit in Sacramento.
Brooklyn’s turnaround from the worst of the worst to a playoff team with one of the best young cores in the league is lead by D’Angelo Russell. All his teammates and coaches talk about is his maturity, how he bought into the culture in Brooklyn and became an All-Star.
Now, with a new culture and one of the most respected front offices in the league, Brooklyn has become a prime free agent destination. Specifically, All-Star and NBA champion Kyrie Irving has been linked to having mutual interest with the Brooklyn Nets. This is where the debate begins, should the Nets stick by Russell, the player who has been the face of this turnaround, or should they let him go and bring in the more proven All-Star in Kyrie Irving.
Starting with Irving, he led the Boston Celtics to a four seed this season, which sounds great but considering Boston was the number one seed last year, it’s not as impressive. The Celtics did sweep their way into the second round taking down the Pacers, but the Milwaukee Bucks were too much to handle for Kyrie and the Celtics. This season, Irving averaged 23.8 PPG, 6.9 AST on 48% shooting, and had 1.5 STL. Kyrie is a six time All-Star in eight NBA seasons, and won a ring with the Cavs in 2016.
The case for Kyrie cannot be made without mentioning his relationship with Kevin Durant. Just last week Adrian Wojnarowski said that if KD and Kyrie plan to team up, Brooklyn could very well be a destination. It’s also worth mentioning Durant will miss the 2019-20 season with a ruptured achilles.
There are a few knocks on Kyrie, one being that he’s missed 76 games the past four seasons combined. However, when he does play, Irving is efficient and an All-Star. There are questions about his leadership, but if you have the opportunity to bring in a player on a hall of fame pace like Kyrie Irving, you should do it, right?
Well, maybe not when you have a player like D’Angelo Russell. It’s difficult to tell how much Russell can improve off an All-Star season. Under Marks and Atkinson, the Nets have transformed into a more than respectable organization, and Russell is the face of it. Are the Nets ok throwing all of that away, abandoning what they’ve created just to bring in the better player?
First off, if the Nets are serious about winning, and that’s what matters, Irving is the obvious choice. He’s more experienced, he has better stats, he’s a champion and an All-Star. If the Nets are serious about their culture, and that the players matter more than anything, I think the choice has to be Russell. As weird as it sounds to pass on a player like Irving, sticking with Russell would show a lot about how much Marks and the coaching staff believe in Russell, and where they can bring this team.
Of course, there is the possibility of pairing up Russell and Irving, but with that comes questions. Russell and Kyrie are two ball dominant guards, and considering the Nets already have Dinwiddie and LeVert, having four players who need the ball in their hands doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Nets would be investing upwards of $55M per year in these two players, and with the Nets having a weakness at the forward position, adding a guard wouldn’t help.
If anyone could make a Kyrie Irving/D’Angelo Russell pairing work, it would be Kenny Atkinson. The Nets would most likely hope for a Lillard/McCollum or Wall/Beal scenario if Russell can improve in his fifth year.
No matter what the Nets do, Irving or not, Nets fans shouldn’t be worried, as Sean Marks has proven he is one of the best GMs in the NBA.