What Are the Nets Going to Do With D'Angelo Russell?
Brooklyn's winning streak has aligned with the best basketball of Russell's career, but what does it mean for his future with the team?
Photo by Peter Foley/EPA-EFE
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I’ve hesitated to write this section for a few weeks but can now say with pseudo-confidence that D’Angelo Russell is not bad. After they dropped approximately 193 straight games on the last possession, the Brooklyn Nets somehow own the longest winning streak in the NBA (seven in a row!). Since it began, Russell is a team-high +53, averaging 18 points and eight assists, with 47.3/39.0/100 shooting splits. He's quarterbacking picture-perfect pick-and-rolls, drilling step-back threes, and, in spurts, taking over games.
Not all is gravy, though. Russell’s only attempted three free throws, still can’t finish around the rim, and, in the last seven games plus the entire season before that, Brooklyn’s offense is insanely worse when he shares the floor with Spencer Dinwiddie, who just signed a three-year, $34 million extension with the team. On the other end, even though Brooklyn’s defense has been decent when Russell is on the court and really bad when he sits, he still has miles to go. Russell has a bad habit off the ball of worrying more about his man than basic help concepts; he positions himself as if scouting reports don’t exist. Seen below: Kris Dunn is a career 30.6 percent three-point shooter. Why let him space the floor?
But the good is finally outweighing the bad at the exact right time. Russell is a restricted free agent this summer. He turns 23 in February and consistently exhibits the playmaking intuition that convinced the Los Angeles Lakers to select him second overall. Right now he has the same usage rate as Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan, a top-ten assist percentage, has made more threes than Bradley Beal and Kyrie Irving, and ranks 22nd in offensive Real Plus-Minus (13th among point guards). Turnovers are an issue, but Russell is steadily maturing as a lead ball-handler who can get to his spots, leverage his size, and take what the game gives him. It’s hard not to be seduced by his patience, or the way he moves back-line defenders with his eyes. Even in big spots against good defenses, the guy looks extremely comfortable right now.
Assuming Allen Crabbe opts into his $18.5 million player option, the Nets should still be able to open up one (second-tier) max slot with Russell’s $21 million cap hold on their books if they renounce all their other free agents (including the useful veterans and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who really can’t shoot but is the only player on this roster strong/big/quick enough to bother Durant, Kawhi, LeBron, Giannis, etc.).
From there, signing Russell to a deal that’s similar in length but greater in worth to the one they just gave Dinwiddie makes sense. (Just throwing this out there, but $50 million over three years seems fair?) Trading him before the deadline is unlikely for a team that wants to (and can) make the playoffs, and losing him for nothing wouldn't be ideal, considering that contract would be a trade chip and, again, Russell is only 22 years old. Cap space is nice, but Brooklyn's front office didn't look bullish on their chances of landing a star when they let Dinwiddie's extension cut into their room. If the Nets don’t land a meaningful free agent, re-signing Russell lets them see what that backcourt can do alongside Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen without too much overlap between their looming paydays. (LeVert and Allen hit restricted free agency in 2021 and 2022, respectively.)
It may very well be that LeVert and Allen are the only two players on today’s team who’re still around when Brooklyn wins its next playoff series. It's also possible that the foursome's collective internal growth pushes them further much sooner than anticipated. (Again: Worst-case scenario, Dinwiddie’s actual contract and the hypothetical agreement with Russell can be trade assets best viewed as a bridge to whatever era is next. Maybe their third contracts are with Brooklyn, but locking everybody in probably won’t translate to the type of ceiling they want, anyway.)
If Russell receives an outrageous four-year offer this summer, be it from Phoenix (he’s good friends with Devin Booker), Orlando (rubs chin), or a surprising suitor (Indiana?), Brooklyn can sleep well with what it already has and not feel any pressure to match. They can keep a few useful cap holds on the books and still shop around for Russell's replacement. But if Russell gets squeezed—as most restricted free agents are—then Sean Marks should extend a generous but short contract, one that limits their risk while letting the club watch Russell develop in their system for another couple years. His recent play deserves that much.