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June 06, 2019

Nets-Hawks salary-related trade has potential ramifications for Sixers summer

On the surface, the Brooklyn Nets exchanging Allen Crabbe and picks for Taurean Prince and picks with the Atlanta Hawks is not a huge deal. One guy is on a bloated contract, the other is a young player with a reputation that has so far outstripped his on-court production. As far as the Sixers are concerned, there's not much to analyze.

For those of you who are terribly interested in the particulars, a quick summary based on the reported details from Adrian Wojnarowski:

BKN gets: Taurean Prince (owed $3.5 million next season), 2021 second-round pick 

ATL gets: Allen Crabbe (owed $18.5 million next season), No. 17 pick in 2019 Draft, BKN 2020 1st (protected 1-14)

While this swap doesn't mean much on the court, Thursday afternoon's trade has potential ramifications not just for the Sixers, but the entire free agent market this summer.

Another spot to pair stars

Over the last week or so, Brooklyn has picked up steam as a potential destination for Kyrie Irving, according to numerous reports from people in the know. Until now, the Knicks were the New York team able to offer two max slots, so the prospect of Irving going to Brooklyn was not all that intimidating unless you're a huge believer in Brooklyn's young talent. A Boston team with better supporting talent imploded with Irving steering the ship this past season.

But by offloading Crabbe's contract onto a rebuilding Atlanta team, the Nets have positioned themselves to potentially have two max slots available this summer, which they can theoretically use to lure a pair of in-their-prime stars to Brooklyn.

The dream, as reported by Wojnarowski, would be for Brooklyn to pair Irving with Golden State's Kevin Durant. If those two are dead set on playing with one another, some would point out that it doesn't really matter which New York team they choose to suit up for. 

I would disagree — ending up in Brooklyn seems like a far scarier prospect for the rest of the league, given what we have seen management do there with little at their disposal. GM Sean Marks has aced the rebuilding part of the program building despite the previous regime making one of the worst trades in the history of the NBA. Irving and Durant are scary on their own and could win with either New York team, but they have the potential to hit higher highs with competent management behind them. The track record of Knicks owner James Dolan is, well, a little more mixed.

Set aside the ramifications for rest of the free agent market for a second, and consider a division that potentially features Durant and Irving on one team, a potential title-winner in Toronto with Kawhi Leonard, a growing Celtics team with a good GM, a Knicks team that will likely bag a free agent or two of their own even if Brooklyn gets their dream scenario, and the Sixers. Before you even get to the rest of the East, that's a lot of talent concentrated in one area.

Factor in the Milwaukee Bucks and to a lesser extent the Indiana Pacers, and suddenly there is a lot of jostling for seeding in the East. The Sixers have proven capable of making it into the top half of the East without too much discomfort the last two seasons, but the fight for homecourt could get even stiffer if even one more elite player moves to the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia's win-now moves last season were driven by the idea that they weren't far away from winning it all. I tend to agree with that idea, even if I would quibble on components of deals they made, and the Sixers can't run scared of other teams based on what might happen. They have major talent, and other teams will have to respond to that, too.

But if a still-dominant Durant pairs up with another star in the East, Philadelphia's quest to win now gets more complicated. And if they can't cash in after investing a ton of money to win and win big in the immediate future, all of a sudden you're looking down the road, when Jimmy Butler will be cycling out of his prime and competitors elsewhere (Giannis Antetokounmpo, as one example) will be growing into theirs.

Speaking of Butler...

The buyer list grows, and supply hasn't changed

Yes, the Nets were going to be in the free agent hunt regardless. They are part of the reason Butler and Tobias Harris' Philadelphia futures are not set in stone, and that was true before Thursday's trade.

But as money opens up, the free agency game changes. Operating on an assumption that one of the New York teams gets that Durant/Irving combo — and that's a big assumption — you're still left with another team in a major market with two open max slots. If they strike out on their Plan A, it's not going to shock anyone if Brooklyn or the Knicks or the Clippers or the Lakers come knocking on the door of guys like Butler or Harris.

It's probably especially impactful for the Harris market because max money seemed a little less set in stone than it did for Butler a few months ago. He doesn't have the same credentials or history of production in big moments. But with more teams desperate to fill big holes on their roster and in their cap sheet, it's hard to stare down Harris and cut the price of his contract down without risking losing him. Teams will strike out on on the big fish and still want to offer something shiny and new to their fanbase.

Even if the Sixers do offer him the max, no questions asked, maybe the Long Island native decides pairing up with another star near home is the preferable option. Maybe Butler decides that, for that matter. By opening up another max slot, there is an ability to team up with another high-level player that wasn't there before, and now that exists on several different teams who will compete for free agents this summer.

The Sixers' case is still very simple — they can offer the most money and years to their free agents, and they can offer familiarity and high-level talent to play alongside. Leaving for a more uncertain option is not necessarily the better option.

But this is another complicating factor in Philadelphia's quest to lock down their core and compete moving forward. The more money that is available for the players in the offseason, the tighter their pitch has to be. Joshua Harris better be prepared to leave the vault door ajar. 

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