After trading away two first-round picks to the Atlanta Hawks in order to dump the contract of Allen Crabbe, the Brooklyn Nets have seemingly gone all in on this offseason after creating 2 max contract slots. The move came right off the heels of reports that Kyrie Irving will be taking the Nets very seriously during free agency, and now Brooklyn is in position to bring him on board along with potentially another superstar. However, committing to Irving may signal that they are willing to let go of their current all-star point guard, D’Angelo Russell. Does this direction make sense for the franchise?
The Rise of Russell
One of the main reasons D’Angelo Russell burst on to the scene this past season was because of the role that was created for him. On January 26th it was announced that Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn’s sixth man and one of the squad’s main playmakers, would miss 3 to 6 weeks after undergoing surgery on his right thumb. In his absence, a huge void of scoring and passing had to be made up for in order for the team to keep its postseason dreams alive. With that being the case, Russell’s usage rate rose from 28.9% up to 33.4%, putting him in a tie with Joel Embiid for the second highest rate in the league. Could D’Angelo’s production rise when the Nets became more reliant on him?
It certainly did. Russell took full advantage of the opportunity, raising his scoring average from 19.2 points per game to 24.1, signaling that he can handle the role of a go-to scoring option. With the rise in usage rate, the ball was in Russell’s hands more than ever, but that didn’t mean he was getting in the way of his teammates since his assist numbers also took a jump from 6.4 to 7.8 per game. In fact, D’Angelo rose to the occasion of being the team’s primary facilitator as well, with his Assist% (percentage of teammates made field goals he assisted on while he was on the court) increasing from 36.2% to 43.8%, trailing on Russell Westbrook during this stretch. As a result, the Nets became much more productive on the offensive end while Russell was on the court, as the team scored 6.8 more points per 100 possessions with him out there, which led the team in on/off court individual offense rating.
Dependable in the Clutch
By taking on this primary role on offense, the Nets became even more reliant on Russell’s production when it mattered most. During clutch moments (when the point differential is 5 or less during the last 5 minutes of a game), D’Angelo received an even more dramatic uptick in usage rate, taking the jump from 29.6% all the way to 38% after the above-mentioned Dinwiddie injury. The results again did not disappoint, as his clutch player impact estimate jumped from 10.5 to 21.5, putting himself in the same tier for the season averages of the likes of the other all-star guards from this past season.
Additionally, while Russell is not perennially known for his defensive abilities, he has a way of locking down his man when it matters most. His season average individual defensive rating of 107.6 drops all the way down to 95.5 in clutch moments, which very much shows the signs of a player willing to do whatever it takes to win. With the ability to facilitate offense and taking over games when it matters most, D’Angelo Russell seems to have everything you want to see and more from a young point guard.
Comparison with Kyrie
This breakout stretch from D’Angelo Russell is so encouraging that it even makes the discussion between him and Kyrie Irving worth the time. And the results speak for themselves, as the numbers for D’Angelo highlighted above boast a very fair side by side comparison with Kyrie, even exceeding him when it comes to points, assists, assist%, normal and clutch usage rates, and clutch defensive ratings. These eerily similar numbers can make the case that Russell is on the same level as Irving right now, but people are forgetting that Russell was just 22 years old this past season! With that being the case, I went ahead and compared Russell’s numbers now to Kyrie’s back when he was 22, and the similarities are even more striking. Could D’Angelo be a young Kyrie? Their total season averages across the board give strong indications of that answer being yes:
Why Not Sign Both?
With such promising numbers from Russell, why wouldn’t the Nets consider bringing both of these guys on board for next season? While the offensive potential from this backcourt is enticing, it would take some time for them to adjust to each other’s games. Given their high usage rates, it’s clear that both players thrive when the ball is in their hands, meaning that there will have to be some sacrifices made by one or both of them. The same goes for in clutch time, with both of these players used to being the go-to guy when it matters most, and who knows how each of them will feel when the final play isn’t called for him.
On the other end of the court, this pairing would make little to no sense. Even though both players showed tendencies to raise their defensive efforts when the game was on the line, their defensive production was not ideal during the rest of the game as both players defensive ratings (107.6 for Russell and 106.4 for Irving) were below average on their respective teams. And while the coaching staffs of Brooklyn and Boston were able to hide their flaws in their overall defensive scheme, that job becomes a whole lot harder when you have two defensive liabilities out on the court and not just one. With all of that being said, it seems as the Nets would be better off if they choose between the two all-star guards rather than rolling the dice with both.
What Should Brooklyn Do?
After betting big on this offseason, the Brooklyn Nets are going to face some franchise-altering decisions, but none of them will be bigger than the choice they make between D’Angelo Russell and Kyrie Irving. Given the stats above, sticking with Russell makes the most sense. By keeping Russell and turning down the chance at Kyrie, the Nets can use their remaining cap space to fill other holes in their roster on the wing and frontcourt, and this free agency class has many candidates (i.e Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, etc.) that can do just that. At the same time, D’Angelo can continue to develop into the true leader of this franchise, and after pushing the Nets to NBA relevancy, he can take center stage as they take the next step towards being a true contending force in the eastern conference.