A small number of NBA teams have a decent chance to land a megastar in free agency, and the Brooklyn Nets are one of them. They are reportedly the frontrunner to sign Kyrie Irving, and they’re also in the running for Kevin Durant.
Yes, General Manager Sean Marks cleaned up the previous regime’s mess so proficiently that Brooklyn is in contention for multiple max-contract studs.
But what if the Nets aren’t as successful in free agency as they hoped? If they can’t lure more than one colossal name, which second-tier players should they pursue?
Let’s assume Brooklyn either inks Kyrie Irving, or at least retains D’Angelo Russell. Marks would still have loads of cap room to bring in productive non-superstars. He doesn’t absolutely have to use up the cap space this summer either, but if he’s shopping for mid-tier stars, who are the best fits?
I’m classifying “second-tier” or “mid-tier” stars as those who are just below the upper echelon of marquee names. So we’re excluding Irving Durant, Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford and Jimmy Butler.
And since the Nets already have a young, playoff-caliber rotation at the guard, wing and center spots, I’ve identified three forwards they should at least strike up a free agency conversation with:
Tobias Harris (27), Philadelphia 76ers
Tobias Harris is probably the summer’s most valuable asset who’s not a “megastar.” He’s an attractive prize for pretty much every team, and he’s particularly precious to a squad like the Nets.
He offers the size (6’9″), versatility and up-tempo-but-stretchy playing style Brooklyn needs from the forward spot. Coach Kenny Atkinson didn’t even have a consistent starting 4 last season, so the eight-year pro should be high on the Nets’ wish list.
Not only is Harris a dangerous secondary scorer to pair with a guard like Irving or Russell, he’d also mesh well with on-ball playmakers like Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Harris’ catch-and-score skills are complemented by sporadic drives and post-ups to keep defenders honest. He’s also not a ball-stopper; he keeps the offense moving and is more than willing to find the best opportunity for teammates.
In 2018-19, Harris shined with both the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, two playoff clubs. He finished the year with 20.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on 48 percent shooting. His shooting splits confirm what the eye test suggests: he’s a low-maintenance weapon. According to NBA.com, he took 65.2 percent of his field-goal attempts with less than two dribbles.
Harris is known primarily as a jump-shooter at this point, but he’s also quite effective near the rim via cuts and quick duck-ins. He shot 66 percent within three feet of the cup last season (per Basketball-Reference.com), and he hit 58 percent within 10 feet.
Coach Atkinson likes to get his creators going downhill with inside ball-screens in transition or early offense. Given Harris’ versatility as an inside-out threat, he could serve as the screener, weakside floor-spacer or even the ball-handler in these sequences (h/t TBW’s Adam Spinella):
Harris’ multidimensional value will keep defenses guessing and undoubtedly enhance the flow of the offense. I’m not sure he’s is worth a max contract in Brooklyn, but that’s what it might take to sign him. Given how well he’d fit with the Nets’ system and current personnel, the franchise should court him.
Julius Randle (25), New Orleans Pelicans
This past season, Randle finally started to look like the lottery pick and rising star everyone was excited about in 2014. Coach Alvin Gentry unleashed him in New Orleans, and Randle improved in several key areas, including three-point shooting.
Randle’s physical, downhill slashing is his calling card. He relentlessly attacks the hoop and gets to the free-throw line at a high rate (10.1 attempts per 100 possessions in 2018-19). That will be quite useful to Brooklyn, who will need more creativity and athleticism in its frontcourt this season.
But his progress from the perimeter is the final selling point that makes Randle a viable weapon in tomorrow’s NBA.
In 2018-19, he took 4.1 threes per 100 possessions, which shattered his previous career-high (1.4). Despite the drastic increase in volume, Randle also posted a career-best 34 percent from beyond the arc. In and of itself, that’s not very impressive. But in the past, he’d hesitate from long range and either give the ball up or settle for a mid-range shot.
Now, he’s stepping into triples assertively almost every time:
If the improvement from downtown continues, Randle can be an exceptionally productive player for the next three to five campaigns, which will likely be his prime years. Depending on how many touches he gets, he could average 18-22 points and 8-10 rebounds in Brooklyn’s rotation.
Randle would take some of the shot-creating pressure off Irving, Russell, or whoever the primary handler is, but he wouldn’t command too much of the offense for it to become problematic. He’d also serve as a good mentor to the Nets’ latest draftee Nicolas Claxton, who has exciting long-term upside as a combo big man.
nikola mirotic (28), milwaukee bucks
Nikola Mirotic isn’t as dynamic as guys like Harris and Randle, and there are a few other “second-tier” free agents who might be more talented. However, he’d fill a similar role as Harris on a smaller scale and lower price.
The 6’10” Montenegran would complement Jarrett Allen in the frontcourt by stretching the defense with his shooting. In return, Allen’s rim-protecting prowess would compensate for some of Mirotic’s defensive shortcomings. Like Harris, Mirotic works well without the ball and is content to serve as a peripheral creator.
Although Mirotic didn’t end up being the Bulls’ savior when he arrived in 2014, he’s become a high-end role player through his three stops (in Chicago, New Orleans and Milwaukee). During the 2018-19 season, he scored 15.2 points per game on 37 percent three-point shooting for the Pelicans and Bucks.
Mirotic hunts primarily for two kinds of shots: three-pointers or favorable looks near the rim. More than 59 percent of his field-goal attempts were treys last season, a ratio that Atkinson would embrace.
Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley noted that Mirotic plays pretty darn efficiently for a high-volume shooter, and he’d thrive in Brooklyn’s offense: “If the Nets don’t add a pair of stars this summer, they’ll have money to rain on their supporting cast. Mirotic could be all kinds of fun under Atkinson as a 6’10”, quantity-plus-quality marksman.”
Mirotic isn’t a favorable matchup against certain teams. He had an up-and-down postseason, punctuated by a rough Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors where he eventually got played off the floor. The champs overwhelmed him with their athleticism, and he shot just 30 percent from the field and 17 percent from distance.
Keeping that in mind, he may not be a player who can be a crucial part in a championship run. But for the right price and in the right role, he could be a quality addition who helps Brooklyn take the next step.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball