By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets’ acquisition of wing Allen Crabbe from Portland on Tuesday did not come at the cost of Andrew Nicholson, the relatively useless center who will reportedly be waived and stretched by the Blazers on the other end of the trade.
The true cost was the opportunity cost, as in what the Nets could have done had they headed into the season with approximately $16.5 million in salary cap space. Such flexibility could have been used by Brooklyn to accumulate assets such as other young players and/or draft picks.
That figure is now closer to $3.5 million, assuming Brooklyn eventually renounces free agent guard Randy Foye, who has no place here after general manager Sean Marks’ whirlwind summer.
In addition to Crabbe, the other new Nets who will surely get heavy minutes include D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov from the earlier Brook Lopez trade to the Lakers and DeMarre Carroll from Toronto’s salary dump two weeks ago.
Marks drew raves from most experts for this deal for turning such rotten fruit as Nicholson into Crabbe, a player he went after hard a year ago in restricted free agency. Marks’ over-the-top, four-year, $75 million offer sheet was matched by the Blazers, which somewhat ironically put them in such dire straits cap-wise that they had to go back to Marks one year later (by league rule) looking to shed payroll.
Once Crabbe waived his 15 percent trade kicker, it was done. The Nets received a player they obviously coveted, because they were one of very few teams that could. When you take into account what Nicholson, who arrived with a first-round pick attached (used by Marks to select center Jarrett Allen) in a February exchange that sent Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullough to Washington, was supposed to earn in the next three seasons, the hit to the Nets’ cap is about a third less than if Portland never matched in the first place.
On the other hand, Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com gave the Nets a D-plus grade for the move. It was based on the onerous nature of Crabbe’s contract, which will run through the 2019-20 season at an aggregate cap hit of $56.3 million, versus the player’s limited skill set.
The Nets, Pelton suggests, should have retained their cap flexibility to use on players of superior value, either through trades or next summer’s free agency, when cap space around the league will be even tighter. Brooklyn is still far away from competing for anything significant. He thinks Marks erred by going out so long on a player of Crabbe’s caliber.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The 25-year old Crabbe, at this stage of his career, is an elite 3-point shooter (44.4 percent last season, second-best in the league) who has yet to prove he can expand his game by creating plays for himself or others off the dribble.
Only 17 of Crabbe’s 299 3-point attempts last season were taken after at least one dribble, per NBA.com. He made four, or 23.5 percent. His career-high assist rate is just 1.2 per game, set two seasons ago.
With Crabbe’s shooting skills, however, he still counts as a natural fit for coach Kenny Atkinson’s pace and space schemes at the “3-and-D” wing slot, a position Marks has prioritized since taking over for Billy King in February 2016.
That is, if Crabbe could improve on the “D” part.
The Blazers were better without Crabbe on the floor in each of the last three seasons, with more of the discrepancy in terms of points per 100 possessions on the defensive end. In the hustle stats department, he doesn’t get a lot of steals or deflections, and he can be lax in closing out on shooters.
This could all be moot if Atkinson believes there’s still time for him to coach Crabbe up to the point that he can become a more complete player.
Crabbe is certainly an improvement over guys such as Foye, Joe Harris and Sean Kilpatrick, Atkinson’s best available players at the position a year ago until Caris LeVert was cleared to play. LeVert, entering his second season, might be better suited for a bench role while his 3-point shot develops.
Again, no one should dispute whether the Nets are a better team today versus before the trade. They’re still way unbalanced, with no bigs on the roster after Mozgov, Quincy Acy, Allen and maybe Trevor Booker. But the Nets were a miserable 3-point shooting team last season, taking the fourth-most attempts per game (31.6) while converting at only a fifth-worst 33.8 percent rate. Since the 3-point shot is such a huge component of Atkinson’s game plans, getting Crabbe makes a lot of sense.
The biggest risk, then, is something we’ll never know — what Marks’ options could have been had he held onto the cap space.
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