NBA free agency officially begins Thursday, but for the Nets it tipped off when Kyrie Irving picked up his player option and it continued when Patty Mills declined his.
Mills has opted out of his $6.2 million deal, a source close to the player told The Post. The 33-year-old combo guard will become an unrestricted free agent.
It doesn’t guarantee a departure from Brooklyn — he and his wife are fond of the area — but Mills could potentially get more on the open market after he set career highs in scoring (11.4 ppg), 3-pointers (227), starts (48) and minutes (2,346) in 2021-22.
The most the Nets can offer Mills to stay is $7 million, according to former team general manager Bobby Marks, now an ESPN analyst.
Replacing Mills’ shooting will further test Nets GM Sean Marks, who is going to have a busy next few days. Mills opting in would’ve been cut-and-dried, while him opting out does not immediately give the Nets a way to replace him.
The Nets still have just the taxpayer mid-level exception, veteran minimum contracts and few assets (Joe Harris, Nic Claxton, first-round picks) with which to improve, and they could still turn over and reshuffle half their roster. That’s from the ongoing Irving saga to finding out if they can still attract ring-chasing vets to being linked with restricted free agent Deandre Ayton.
Beyond any lingering issues to be addressed with Irving, the Nets have other players to retain or replace or re-recruit, starting with Mills and followed by Bruce Brown and Claxton, whose name has popped up in a trade report involving Ayton.
Brown is an unrestricted free agent and the Nets would prefer to keep him. They hold his Bird rights, so they can go over the cap to sign him. The potential loss of Mills might make that even more imperative.
The Nets have until 6 p.m. Thursday to extend Claxton, for up to four years and $55.6 million. He’s a restricted free agent, and sources told The Post the Nets love his defensive switchability. But reports have surfaced that he could be sacrificed to get Ayton, who is the finished product of what Claxton hopes to become.
After the Nets nearly shipped Claxton to the Raptors at the trade deadline, now the center is being linked with a trade to the Suns. BetMGM reported talks of Claxton, Harris and possibly Cam Thomas being shipped to Phoenix for star center Ayton.
While that deal initially would appear to be tough to pull off, and would leave the Nets and Suns hard-capped (due to the sign-and-trade), it’s possible to avoid that by looping in a third team and sequencing the deal.
Harris — who has also reportedly drawn interest from the Hawks — is one of the best shooters in the NBA. In the last four seasons, he has led the league in 3-point shooting twice and hit over 45.8 percent from deep. And Claxton has shown the potential to guard one-through-five. But Ayton isn’t just potential, he’s production.
Ayton helped the Suns to the NBA Finals in 2021 and a team-record in wins this past season, but isn’t viewed by them as a max player. Still just 23 — as is Claxton — Ayton averaged 17.2 points and 10.7 rebounds. He boasts a 7-foot-5 wingspan and this season’s sixth-best defensive rating (105.2) per Basketball Reference.
ESPN cited “several” potential destinations for Ayton on a max deal. Could the Nets be one, even at the cost of much of their depth?
Barring trading Harris or Claxton, the Nets have few ways to improve. They’re expected a dangle their pair of 2023 first-round picks — their own (which the Rockets can choose to swap) and another from the 76ers acquired in the James Harden deal. They also have the $6 million taxpayer mid-level exception (MLE), and several trade exceptions.
The taxpayer MLE could put them in the running for free agents such as Otto Porter Jr., Nic Batum and Isaiah Hartenstein. But Batum is reportedly headed back to the Clippers on a three-year $30 million deal, while sources close to Hartenstein told The Post he loves playing for the Clippers and could be inclined to return.
If the Nets lose Mills or trade Harris (or both), it could make signing Porter paramount. It would also test whether they’re still the drawing card for vets that they were when they landed Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge on minimum deals, back before the Irving drama unfolded.