As this is a Dallas Mavericks site, we mainly stick to covering the Mavericks. But since it’s early in the season, we wanted to cover what we think about some of the other contending or playoff teams in the league. Now, we have the Brooklyn Nets.
For as long as they’ve employed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets have been the NBA’s most mercurial team. We’ve watched them be juggernauts and laughing stocks, often simultaneously. While their off-court drama has been endlessly fussed over by sports media, they remain a fascinating, ever-changing experiment on-court. This season carries with it the same sense of a large range of outcomes, but also a reset; they seem to be trying like hell to be a normal basketball team. When your “Big 3” is Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, that feels near-impossible.
Incredibly, Vegas has the Nets with the fifth best odds to win the NBA title. Last year, they remained favorites no matter how dire things looked. Part of that was a perception of Kevin Durant as the greatest player in the world. By the time the Celtics had defended him better than literally anyone ever, he seemed like only one of the top six or eight or ten players. Nevertheless, high end talent remains, and with that championship equity. I think it’s fair to say the Net’s ceiling is as high as just about anyone.
No team has more question marks attached to their stars. For Durant, it’s durability. For Irving, mindset. Covering that would be redundant; I can’t imagine anyone who even casually follows the NBA needs a refresher on it. When playing together, they are an automatic top-10 offense. The Net’s problems came on defense, where they were among the worst in the playoffs, without the prerequisite for contention that is quality wings and positional size. They were small on the perimeter as a result of injuries and an organization-wide commitment to shooting, with three-guard lineups a norm. The Celtics, as maybe the most physically capable team in the NBA, were suited to take advantage. At one point the Nets had Goran Dragic playing, for all intents and purposes, as a wing. Three-guard lineups can work when one player has the size to defend wings, but the Nets cadre of smalls were mostly finesse marksmen, put together in a vain attempt to shoot their way out of a flawed roster.
The Nets might have a solution for this issue, but one who just so happens to be as flaky as Kyrie and Durant. Ben Simmons is one of the few non-centers who can transform a defense, and his presence against Tatum and Brown could have changed that series. He’s perhaps the best perimeter defender in the sport when he’s on, able to shuffle with a Trae and wall up against a Luka. They also added 3-and-D stalwart Royce O’Neale, who performed poorly in last year’s playoffs but has a defensive track record, as well as T.J Warren, a wild card who once averaged nearly 20 points a game before injuries derailed his career. Durant himself is an underrated defender and world class weakside rim protector, though not when his old legs are bogged down by a monumental offensive load. Center Nic Claxton is a real defensive piece as well, a truly switchable center who was their best option against Tatum in the playoffs. They will still use a small backcourt, with Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry the likely minutes leaders and with shooting still key to their identity, but the defense should improve.
The Celtics series also revealed a dirty little secret–what James Harden meant to the Nets. He allowed Irving, not a natural floor general, to play as he did when he orbited around Lebron, and allowed Durant to become the NBA’s most dangerous off-ball weapon, like in Golden State. Durant is an underrated passer who’s assists numbers skyrocket when he’s charged with the task, and Kyrie can break a defense down, but neither are “engines”, and the Celtics were a defense too good to attack in simple ways. Both Kyrie and Durant perform their own variation of heliocentric ball stoppage by relentlessly probing the mid-range for their shot, bogging down ball and player movement. Simmons is meant to help the stagnation, but it’s not that simple.
People bullish on the Nets after the Simmons trade consistently evoked Draymond Green when talking about his prospective role; a lead playmaker and defensive ace who doesn’t dominate offensive usage, nor can they shoot. Much like how Draymond’s intelligence and the Splash Bros make up for his lack of gravity, it was thought that Simmons’ flaws could be leveraged by shooting. Because of his injuries, the working theory has yet to be tested. The perception that Simmons, like Draymond, can be a temporary small-5 isn’t backed up by his film; for all his defensive gifts, he doesn’t have the physicality or rim-protecting instincts. When Simmons and Claxton are both in, the death sentence that is two non-spacers occurs. The longer you look underneath the hood of Simmons as a cure-all, the less sturdy it looks. As has always been the case, Simmons is an undeniably talented player who’s also a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of the sport itself. The Warriors’ system also functions with Draymond and Looney because their passing and off-ball movement is so synergistic. Spacing is easier when players have thousands of reps together and know just where and when to cut, relocate, and restructure.
I find it hard to trust the Nets can do the intangible work necessary to adopt that. After all, the team almost imploded in the off-season. Neither star seemed happy with their organization, and yet all parties returned. Durant and Kyrie have always exhibited a more narrow game than the one I suggest the team must utilize. Simmons has refused to even try and fail at one of the core components of basketball (shooting), much less internalize what makes Draymond able to quarterback the NBA’s most particular system. The vibe is of a band getting back together for the money, not the competitive spirit of schematic revitalization.
Yet, that ceiling! Soon after the Nets traded James Harden, they played the Sixers in last season’s most notable blowout. Durant and Kyrie were completely locked in, even on defense. This was the Durant who dominated the Olympics, the Kyrie who hit the modern era’s most famous shot, and that exceptionalism seemed to be, most importantly, an identity–the Nets lorded over the Sixers. There was a petulance. By the time of the playoffs, it was gone. Perhaps they were exhausted by the drama of last year, the way the season seemed like many fit into one, the player movement and lack of continuity and, well, most of all the Kyrie saga. It’s an impossible situation to trust, or gamble on, but those Vegas odds keep speaking one thing to me; that this team has the stuff of a title in its DNA, deep down, waiting to be awakened.