The work that the Nets organisation has put into developing a long-term, sustainable model has had them identified by many as a franchise in ascension. After a 42-40 record last time out with a young roster and even despite some major injury setbacks, they liked their chances of attracting free agent talent this summer. Lauded for their style of play, their chemistry and the opportunity to play in trendy Brooklyn, the Nets did just that.
Kevin Durant was undoubtedly the prize haul, joined by the incredibly talented but mercurial Kyrie Irving and the veteran presence of DeAndre Jordan. Added to most of the same young core that already secured 42 wins last season, things are looking up in the Borough.
At different stages of last season, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAngelo Russell (now at Golden State) all took the mantle of ‘go-to scorer’ on this team. This reflects the versatility of the system put in place by coach Kenny Atkinson, but it’s also a result of the chemistry that created a feel-good atmosphere around the Brooklyn locker room. None of these guys seemed to resent the others succeeding, and were happy to play alongside each other as they took it in turns to lead the way.
Dinwiddie missed 14 games and LeVert missed 42, which was what provided Russell with the opportunity to step into a primary scorer role for the Nets. Once he took on this role, he didn’t let it go. He upped his scoring to 21.1 ppg, shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc on almost 8 attempts per game. The majority of these were not open shots either – often either in a switch scenario with a big running out to challenge his shot or in one-on-one play from the perimeter. It’s understandable that there were some mixed feelings expressed from some parts of the Nets community therefore that not re-signing Russell was the price to pay for signing stars in free agency.
Joe Harris also had a career year. He upped his scoring to 13.7 ppg and shot an inhuman 47 percent from three. It came as no surprise that Harris won the three-point shootout at All-Star Weekend. He was also part of the USA squad that participated in the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China. Whilst the team ultimately ended up disappointed, Harris secured a starting position under Coach Popovich by demonstrating a grittier side to his game, locking up opponents on defense and even crashing the boards.
Jarrett Allen also impressed and looked to make some strides in his second season. Able to up his rebounds, points and blocks while maintaining his efficiency showed a growing maturity. Still just 21 years old, Allen still has plenty of room for improvement and now has a solid foundation of the basics to build upon.
Chemistry is perhaps the biggest question mark people have when predicting the margin by which the Nets have improved since last year. With Kevin Durant absent through injury (for now at least), the team has essentially replaced Russell (who had a career season), with Irving, who performed individually in Boston but was questioned all year in terms of how he worked with his teammates. Will Kyrie work more comfortably with new teammates and in a city he’s actively chosen? You’d have to tentatively guess ‘yes’ at this point, as even despite his strange claims to believe in the earth being flat (and similar), he’s a bright guy and he knows the spotlight is on him. Kyrie is one of the most talented backcourt scorers in the NBA, but *cliche alert*… can he make his teammates better?
Kevin Durant comes to the Nets with a torn Achilles and yet the team is delighted to pay him to rehab for a year if it means they get him the following one. That’s how it is for Durant, who pre-injury could have laid a strong claim to being the best player in the game. He’s now played in multiple systems that have required different things from him and yet he can simply do it all and make it look easy. He’s a fundamental difference maker on both sides when it counts, and there’s not really any way of stopping him offensively at all when he gets going. Sadly for Brooklyn, they have to wait a year to see it. Of course, there’s a chance that KD suits up before the end of this coming season, but the history of this injury in other players suggests we won’t see anything close to prime Durant until next season.
The acquisition of DeAndre Jordan is an interesting one. He played the model citizen for a tanking Knicks franchise during his brief tenure last season, content to be a locker room leader and to give the young players a chance to shine. The Nets signed him to a four-year deal that pays around $10M per season. Whilst not a team killer in this current salary structure by any stretch of the imagination, the team risks hampering the development of Allen by bringing in Jordan, who largely produces a similar output. With neither able to shoot from distance effectively, it’s unlikely they’ll share the court and so minutes will largely be divided between the two.
On paper, the Nets look like they have a strong team. They’ve acquired undisputed stars in Irving and Durant, and they have incredible depth in shooting and playmaking to create space for their bigs and key players to get easy buckets. The Nets will regularly feature lineups that feature four legitimate knockdown shooters, and when Durant returns they’ll even have the opportunity to play him at the five and space the floor from every position. From being on everyone’s list of ‘League Pass’ teams last season, the Nets have potentially been fast-tracked towards contention. Nets fans will likely have to wait for Durant to be fully healthy to get a true glimpse of this roster’s potential, but the seeds for success can be sewn this year.
Can Kyrie get on with his teammates? Part of the Nets success last year was built on a lack of egos and a strong locker room. Meanwhile, Boston were disappointing last year and the reported reasons for Durant leaving the Warriors were largely the opposite.
Can Durant play this season? If he can get on the floor, how close to 100% does he look? The history of this particular injury is not promising, but there’s no reason not to be optimistic at this point. Kyrie has never played 82 games, and he’s missed an average of 17 games per season since joining the NBA. LeVert also missed 42 games last time out, so health and the dreaded load management may be real factors.
3. The Eastern Conference
With the East so much weaker than the Western Conference, if everything goes their way, the Nets perhaps have an opportunity at a deep playoff run, even though they’re essentially waiting for KD to be healthy to become the best version of themselves.
Kevin Durant | 26 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 5.9 apg
Even while absent, KD is the big story in Brooklyn. Can the Nets play themselves into being genuine contenders upon his return to health next season?
Kyrie Irving | 23.8 ppg, 6.9 apg, 1.5 spg
A big spotlight is on Kyrie. Criticisms off the court in Boston, matched with incredible play on it, he’ll be looking to silence his critics.
Caris LaVert | 13.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.9 apg
He played just 40 games last season, but is an undisputed talent. Likely the starter at small forward, he offers a nice scoring / playmaking punch to complement the backcourt. Until KD returns, Dinwiddie is likely the second option on this team. Can he live up to such big expectations?
DeAndre Jordan | 10.9 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 1.1 bpg
As the third big addition, DJ has a lot to live up to. Sharing minutes with a young promising big in Allen means he can’t disappoint.