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The Nets’ Improvements May Render Every Other Free-Agent Deal Moot

As millions were splashed around the league, Brooklyn extended Kevin Durant and improved its supporting cast, meaning an already overwhelmingly talented team could be even better next season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At this time of year, every team is an idea: Some are more clearly articulated than others, but all are still waiting to be tested by the thorny realities of the upcoming season. Yet as ideas go, the Brooklyn Nets are persuasive. Overwhelming, even. When our staff here at The Ringer was asked this week to pick an early favorite for the NBA title, seven of our eight panelists (myself included) tabbed the Nets—largely on account of the excesses that set them apart. Other teams may have three star players. Brooklyn’s three just happen to rank among the most inventive and undeniable creators to ever play the sport, with enough agreeable skill between them to push past the understood limits of NBA offense.

While juggling the turnover of a blockbuster midseason trade, the periodic absences of each of their three stars, and the many complications of a COVID-altered season, the Nets scored more points per possession than any other team in league history. Then, in the playoffs, they regularly obliterated their own record-setting marks; when Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving were on the floor together in postseason play, Brooklyn put up 139.4 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass—a mind-bending figure in a competitive environment that typically grinds offenses down. The Nets were ousted by the Bucks in a hard-fought second-round series and effectively undone by injuries that sidelined Irving and hobbled Harden to the point that he was a stationary participant.

Resetting the season means assuming better health the next time around, or at least better timing. Brooklyn can afford to take the regular season at its own pace, comfortable in the knowledge that a losing skid in January won’t have a damn thing to do with the pull-up jumpers Durant will hit over the top of the defense in May. That’s why the biggest move of the entire NBA offseason wasn’t a trade or a free-agent coup, but the four-year extension that will earn Durant another $198 million and stabilize Brooklyn’s entire operation. The case for a Nets championship in 2022 begins with star power and likely ends with it, too. Brooklyn’s every advantage is predicated on its most important players being healthy and available for the most important games. To get Durant, Harden, and Irving through another trying regular season intact, and to fill in the two blanks around them, the Nets will need to strike the right balance with a reworked supporting cast.

Brooklyn’s rotation last season was a make-good miracle—a provisional mix of cast-offs and odd skill sets cobbled together in the harsh light that follows a superteam. That supporting group was sound enough to fulfill its purpose, though not to exceed it; with Irving ruled out and Harden hamstrung, it quickly became clear that the Nets’ best and only way to viability was to funnel everything through Durant. In seven games against the Bucks, only one of the Nets’ role players (Jeff Green) registered a 20-point game. Green is now gone—signed away by the Nuggets on a two-year, $10 million deal—but the Nets otherwise managed to retain Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown while reshaping their team around the edges.

The next Nets reserve to put up 20 in a vital playoff game might be Patty Mills, who has spent his offseason leading the Australian national team to a bronze medal in Tokyo and entertaining offers from contending teams all across the NBA. Mills has a universally valuable skill set: He comes off the bench ready to fire away, but he’s capable of running an offense; he’s confident enough to take what’s open, but not so oblivious as to siphon off shots he shouldn’t. Mills slots perfectly into the minutes and role vacated by Landry Shamet (who was shipped off to Phoenix), albeit with a greater ability to extend possessions and improvise solutions. Brooklyn doesn’t need a backup point guard so much as a backup with point guard skills; the ideal Nets role player is one whose ability to make things happen isn’t tethered to a particular role or any specific kind of usage. There are no guarantees when three stars are drawing up their own delicate balance, which makes Mills’s capacity to fill whatever space he’s allowed all the more valuable.

Griffin had to change the very parameters of his game when he came to Brooklyn, and he had to rewrite years of superstar habits to become the kind of big who facilitates the stardom of others. Mills will need no such transformation. In his 12 years in the league, Mills has never been a full-time starter. This past season in San Antonio, he worked primarily off the ball as a reliever and kick-out target for Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and point-forward convert DeMar DeRozan, and in filling that role, hit 41 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Basketball is too messy and random a sport for that sort of percentage to translate exactly, but in principle? In concept? Mills is every bit the route-running marksman Shamet was, but with more to do with the ball if a shot never materializes. One of the most deadly offenses we’ve ever seen gets yet another out.

If Steve Nash’s rotation holds its general shape from last season, Mills could pair with Harden in the backcourt for the second unit, just as Shamet did, and spend occasional time sharing ballhandling responsibilities with Irving as the Nets wind through the late first and third quarters. The lineup, overall, could tilt smaller; Green was a fixture in four of Brooklyn’s six most-played lineups last season, and with no one-to-one replacement for his size, the Nets will have all the more reason to flood the court with shooting, and often with guards, while seeing what kinds of positional alignments they can get away with. The loss of a viable frontcourt alternative puts more pressure on Griffin to deliver, but Brooklyn’s operation was always intended to rely on fluidity. You triangulate a game between an impossible 7-footer, an all-time isolation scorer, and a genius ball handler, and figure out the rest as it comes.

If Griffin holds down a spot as a regular closer for the Nets, all the better. If not, it could go to Mills, Brown, Joe Harris, or Nic Claxton. Maybe the newly signed James Johnson—who has a skill set similar to Green’s, only fueled by greater chaos—even makes a play. This is a roster evolving not at its core but on its fringes, in a way that could help the Nets endure the very sort of attrition that wore down their aspirations a season ago. Mills is a small but necessary counterweight for the most top-heavy team. He can fill minutes. He can step up to run the show. And when the need arises, he can fade into the background behind three gleaming superstars, daring the defense to forget him.