The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
Today’s question: Are we sure the Nets will be better next season?
It feels wild to consider that the next version of the Nets we watch might not be better than the one we saw fall to the 76ers in five games in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. After all, few teams exited the free agency feeding frenzy as bigger winners than Brooklyn, which landed both a former league MVP and two-time Finals MVP in Kevin Durant and six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving this summer. Add those marquee talents, plus bosom buddy DeAndre Jordan, to a team that brings back four of the top six players from last season’s playoff rotation, and it seems like the Nets have the makings to improve on last season’s 42-40 record, middle-of-the-road net rating (16th out of 30 NBA teams, according to Cleaning the Glass), and sixth-place finish in an unremarkable Eastern Conference.
But, well: Consider it. Durant might wind up playing at some point before season’s end, but it’s much more likely that he doesn’t suit up at all in 2019-20 to recover from a ruptured Achilles tendon. With a healthy KD playing starter’s minutes, you could pencil the Nets in for 50-plus wins and a top-four seed in the shuffled-up East. Without him, though, Brooklyn’s forward rotation will feature a collection of grinders—guys like rising sophomore Rodions Kurucs, former Hawk Taurean Prince (who came over in the trade that shipped Allen Crabbe to Atlanta and opened up the salary cap space to sign Durant and Irving), and veteran Wilson Chandler. All of them can check a few different boxes for head coach Kenny Atkinson. None of them strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses in quite the way a four-time scoring champion does.
That’ll put the lion’s share of responsibility for elevating the Nets’ offense from uninspiring (16th in points scored per half-court play last season, 20th in points per possession overall, per CtG) to unrelenting in the hands of Irving. He absolutely could. For all the questions raised (by people like me) about whether or not Brooklyn would’ve been better served hanging onto D’Angelo Russell than signing Kyrie in a no-Durant universe, make no mistake: Irving is the better player right now. With all due respect to Russell, who soared last season given consistent opportunities to run the show, and with a healthy amount of reservations about Irving’s role in how the rancor metastasized inside the Celtics locker room last season, Kyrie’s addition represents a clear upgrade for the Nets.
Irving is a significantly more efficient shooter and scorer than Russell. He’s better at unlocking opposing defenses, getting himself to the front of the rim, and finishing in traffic. He’s a superior pick-and-roll playmaker, and averaged more points per possession finished as a ball handler in the screen game than Russell did last season, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data; that skill should serve him well on a Nets team that ranked seventh in the NBA last season in the share of offensive possessions finished by a pick-and-roll ball handler. (The Irving-and-Brad Stevens Celtics, by comparison, had the sixth-lowest such share.) Paired with quality screen-and-roll big men like Jordan and Jarrett Allen, and flanked by credible shooters, Irving could orchestrate a more potent attack at Barclays Center. It’ll be interesting to see whether he’s got those shooters, though: While Joe Harris led the NBA in 3-point percentage last season, and Prince shot 39 percent from deep in Atlanta, no other member of the Nets rotation has a career 3-point mark higher than 36 percent.
Maybe the supporting cast will rise and fire with more confidence and accuracy when eating off kickouts after Kyrie has broken down the defense. Or maybe, with only Harris as a stay-with-him-at-all-costs shooting threat to draw defensive attention on the perimeter, the Irving-led attack won’t look demonstrably different than the one Russell captained last season. And maybe the result is an overall offensive efficiency that again ranks closer to the middle of the pack than the top of the charts.
If that’s the case, it’d take a significant improvement on the defensive end to fuel a rise in the standings for Brooklyn. It’s possible. New additions Prince, Chandler, and Garrett Temple bring size and versatility to add to an existing perimeter core (Harris, Caris LeVert, and Spencer Dinwiddie) with good size and length on the wing. Bargain-bin signing David Nwaba is a tough, physical swingman who has impressed on the defensive end in stints with the Lakers, Bulls, and Cavaliers. Allen ranked 17th in field goal percentage allowed at the rim among 103 big men who defended at least three up-close tries per game last season, according to NBA.com/Stats, while Jordan finished 33rd, even in a down year split killing time with the Mavericks and Knicks; together, they should provide 48 minutes of solid rim protection. How engaged and effective Jordan will be overall, though, is a big question; both Dallas and New York had worse point differentials with him on the floor last season, and he’s clearly not as mobile or active a defensive force as he was during his heyday with the Clippers. But while it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Nets nudge last season’s 15th-place finish in points allowed per possession north a couple of spots, the current roster seems a better bet to land somewhere just outside the top 10 than to coalesce into an elite point-preventing unit.
If that’s the way things shake out—Kyrie gets the offense up to middling but not much further, and the combination of depth and length does the same for the defense—then the Nets feel less like title contenders this season and more like a team in line for a mid-40s win total and a not-quite-home-court-advantage playoff spot. In a related story: The Westgate Superbook’s recently released regular-season win totals have Brooklyn’s over-under number pegged at … 44.5 wins (2.5 more than last season). That would land the Nets in … sixth in the East (the same spot as last season).
That would still be an improvement, and Irving’s track record of postseason success would probably give Nets fans confidence that he’d put forth a better performance against a locked-in playoff defense than Russell managed against Ben Simmons and Philly last spring. (Although, to be fair, it’s not exactly like Kyrie lit the world on fire against Milwaukee in the conference semifinals.) And while it’s possible that the dysfunction that dogged Irving in Boston will make the trip down I-95 with him to Barclays and lead to a disappointing fizzle in the first year of Sean Marks’s grand new experiment, it’s equally possible that the ball bounces Brooklyn’s way—that Kyrie flourishes in an environment of his own choosing; that Dinwiddie, Irving’s friend/recruiter, becomes a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year honors; that LeVert resumes his All-Star trajectory after returning from a devastating early-season ankle injury to be the Nets’ best player against Philly in the playoffs; that the new additions thrive in Kenny Atkinson’s system, lifting Brooklyn’s floor on both ends; and that Durant winds up getting back on the court before the playoffs, potentially tilting the balance of power in the East sooner than anyone anticipated.
Maybe that’s too much to ask—too much to expect to go right for Brooklyn all at once. Then again, after all that just went the Nets’ way in free agency, why should it stop now?