Last Dance in Nets World?
In the summer of 2019, Kevin Durant decided to take his out-of-world talents to the Barclays Center to begin the next chapter of his illustrious Hall of Fame career. He would join forces with fellow superstar Kyrie Irving and the NBA could only imagine the nightmares they were going to impose on opposing franchises. Three summers later, both Durant and Irving have only played together in just 57 games. The notorious Covid-19 vaccine fiasco surrounding Kyrie Irving dominated headlines all last season on top of the injuries that have plagued both him and Durant since their Brooklyn Nets tenure began. Irving’s off-court distractions were rumored to be the driving force in the James Harden midseason trade request back in early February. A shocking pitfall for a team that was just up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Semis the year prior against the eventual NBA champions before losing both Harden and Irving to lower extremity injuries.
Amidst all the issues surrounding the team, Durant was still able to carry the Nets even with a part-time Kyrie Irving to the playoffs. After just squeaking by to make the playoffs by defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in game, the Brooklyn Nets were swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics. Shortly following the season’s end, the Nets’ future was immediately in question when Durant shockingly requested a trade in late June after it was reported the Nets decided to not offer Kyrie Irving a max contract. The request was then followed up by reports that Durant threatened owner Joe Tsai that the only chance the Nets would revoke his trade request would be if Tsai parted ways with general manager Sean Marks and head coach Steve Nash.
In this current player empowerment era where NBA GMs often find themselves in tricky positions with unhappy star players with statures like Durant’s, this situation is no different than those previous. Tsai though stood firm in support of his GM and head coach and would not let the ultimatum let him lose sight of the organization. It didn’t help that Durant’s “preferred destinations” (Phoenix & Miami) didn’t have enough ideal trade assets that would entice Brooklyn to contemplate the idea of moving the two-time Finals MVP.
At the Nets’ official media session when answering a question on if he’s surprised that he’s still a Net Durant alluded “No. I know I’m good that you’re not just going to give me away. I know who I am.” At the end of the day, yes indeed, this is still Kevin Durant, arguably still the best player in basketball when he’s all there with a four-year/$194 million dollar extension that hadn’t even kicked in at the time of the request.
Similar to the late NBA icon Kobe Bryant, who in 2007 also requested a trade from the Los Angeles Lakers when the roster began to crumble after a split from Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. Just like Durant, Bryant had three years left remaining on his contract. There have been numerous lingering injuries (Achilles rehab, hamstring, MCL sprain) Durant’s endured since he’s arrived in Brooklyn along with all of the distractions surrounding the Nets. There was also the Nets deciding not to give his running mate Irving a max contract this past summer so you cannot blame Durant for the overflowing frustration and flirting with the idea considering the current stage he’s currently in basketball-wise.
In late August, a meeting was held in Los Angeles where Durant, Joe Tsai, Sean Marks, Steve Nash, and Durant’s agent Rich Kleiman were all present to discuss the direction of their partnership. Ultimately the Nets released a statement stating “We have agreed to move forward with our partnership. We are focusing on basketball, with one collective goal in mind: build a lasting franchise to bring a championship to Brooklyn.” The Brooklyn Nets’ timeline since the arrival of both Durant and Kyrie has been an unpredictable story thus far. With the outstanding job done by GM Sean Marks this offseason by completely revamping the supporting cast from the ground up, playing into June can still be a reality. That’s if, both Kyrie and Durant can be available full time together. All the time.
This past week, via a Twitch stream, Irving implied that “We got 4-0’d ..We needed that humbling experience”. Remember the late 2000s Nuggets that featured the two greats Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony? Two of the all-time 3-level scorers in league history gracing the court together. Imagine a roster starred by those two and surrounded by Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Joe Harris, Nic Claxton, TJ Warren, Cam Thomas, Royce O’Neale, Cam Thomas, Patty Mills, and Markieff Morris. That wouldn’t quite be the same roster as the roster that was stifled by the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers in those back-to-back early playoff exits. No matter what way you want to look at it, this current version of the Nets may be the best version since both Durant and Irving decided to sign in Brooklyn.
Before the haul of trade that acquired James Harden, the Nets had the depth to make an NBA Finals push. Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen were valuable pieces of a 2019-20 Brooklyn Nets team that made the playoffs led by then former point guard D’Angelo Russell. As long as the superstar duo of Kyrie Irving (27.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 6.0 assists on 49.0/40.6/92 shooting splits in 103 career games as a Net) and Kevin Durant (28.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.1 assists on 52.5/40.9/90 shooting splits in 90 career games as a Net) can stay healthy, especially with this specific core around them, they’ll be as dangerous as anyone in the association.
The Nets got swept by the Boston Celtics in last season’s Eastern Conference first round but every game was decided by seven points or less. Ime Udoka’s defensive game plan worked to a masterpiece negating high-quality looks both Durant and Kyrie have become so accustomed to when penetrating into the paint and intermediate range. It was inevitable the Nets were a premier playmaker short against the Celtics. Udoka sent tenacious defenders; Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Derrick White to double on the ball handlers in pick and roll situations which nine times out of 10 was primarily either Kyrie or Durant. Forcing the ball out of their hands to the likes of Seth Curry who was hurting from a bum ankle and Bruce Brown to make decisions on the fly were many of the outcomes.
Missing Joe Harris in the postseason didn’t help because it allowed the Celtics to shrink the paint and force the Nets to over-rely on the three-point shot particularly when Kyrie and Durant weren’t overwhelming their matchups with their isolation scoring brilliance. The Nets also lacked a big that could create a scoring opportunity inside the three-point line. Lamarcus Aldridge didn’t appear at all in the series and even at 37 years old still demands the respect of his opponents on that side of the court. Nic Claxton is a tremendous athlete and big with loads of potential but he mainly plays that dunker spot for drop-offs and alleys because he’s much more effective right at the rim. You won’t expect him to create a shot for himself like the stretch bigs of today. GM Sean Marks definitely recognized some of the hurdles that were holding the Nets back as this current version will be the supreme version of the 7/11 era.
“But for me, my focus is going out there doing what I can for my team to win, in any way I can. Expectations, that’s for you guys.” “We’ve been playing all week.” “Oh, Incredible.” A couple of notable quotes from the Ben Simmons media presser from the Nets’ official media day. To this day Ben Simmons is a three-time All-Star, made third team All-NBA (2020), and two-time NBA All-Defensive first teams (2020, 2021) including finishing runner up to Rudy Gobert in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2021. He just turned 26 this past June. The whole 3-point shot narrative with him should be laid to rest and let all be all because there has been plenty of all-time Hall of Fame players that have been valuable pieces of championship teams that didn’t victimize their opponents with their outside jumper. “We didn’t do it much, but when we did, it was fun.” A response from Seth Curry about Ben Simmons playing small ball center during their time as Philadelphia 76ers teammates.
Simmons’s All-NBA defensive pedigree and ability to guard positions one through five will give the Nets a dimension they’ve never seen and it might be a match made in heaven for both parties. Simmons is one of the rare five-tool world-class NBA athletes that can affect every area on the court. That’s mainly the reason he made All-NBA Third team in 2020 over fellow guards Bradley Beal, Trae Young, and Donovan Mitchell. Simmons averages 7.7 assists for his career and next to two of the most offensively skilled scorers to ever play that stat is likely to climb. A world-class NBA playmaker and floor general has always been Ben Simmon’s ceiling. He already has vast experience orchestrating the teams in the half-court and becomes even deadlier when in transition.
The X-Factor here is Ben’s height and flexibility to both handle the ball and play the roll man. Simmon’s Magic Johnson/Lebron James passing comparisons came from his peculiar combination of size, strength, speed, ball handling ability, and selflessness on the court. All of those qualities are magnified when you put it all together and pair it with Durant and Kyrie’s polished offensive gifts and abilities to relentlessly score off the bounce. With a plethora of shooting threats on the perimeter for the Nets, the floor is going to be as open as it’s ever been for 10. Higher percentage looks and scoring opportunities only await as he’ll be able to remind the mass why he’s one of the most unique athletes the league has seen. Especially in the small ball five spot that Draymond Green has become a pioneer of, it’s only the most ideal situation for the Australian. Not only will one of the best defenders in the association uplift a roster that still averaged 112.7 points a night last season (7th in NBA) with an ailing Durant, part-time Kyrie, and half-a-season Harden but also will their depth off the bench at both the guard/wing position.
The acquisition of Royce O’Neale in late June almost felt as if it was confidential because of all of the attention KD’s trade request and Kyrie’s contract negotiations garnered in the off-season. But in the midst of the drama surrounding the Nets, Sean Marks was able to strengthen a position they were getting exposed atfor the lack of depth in the first-round series vs the Celtics last season. O’Neale is a veteran 3-D wing that can guard positions one through three. He’s been a vital piece of the Utah Jazz core that’s made the playoffs each of the past six postseasons. O’Neale has made 40 career playoff appearances including 29 starts and for his playoff career shoots a tick under 40% from three. O’Neale brings grit and additional playoff experience to an organization that’ll benefit even more in the postseason from his valuable contributions.
The Nets also signed score first forward TJ Warren to a one-year veteran minimum contract. Warren, who hasn’t logged an NBA minute since the 2020-21 season, has yet to be cleared to play after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot. A natural-born scorer that’s effective at all three scoring levels, Warren thrives proficiently off of skill and instincts in space. A wing that narrowly averaged just under 20 points a night on 53/40/81 splits back in 2019-20. Warren is a solid offensive player off the ball rarely staying idle and doesn’t shy away from the paint or contact. Warren’s a three-point threat whether catch and shoot or off the dribble and will only fit in effortlessly next to Ben Simmons because of his playstyle and scoring strengths. When he is back to 100% and up to speed he’ll be another source of consistent offense off the bench that can help extensively both Durant (6,259 career playoff minutes) and Kyrie come postseason.
A couple of the Brooklyn Net’s elite three-point shooters; Seth Curry and Joe Harris were both dinged up come playoff time last year. Harris played in just 14 games last season as ankle injuries, including a season-ending left ankle ligament surgery in March, derailed his 2021-2022 campaign. Seth Curry was a part of the back half of the midseason James Harden trade package and hit the ground running. In just 19 games for the Nets, Curry averaged 14.9 points a night while shooting a magnificent 47% clip from downtown (6.5 3PA/game). That continued hot shooting escalated into the playoffs as he averaged 14 a game on a scorching 52% shooting from the arc (5.8 3PA/game). Their type of production won’t be as surprising this time around as Curry’s already established chemistry with all three of the Nets’ lead ball handlers in Kyrie, Simmons, and Durant. At 34 years old Nets guard Patty Mills also shot 40% from the three-point line (7.0 3PA/game) and will still chip in when given the chance. All three of these precision snipers will be on the receiving end of beautiful looks from their vast amount of offensive creators.
I broke up with my wife a couple of times, but we are still married. Shit works.” A few words from newcomer Markeiff Morris who was asked about the Nets/Kevin Durant off-season drama saga. Morris won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers back in 2020 and is another veteran body that adds toughness to the front court. Cam Thomas is a second-year player that showed a lot of flashes and potential that he can be a prolific scorer in the NBA. The LSU product can create for himself at all three levels on the court and is a big tough shot maker similar to his teammates Irving and Durant. Thomas didn’t make an appearance in the first round last year but he’ll be leaned on to be a lead scorer for the second unit before TJ Warren is cleared to return.
Nic Claxton is probably one of the more undervalued core pieces on the whole roster. An athletic long big that’ll be a great lob threat when the defense crashes on penetrations into the paint from Simmons, Kyrie, and Durant. Claxton’s main objectives every night will be rebounding and protecting the rim. With the additions of wing defenders Simmons and O’Neale, Claxton won’t have to worry about cleaning up too many easy drives and won’t have to rotate endlessly due to frequent defensive lapses like we saw in the first round vs the Celtics.
The Nets enter this season as not only one of the deepest teams in the league but also one of the most experienced. With huge additions to positions that were in desperate need, if both Durant and Kyrie can play a full season together and adjust to the playstyle of Ben Simmons, the Nets’ championship ambitions may be a lot more realistic than they were initially.
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