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Monday, January 24, 2022

Should the Brooklyn Nets be Considered a Legitimate Championship Contender?

The Brooklyn Nets assembled their Big Three--Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden--with one goal: championship or bust. This is not about winning MVPs, winning scoring titles, or making All-Star teams--if the Nets do not win at least one title, this Big Three will be viewed as a Big Bust.

Durant is a proven championship-level player who has won two championships and two NBA Finals MVPs--but he will be out of action for at least four to six weeks after injuring the MCL in his left knee. He missed the entire 2019-20 season after rupturing his right Achilles during the 2019 NBA Finals, he only played 35 regular season games last season, and he played just 36 games before hurting his knee this season. It is not certain when Durant will come back, how well he will play when he comes back, or how healthy he will be down the stretch.

Irving has proven that he can be the second best player on a championship team, but he also has proven to be injury prone and--for lack of a better word--flaky. Irving's decision to not be vaccinated for COVID-19 means that--unless the laws regarding vaccination change--he will only be able to play in the Nets' road games for the foreseeable future. 

Harden is a proven regular season stat-padder, and a proven playoff choker: he reached the NBA Finals once as Oklahoma City's third option behind Durant and Russell Westbrook, and in the 2012 NBA Finals Harden averaged 12.4 ppg on .375 field goal shooting with 18 assists and 12 turnovers in five games. In the NBA over the past decade or so, few things are more predictable than Harden falling apart during the playoffs; in his last four game sevens his field goal percentages have been consistently subpar: 5-17, 4-15, 12-29, and 7-20. His only solid game seven shooting performance happened in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals when he shot 6-10 as the third option behind Durant and Westbrook. 

A fully healthy Durant who gets at least minimal help from Irving, Harden, and the rest of the supporting cast can probably lead the Nets past most teams in the East during the playoffs, but it is difficult to picture the Nets beating the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in a seven game series with Irving as a part-time player and Harden thus being relied upon as the second option when he is shaky even as the third option on a championship contender. The Bucks feature a young, durable, two-way superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he is flanked by reliable two-way players Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. When the Bucks are healthy, they have a roster that is blessed with size and depth. 

The Bucks match up very well with any team, including the Nets. Despite the uncertainty swirling around the Nets, the Nets are still listed as the odds-on favorites to win the 2022 NBA title. Before you make that wager, local Nets fans may want to review some key NY sports betting info to find a site that offers the best odds. It's still early in the season and the odds can change, but it's a good time to start tracking those numbers now. 

Due to his knee injury, Durant has missed the Nets' last four games. Harden shot 5-12 and 7-21 from the field as the Nets split the first two games (losing to Cleveland before beating Washington), and he posted a -26 plus/minus number overall in those games. Harden erupted for a 37 point triple double on Friday night as the Nets beat the Spurs; he shot 13-24 from the field while posting a +18 plus/minus number versus the Spurs. On Sunday night, Harden shot 4-13 from the field, and he had a game-high six turnovers as the Nets lost 136-125 to the mediocre Minnesota Timberwolves. Thus, in the last four games without Durant drawing the bulk of the defensive coverage, Harden has shot 29-70 from the field (.414) with one good game and three subpar games.

The Nets initially balked at utilizing Irving as a part-time player who is only available for road games, but after watching Harden shoot bricks and lead the league in turnovers per game during the first half of the season the team reconsidered that stance. Irving has now played in seven games this season, including the last four that Durant missed. The Nets are 4-3 with Irving, and he has posted a positive plus/minus number in five of those seven games (he had a plus/minus number of 0 in a six point loss to Portland, but that was actually the best plus/minus number among the Nets' starters--including pre-injury Durant, who was -15 versus Portland). Irving is averaging 23.4 ppg on .504 field goal shooting in those seven games.

It will be fascinating to watch the Nets navigate the next four to six weeks without Durant, with Irving only playing in road games, and with Harden trying to figure out how to consistently play basketball at an All-Star level now that "flop and flail" is out of favor. The Nets are clinging to the second spot in the East, but they are just two games ahead of sixth seed Philadelphia. Seven of their next 10 games are on the road, including visits to strong West teams Phoenix, Utah, and Denver. It does not seem likely that the Nets will maintain their current position in the standings after returning home from that stretch of games. The bizarre thing is that if the Nets slip to the fifth seed then Irving would be available for up to four playoff games per round, meaning that if the Nets won the 4-5 matchup in the first round then Irving would potentially be available for a road game seven versus the number one seed in the second round--but if the Nets stay in the top half of the draw then they could potentially be without Irving's services in any game seven played in Brooklyn.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:05 PM



At Tuesday, January 25, 2022 12:39:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...


Longtime reader Eric here (we played some online chess a while back). I haven't gotten a chance to leave comments as much recently, but I do read all your posts (been reading since 2008).

As a Nets fan (since before KD/Kyrie/Harden), I can safely say that this team as constructed right now is NOT a championship contender. Kyrie is an egomaniac who thinks he's smarter than everyone around him. Harden is the biggest con artist "star" player of the last decade. The basketball gods (and change in rules) have exposed him this year; he, his teammates, and everyone else can blame his hamstring injury all they want. The matter of fact is that Harden had the entire offseason to rehab that injury. His play this season has been inconsistent, ranging from laying bricks and playing passive to looking like a star.

I got a chance to watch the Bucks play the Nets at Barclays earlier this month. It was a nationally televised game with the key matchup on Giannis vs Durant. Jrue Holiday, Coach Bud, and almost half the Bucks roster were out due to health & safety protocols. What should have been an easy win for the Nets turned out to be a complete blowout in which the Nets never led at one point in the game. I saw firsthand how Harden initiated the offense. He takes his sweet time just to cross the halfcourt line; he picks up his dribble at questionable places, forcing Durant to bail the team out, which isn't sustainable for the playoffs. James Harden as the second option has been a complete disaster. His leading the league in turnovers doesn't get as much criticism from the media as it should. Average nearly 5 TOs/game is unacceptable for a floor initiator. Giannis on the other hand was in foul trouble but he played with urgency and his motor can never be questioned. Despite playing limited minutes, Giannis still had a game-high in points.

I agree with every bit of this post about the Bucks. The Bucks with Giannis at the helm are my title picks. They are battle-tested and have the best two-way player in the league right now.

At Wednesday, January 26, 2022 2:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If Durant is healthy by playoff time, his greatness covers up a lot of the flaws that you mentioned, and the Nets could be a tough out. That being said, I never thought that the Nets would win the East--let alone a title--with Harden as the second option, and I have not seen anything to change my mind. Now, if something changes such that Irving can play in all of the games, and if Harden then accepts being the third option, the Nets would be the best version of themselves. That still would probably not be enough to win a title, but it might be enough to possibly win the East if the other contenders have to deal with an untimely injury.


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