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Five Bold Predictions For Title-Or-Bust Nets
The Nets were set up for historic greatness this summer when General Manager Sean Marks put the finishing touches on a roster as talented as any ever assembled. Led by the Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, Brooklyn on paper appeared to be capable of beating any team in any style. They could play big or small. They could play fast or at a grind-it-out pace. They even snuck in a few defensive-oriented players onto the team for special occasions.
As such, any result from this group short of the franchise’s first-ever NBA Championship would be deemed a colossal failure.
Of course, you know what they say about the best-laid plans. The Nets’ announcement last week that Irving would effectively be banished from the team until he relented in getting the COVID-19 vaccine—and the superstar point guard’s subsequent nonsensical rejoinder on Instagram that left him little wiggle room for a saved-face return—threw more than a monkey wrench at what was a brilliant blueprint for success. It was more like a bulldozer.
There are experts who submit that an Irving-less Brooklyn squad should still be considered a title favorite, but without that third engine, they’re one of maybe a half-dozen teams in the same boat, and, given the recent injury history of their two remaining stars, a tenuous bet.
Now that the regular season is at the front door with Brooklyn visiting reigning NBA champion Milwaukee in the opener on Tuesday, it’s time to focus on what we can expect going forward. Here then are my five bold (some of which are very bold) predictions for the Nets 2021-22 campaign:
1) Irving returns after the February All-Star break, plays six games, then gets injured for the remainder of the season
At some point, either: A) The pandemic recedes enough for New York City to lift Executive Order 225 which mandates vaccines for its borough-based performers (as presumptive Mayor-Elect Eric Abrams may have hinted in an interview on Saturday), or B) Irving misses the game (money) enough to announce that he’s made his point about the evils of the mandates that benefit public health (or realizes that his so-called “voice to the voiceless” is in fact echoed throughout the conservative media he otherwise despises every 20 minutes). Irving will then begin to “ramp up” his basketball conditioning to be able to return to action.
Though the Nets welcome him back with open arms, at least publicly, Irving unfortunately succumbs to the dreaded injury bug that has prematurely ended three of his last four seasons. He will never wear the Brooklyn uniform again, as his contract is not extended and he declines his player option for 2022-23.
2) With Harden on the floor, the Nets perform at a record-level efficiency; without him, it’s a bottom-tier offense
I teased out this prediction in my last column, which analyzed not only how the Nets replace Irving in the starting five but also what happens during Harden’s rest periods. To be more specific, the Nets will score over 120 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the court this season and under 110 points per 100 possessions when off. For comparison purposes, last season’s split for Harden was 118.7 on versus 116 off. However, that was with Irving suiting up for 54 of the 72 games. Without Irving, the Nets will find that asking KD to do it all in those stretches will create stagnation and is not sustainable. By the way, remember all the criticism directed at Harden for selfish play when he was in Houston? Since Harden arrived in Brooklyn last season, no one in the league has been better at setting the table to create open looks for teammates. Some of the passes are absolutely jaw-dropping.
3) Durant is robbed in MVP vote
The collective media finds various excuses—KD didn’t play enough games, his vote is split with Harden—to deny the best player in the world his rightful honor. Amidst all the hubbub over Kyrie’s 50/40/90 campaign last season, people forget that Durant fell five missed free throws short of joining Irving in that select company. KD was otherworldly for the banged-up Nets in the playoffs and it continued through the Olympics, erasing all doubts about whether his Achilles surgery from two years ago diminished his supreme abilities. Durant should be the NBA’s MVP, but he won’t be.
4) At the deadline, the Nets use Spencer Dinwiddie trade exception, Day’Ron Sharpe, DeAndre’ Bembry, and a second round pick to acquire Patrick Beverley
I know, Beverley and Durant are supposed to have this long-standing feud, but KD is first-and-foremost a basketball savant. He knows how vital toughness is to winning in the postseason and Beverley supplies that deficient ingredient in spades. Though listed at just 6-foot 1, he gets into opponents’ grills (and under their skins) no matter the size differential. He’s also still knocking down three-pointers at a nearly 40% clip. Beverley is the perfect glue guy--Jevon Carter is simply a poor replica while Head Coach Steve Nash has to jump through hoops to fit non-shooter Bruce Brown into the rotation.
When Minnesota’s season goes sideways and they realize pending free agent Beverley has no intention of sticking around in the cold after his contract expires, they deal him for a package headed by a young prospect in Sharpe, who is superfluous in Brooklyn with center Nicolas Claxton taking the next step to earn an extension. After the Irving nightmare, Nets owner Joseph Tsai approves the added luxury taxes rather than risk waiting for a potential buyout.
5) Nash and the Nets mutually part ways after the season
This will be nothing like the Jason Kidd affair from 2014, when Brooklyn’s then head coach engineered his own exit to Milwaukee. Nash’s departure will be far more amicable. He’s a much more worldly man, with interests that span well beyond basketball. He’d have to REALLY love coaching to continue after a season full of strain, from dealing with the whole Irving circus to the outsized championship-or-bust expectations for the team. Typically, superstar players have short lives as coaches and Nash, of whom Marks stated was hired more to be “a connector” than a tactician, decides he’d rather use the time to connect with other aspects of his life.
Regular Season Prediction: 53-29 (2nd seed)
Postseason Prediction: Eastern Conference Finals loss to Milwaukee