The NBA’s Western Conference may end up looking like one of those cartoon scenes where a bunch of characters get into a long, bruising skirmish, kicking up dirt and producing “POW” sound effects, with one finally emerging the victor. The East, on the other hand, is widely perceived to be a two-team race between the Bucks and the 76ers. For a club like the Brooklyn Nets, that’s more than OK this season.
Yes, the Nets landed two star talents, but with Kevin Durant on the mend after his Achilles rupture during the NBA Finals, the club will welcome with open arms any accomplishments beyond its playoff berth this past campaign — especially since Brooklyn, in the eighth spot in our East projections, may not be a shoo-in for the playoffs.
So what’s ultimately worth watching in this year of transition for the Nets? And is there anything the club could do that would be cause for concern? We lay out three questions that figure to swing the balance for the Nets in either direction.
Can all the Brooklyn ball-handlers get theirs?
The New York Knicks haven’t been shy about signing a plethora of bigs — they’ve been doing that for a long time, and they did it again this summer. The Nets, by contrast, have gone all-in on prioritizing ball-handling. Even before Kyrie Irving was in the picture, they had another All-Star, in D’Angelo Russell, to play alongside Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. As such, they should once again have multiple guards who are capable of scoring at just about any time — particularly against benches that might not be as strong defensively. The concern, like it was with Russell at times, is whether one or two of the three ball-handlers will stand to suffer as they get used to playing together.
The team’s late-game possessions will be worth watching. Russell had a usage rate of more than 30 percent in fourth quarters last season, while Dinwiddie and LeVert were at 26 and 24 percent, respectively. By contrast, Irving enjoyed a fourth-quarter usage of nearly 34 percent in Boston in 2018-19, while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both clocked in at less than 21 percent and Al Horford at 17 percent. (Whatever the breakdown, it’s worth noting that Irving and the Celtics had the best clutch offense in the NBA last year, and it wasn’t even close.)
The trio will undoubtedly feature some redundancies, but Durant’s absence figures to give them a crash course in playing together. And if Dinwiddie and LeVert continue to ascend, the Nets could always use one of them as a trade chip to fortify the rest of the roster around Durant and Irving. That’s looking way down the line. But any way you slice it, these problems of sharing the wealth — if you can even call them that — are ultimately good ones to have.
What version of DeAndre Jordan is Brooklyn getting?
Jordan’s contributions the next few seasons will likely end up being a bellwether of success in Brooklyn, for better or worse.
The 31-year-old, in the first season of a four-year contract, again put up good advanced metrics this past season, holding shooters more than 6 percentage points beneath their average around the rim while also leading the NBA in defensive-rebound percentage1 for a second consecutive season.
Look closer, though — using both film and some of those same advanced metrics — and you’ll realize that Jordan’s numbers ring a bit hollow. Yes, he’s great at rebounding on the defensive end, but some of that stems from how tethered to the basket he can be. Similarly, because he occasionally plays like he has cement blocks tied to his feet, he sometimes doesn’t make any effort whatsoever to contest near the rim, even when he is clearly the player in line to rotate to the ball. (He contested just four shots a game at the rim in 2018-19, a low number for centers2 — and barely more than his backup, Maxi Kleber, who played five fewer minutes per game than Jordan did.) In his “10 Things” column, my ESPN colleague Zach Lowe noted just how awful Jordan’s defensive effort became at times prior to his trade from Dallas to the Knicks.
The Nets will desperately need Jordan to be active on that end, both to cover up for what could be an underwhelming defensive unit and also to give Brooklyn what it didn’t have last year against Philadelphia and Joel Embiid: a center who actually has the size to defend in the post without fouling left and right. Jarrett Allen, who’s just 21 years old, may still hold onto the starting spot, but last season showed that he’s still a bit young and woefully undersized for certain matchups.
If Jordan can be a good screen-setter for Irving and dive hard to the basket each night, he’ll force defenses to collapse down into the paint, which, when paired with perimeter threats like Irving and league-best marksman Joe Harris, should open up the team’s spacing considerably more.
But if there’s one place Jordan can be influential from the jump, it’s on the defensive end, where the Nets finished in the middle of the pack last year and risk sliding even further this year without DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley and Ed Davis (and presumably Durant, who could have helped fill some of those voids).
Is there enough frontcourt scoring without Durant?
Going back to his stints as an assistant coach with the Knicks and Atlanta Hawks, Kenny Atkinson’s offenses have been known for running pick-and-rolls more than just about anyone, something that figures to give Jordan a chance to score. But if the center can’t reprise Lob City in Brooklyn, where can the Nets expect to find scoring, outside of their three-headed monster of Irving, Dinwiddie and LeVert?
Taurean Prince, whom the Nets got from Atlanta in exchange for the No. 17 pick and Allen Crabbe (a deal largely constructed to help Brooklyn open a second maximum salary slot in free agency), can help with some of the scoring that a healthy Durant would have provided. Offensively, Prince represents a younger, steadier shooting version of Carroll, having hit 38 percent for his career from 3-point range and better than 42 percent of his tries from the corner. And aside from his spot-up looks, Prince will occasionally take a dribble hand-off and create out of it, either for himself or to set up a teammate.
Beyond him, though, it’s anyone’s guess as to what sort of production Brooklyn can expect out of their forwards and centers, other than screens and occasional rebounds. Allen and Jordan can score if and when they get the ball at point-blank range, but are otherwise offensively limited. Rodions Kurucs was a starter for much of his rookie season last year but is still dealing with the fallout stemming from his domestic-violence arrest a month ago. Wilson Chandler was hit with a 25-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, and then there’s Garrett Temple, who has garnered a reputation as a solid NBA veteran in recent years but shot below league average from the 3-point stripe last season after shooting closer to 40 percent the season before.
At some point in the next 18 months, the Nets will likely no longer have to address questions related to their scoring. A simple Irving-Durant pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop3 will unlock an array of options within their offense. But before then — when they figure to know their roster’s strengths, how certain players mesh and how defenses will play them in turn — it will be fascinating to see what Brooklyn can accomplish with one MVP-caliber shooting arm tied behind its back.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.