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The Brooklyn Nets – Contenders or Pretenders?

When the Brooklyn Nets traded for James Harden last season, they formed perhaps the best trio of offensive talent ever assembled on a single NBA team. Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving, all at the top of their game, made the Nets legitimate title contenders. We know how that story ended. Irving got hurt in game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals and wouldn’t play again in the series. The Nets went on to lose to the eventual-champion Milwaukee Bucks in 7 games. 

Despite a disappointing end to their season, the Brooklyn Nets retained their star power this offseason and entered this season as legitimate NBA title contenders. From there things got interesting. 

Kyrie’s refusal to get vaccinated forced the Nets to play without their star point guard in more than half of their games. Harden’s usage began resembling his Houston days to make up for Irving’s absence. Durant got hurt and Harden was leaned on even more. The lack of continuity led a frustrated Harden to request a trade to Philadelphia, a deal that brought Ben Simmons, Andre Drummond, and Seth Curry to the Nets. 

With the NBA playoffs fast approaching, we still don’t have a clear understanding of who this Nets team really is. They’re currently an 8 seed in the East and appear destined for the play-in tournament. In a deep Eastern Conference, are the Brooklyn Nets NBA title contenders or pretenders? 

The Brooklyn Nets – Contenders or Pretenders

Strengths – Offense, Offense, and More Offense 

Any team trying to make a deep playoff run needs a player who wants the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Kevin Durant is that guy. Durant is the best offensive player in the NBA, perhaps ever. He’s shown time and time again that he’s not afraid of the moment. He’s incredibly resilient, returning from multiple lower-body injuries without missing a beat. Durant plays with a killer instinct that makes him virtually unstoppable with the ball in his hands. 

In spite of Harden’s departure, the Nets still have a myriad of offensive weapons around Durant. 

Irving – when active – is a magician with the basketball in his hands. He recently dropped 50 points against the Charlotte Hornets. Guards Patty Mills and Bruce Brown have risen to the occasion and stabilized the Nets’ backcourt when Irving isn’t on the floor. Newly acquired Curry provides elite floor-spacing on the offensive end and can catch fire from deep on any given night. 

With Irving and Durant on the floor together, the Nets play at a top-10 league pace. After the Nets’ recent statement win against the Sixers in Philadelphia, Durant pointed out that the Nets’ game plan was to run the Sixers, who rank in the bottom 3 in pace and transition defense, off the floor. The Nets executed that strategy to perfection. If at full strength, they’ll use that to their advantage against their potential Eastern Conference playoff opponents. The Sixers, Heat, Raptors, Celtics, and Cavaliers all rank in the bottom third in pace. 

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Weaknesses – Continuity, Defense, and Home Court Advantage

Between the Harden trade, Durant’s injuries, and Kyrie’s availability, Nets’ coach Steve Nash has had to get creative with his lineups. The Nets have played 68 games so far this season with 38 different starting lineups. Continuity is key for teams in the playoffs, and the Nets simply lack it. 

While the Nets rely heavily on their offense to win games, they rank in the bottom third in the league in defensive rating. They struggle to force teams into bad shots and turnovers. Mills and Brown are both relatively strong perimeter defenders, but when Kyrie doesn’t play, they’re tasked with defending opponents’ 2nd and 3rd best scorers. 

The addition of Drummond provides their frontcourt with a much-needed boost in defending opposing bigs, but it’s relatively thin behind him. 3rd-year forward Nic Claxton has shown flashes of being a plus defender in limited minutes. Veteran James Johnson has recently provided the Nets with some strong defensive performances off the bench. LaMarcus Aldridge has missed several weeks with a hip injury, but even once he returns, the 36-year old doesn’t possess the dexterity needed to have an impact on the defensive end. 

Of the 10 teams likely to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Nets have the fewest home wins. Much of that can be attributed to Irving missing home games, which he’s still not eligible to play in. The Barclays Center is rarely sold out during the regular season, and Nets “fans” don’t create the type of atmosphere that opponents fear. Last season, the Nets – even with a healthy Durant, Harden, and Irving – had to offer fans 50% off playoff tickets to fill seats in the first round. 

‘X-Factor’ for the Brooklyn Nets – Ben Simmons & Irving’s availability 

Ben Simmons hasn’t played in a single game this season for the Nets or the Sixers. A recent interview with Nash indicates he’s still nowhere close to seeing game action. When active, Simmons is one of the league’s top defenders, something the Nets could clearly benefit from. He could potentially have a huge impact on the Nets playoff run if he’s able to return and perform at a high level. But that’s a big if. 

On their current course, the Nets won’t enter the playoffs with home-court advantage in any round. Normally that would be a massive disadvantage for a team. For the Nets, this might be a positive. If Kyrie can only play in away games, the Nets might be better off playing potential game 7’s on the road. 

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Normally, top-level talent wins in the NBA. The Nets, when at full strength, have talent in spades. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen this current Nets roster at full strength yet, and we might not before the playoffs begin. It’s a lot to ask of a team lacking in continuity to all of a sudden find their top-form come playoff time. 

It’s unwise to bet against Durant, and he alone should be able to keep the Nets competitive in a playoff series. But even Kevin Durant can’t do it by himself. There’s simply not enough evidence to suggest the rest of the Nets roster will be able,  if even available,  to make a deep playoff run to compete for a title this season. 

The Brooklyn Nets are NBA Title pretenders.

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