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A Realistic Free Agent Wish List for the Knicks

A realistic list of free agent guards, forwards and centers the Knicks should target this summer.

Tommy Beer

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LeBron James is not walking through that door…

Back in the summer of 2010, the last time (and the first time since 1996) that the New York Knicks were under the salary cap, New Yorkers were dreaming of landing the biggest of fishes. Hopes were high that LeBron might relocate to NYC, and bring along a couple of All-NBA his buddies with him. As we know, the Knicks were spurned by LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and had to settle for the oft-injured Amar’e Stoudemire.

This summer, the Knicks will once again be major factors in the free agent market, as they have upwards of $27 million to lavish on available players. And while LeBron James is again expected to exercise his player option and become a free agent, even the most optimistic Knicks fans knows LeBron is not coming to New York. In fact, it’s also highly unlikely that rest of the cream of the 2015 free agent crop lands in NYC as well. Studs such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love and Marc Gasol can all make far more money by re-signing with their current teams – who are all near the top of the NBA standings.

However, Knicks president of basketball operations Phil Jackson still has a tremendous opportunity to improve and reshape the roster.

Even without signing one of the elite, top-tier players, Jackson can craftily construct a foundation that puts New York back on the road to relevancy. By spreading the money around, Jackson can build a balanced roster, one that is not reliant on just one or two superstars. (Of course, who the Knicks select in June’s draft will obviously impact the direction they take in free agency…)

With that in mind, here’s what a potential and realistic wish list for the Knicks might look like:

 

Guards:
Wesley Matthews – Unrestricted Free Agent
The Knicks are not going to win a championship next season. Thus, there is no need to chase a ‘quick fix.’ New York has to slowly but surely re-establish a winning culture. Consequently, New York can afford to take a chance on a player coming off a major injury, giving him time to fully heal. Matthews tore his Achilles tendon in early March and is facing a daunting rehab. However, that will scare off plenty of suitors and will likely drive his price down considerably. Before the injury, the underrated Matthews was enjoying another solid season, playing well on both sides of the ball. In fact, he was leading the entire league in made three-pointers at the All-Star break. Recovering fully from an Achilles tear is certainly no guarantee, but if his price tag drops far enough, Matthews could be a very shrewd signing.

Danny Green – Unrestricted Free Agent
Born and raised on Long Island (he attended St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset), Green starred at the University of North Carolina. He became the only player in ACC history with at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 250 assists, 150 three-pointers, 150 blocks and 150 steals, but still slid into the second round in the 2009 draft. He was eventually waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers before the San Antonio Spurs scooped him up. Green flourished in the Spurs’ system. He played well in big games, and helped propel the Spurs to a title last season. Would the native New Yorker be willing to give the Knicks a slight hometown discount?

Patrick Beverley – Restricted Free Agent
The Knicks desperately need to upgrade defensively, especially in the backcourt. Opposing guards have been able to get into the paint at will against the Knicks for years now. The ball-hawking Beverley has been one of the NBA’s most aggressive defenders since elbowing his way into the Rockets’ rotation. Like Wes Matthews, Beverley is out for the season. He underwent surgery on his left wrist that will require four months of recovery. This may decrease demand for his services. If the Knicks made a solid offer, would the Rockets match?

Cory Joseph – Restricted Free Agent
Joseph hasn’t had a real opportunity to showcase his skills, but has flashed intriguing upside in limited minutes with the San Antonio Spurs. It remains to be seen if a large enough offer could pry him away from San Antonio.

Eric Gordon – Player Option
Gordon was wildly overrated, and consequently overpaid, after his rookie deal expired. He’s been hurt and mostly ineffective since being traded to New Orleans in the Chris Paul deal (his scoring average has dropped in each of the last five seasons). Gordon has a player option for $15.5 million for the 2015-16 season. If he opts out, he would have to settle for a major pay cut, but could lock up a long-term deal. Again, if the price is right, he might be worth a roll of the dice. This season he is shooting above 45 percent from three-point territory and over 80 percent from the free throw stripe (Kyle Korver is the only other player in this exclusive club).

Jared Dudley – Player Option
Every good team needs a ‘glue guy’ like Jared Dudley. A solid shooter with a high-basketball IQ, Dudley is the type of bench contributor the Knicks have been missing. In the past, Dudley has talked highly of New York.

K.J. McDaniels – Restricted Free Agent
The raw rookie showed why he generated so much draft day buzz while playing heavy minutes for the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this season. However, he’s been an afterthought now that he’s buried on the bench in Houston. The Knicks badly need an infusion of youth and athleticism. McDaniels would provide both. He’s restricted, so the Knicks would have to make an offer that the Rockets refuse to match to land him.

Gary Neal – Unrestricted Free Agent
Neal is a sharp shooter who can come off the bench as a third guard and help space the floor, giving Carmelo Anthony more room to operate.

Honorable Mentions: J.J. Barea, Will Barton, Randy Foye, Mo Williams, Marco Belinelli, Rodney Stuckey, John Jenkins

 

Forwards:
Draymond Green – Restricted Free Agent
As detailed in depth here, Green would be an ideal fit in NYC. It is an expensive proposition, as the Knicks would almost assuredly have to offer a max contract to even have a shot at Green. Still, Green is the type of young, hungry, defensive-minded, versatile, unselfish, aggressive player who can help turn a franchise around. And it’s not just intangibles that Green brings to the table – he is on pace to become just the second player in NBA history to tally at least 110 blocks, 110 steals and 110 three-pointers in the same season.

Luol Deng – Player Option
Deng’s production has steadily declined the last few seasons, but he still plays hard and he plays the right way. For the right price, he’d improve any team he’s a part of.

Thaddeus Young – Player Option
Young doesn’t have any one particular skill that will bowl you over, but he contributes across the board. He’s been stuck playing for bad teams the last few seasons, which has depressed his value as he’s been forced into a larger role than he’d prefer. A player like Young excels when he can thrive as a complementary piece of a bigger puzzle (as he has been with Brooklyn since being traded to the Nets). The long, lengthy defender can guard numerous positions, and also contribute on the offensive end of the floor. During the 2013-14 season, he became the first player in eight years to average at least 17 points, six rebounds and two steals over the course of a full NBA campaign.

Tobias Harris – Restricted Free Agent
Another Long Island product, Harris has been linked as a potential Knicks target for years, but is that simply his agent trying to manufacture New York buzz in order to increase interest and leverage for his client? Harris has shown plenty of intriguing upside during his stint in Orlando, but his cost will likely be prohibitive, especially considering he’s probably not a perfect fit considering the Knicks many needs.

David West – Player Option
For starters, it’s unlikely the Indiana Pacers would let West get out of town. In addition, adding an aging veteran could be viewed by some as counter-intuitive. However, if the Knicks do draft a young big man (like Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor) with their first pick, ideally they would have a mentor on the roster to teach the youngster how to play the game and succeed in the NBA both on and off the court. You couldn’t ask for a better mentor than West.

Ed Davis – Player Option
Davis slid through the cracks last summer and had to settle for a low-ball offer from the L.A. Lakers. After a decent season in L.A., he’ll be a free agent again this summer.

Honorable Mentions: Mirza Teletovic, Chase Budinger, Jae Crowder, Derrick Williams, Thomas Robinson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Aminu, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Hansbrough, Carlos Boozer, Tayshaun Prince

 

Centers:
Kosta Koufos – Unrestricted Free Agent
It will be very interesting to see what offers Koufos fields once he hits the open market. Backing up Marc Gasol, his playing time has been limited. However, his Per-36 minute averages are impressive: 11.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Due to the dearth of big men in the league, plenty of teams will be interested.

Robin Lopez – Unrestricted Free Agent
He’s not nearly as accomplished on the offensive end of the floor as his brother Brook, but Robin is a better defender and rebounder. Robin has also been far more durable. Because the Knicks have ‘Melo and should have plenty of offensive firepower, Lopez is solid fit as he will be happy to clog up the paint, board and bang.

Tyson Chandler – Unrestricted Free Agent
It is obviously extremely unlikely that Chandler would consider returning to the Knicks, especially after rumors circulated that Carmelo Anthony requested that Phil Jackson and company move Tyson last offseason. However, the Knicks’ terrible 2014-15 season highlights how valuable Chandler can be. Anthony has always been the Knicks’ best offensive player, by far, since the day he arrived in New York; however, when the Knicks found brief success during Melo’s tenure – including the 54 win season in 2012-13 – Chandler was arguably the team’s most valuable player. That season, Chandler won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, the only player in franchise history to receive the honor.

Greg Monroe – Unrestricted Free Agent 
Monroe flashed elite talent and very intriguing upside early on in his career. As a 21-year-old, he averaged 15.4 points (on 52.1 percent shooting), 9.7 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game in his second season. However, he’s never taken his game to the next level. His field goal percentage has dipped below 50 percent for three consecutive seasons. His steal and block totals have decreased three years in row. Still just 24, some team will throw plenty of money (and possibly even a max deal) his way. (Per a published report in the NY Daily News, that team might be the Knicks)

Enes Kanter – Restricted Free Agent
Kanter remains a bit of a mystery. He’s been in the league for four years, but is still just 22 years of age and has never averaged more than 27 minutes per game in any season. Will a team make a big offer and force the Thunder to match? What offer would be high enough to scare OKC away? Those are the big questions as Kanter prepares to hit restricted free agency. Our Jesse Blancarte recently broke down why Kanter’s defensive issues could hurt his stock in free agency (which could, potentially, make him more obtainable).

Omer Asik – Unrestricted Free Agent
Asik has been solid, if unspectacular, since becoming a starting center. He signed with the Houston Rockets prior to the start of the 2012-13 season, which was his first opportunity to showcase his full skill set as a starter in the NBA. Then, last summer, he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for a first-round pick. In the 200 games he has played over the last three years, Asik has averaged 8.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and 0.9 blocks. He’s not a stud, but certainly a serviceable starting center who will protect the rim and chip in offensively. In a league bereft of quality big man, Asik will have plenty of eager suitors when he hits the open market in July.

Brandan Wright – Unrestricted Free Agent
Currently on the Suns, Wright is playing for his third team this season. He had the best season of his young career last year in Dallas, when he averaged 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 67.7 percent from the floor. Still, there are noticeable flaws in his game. Can he handle the rigors of starter’s minutes? Is he worth upwards of $5 million a season?

Bismack Biyombo – Restricted Free Agent
Biyombo, the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft, has been labeled a bust. He averaged fewer than three points and five rebounds per game last season. However, the big man has showed signs of life this season, particularly of late. Over the Charlotte Hornets’ last five games, Biyombo is averaging 9.0 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.0 blocks, while shooting 58.3 percent from the floor and a respectable 68 percent from the FT stripe.

Honorable Mention: Jeff Withey, Chris Kaman, Aron Baynes, Lavoy Allen

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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The X-Factors: Indiana

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.

Matt John

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There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.

If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.

Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.

There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.

For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.

First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.

Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.

1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver

When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.

However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!

Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.

If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.

If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.

Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.

Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.

A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.

It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.

In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.

Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.

There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?

There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.

Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.

The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.

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The X-Factors: Memphis

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.

David Yapkowitz

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Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.

Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?

We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.

Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.

Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.

So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.

After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.

Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.

While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.

The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.

Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.

Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.

Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.

Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.

But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.

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The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

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