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Dallas Mavericks 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Dallas Mavericks in an interesting 2017-18 transitional season.

Basketball Insiders

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With a similar roster and young talent continuing to develop in preparation for the post-Dirk Nowitzki era, the Mavericks are in the middle of a rebuild while also being a team that’s hungry to compete. Returning the majority of their core from last year, they’ll look to move past a disappointing season and into a better direction.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

In some ways, when I look at the Mavs, I see a team in almost the same predicament as the Sacramento Kings. The Mavs have seemingly lost their way over the past few years, but are still widely considered to be a well-run team led by an intelligent front office. Unfortunately for them, the golden era of the franchise is behind. As Dirk rides off into the sunset, the hope for Mark Cuban is that Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith, Jr. can prove themselves capable building blocks to help his team get to the next level out West.

Obviously, I would have included Nerlens Noel in that conversation, but history has shown us that players seldom accept a one-year qualifying offer only to re-sign with their incumbent team the following season. Fortunately for the Mavs, they will enjoy the benefit of Noel attempting to prove himself worthy of a max deal this coming season. I doubt it’ll be enough to make them competitive in the tough Southwest, though, and am sure this season will be the first time the Mavs fail to qualify for the postseason in consecutive years since they failed to do so in 1999 and 2000.

5th Place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

The days of Dirk Nowitzki dominating for the Dallas Mavericks are gone, but by early accounts, the next face of the Mavs franchise is already in the building. Dallas selected point guard Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth overall pick in June’s draft, and the uber-athletic North Carolina State product put on a show during the Las Vegas Summer League.

While much of next season will be spent battling to keep themselves out of the Southwest Division’s basement, Dallas appears to have a nice core of young players to finally bridge over into the post-Dirk era. Smith, along with Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel and Seth Curry, all look to have the makings of formidable group in the coming years.

However, that won’t be next year. The Mavs still have plenty of holes on their team and are stuck in a division where the four other teams will all be fighting their hardest for a playoff spot. In due time, though, Dallas.

5th place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

There are two things I feel fairly confident about this year when it comes to the Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki is more mascot than player at this point, and Dennis Smith, Jr. is going to be the Rookie of the Year. It’s a weird year of transition this season as the team moves away from an all-time Hall-of-Fame talent and sort of begins something of a rebuild in earnest, but it’s a transition year that should see some good wins, if not a ton of them. Dallas plays in the harder conference, which doesn’t bode well for their playoff hopes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be an interesting year. Enjoy Nowitzki while he’s there, and gear up for the Dennis Smith experience. It’s all going to be fun, playoffs or not.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The Mavs have spent years walking the tightrope between the end of the Dirk Nowitzki era and the start of a new one, and this year could follow a similar path. The Mavs may have found the steal of the 2017 draft in NC State guard Dennis Smith Jr., who impressed throughout summer play. They’re also still stocked with solid veterans like Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and even Seth Curry, though it’s questionable whether this kind of core on top of Nowitzki and the young Smith will be enough to really push for a playoff spot out West. Nerlens Noel also returns to the fold, though issues in the rookie extension process and his subsequent signature of Dallas’ qualifying offer could mean this is his last year in town. Barring an additional move or two, the Mavs feel like they’ll be just short of the group that competes for those final few seeds in the West – though we should never count out Rick Carlisle. Unfortunately, the Mavs feel like the favorites to finish last in the Southwest.

5th Place – Southwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

The Dallas Mavericks have some nice players in Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel, Seth Curry and the exciting rookie Dennis Smith Jr. However, this team doesn’t have the elite talent or depth to make a serious playoff push, which means this year is more about developing the young core players and laying the groundwork for long term success. Dirk Nowitzki is on the tail end of his career, but he is still capable of putting together some impressive performances. For Mavericks fans, this season should be about developing players like Smith Jr. and enjoying the final stage of Nowitzki’s hall of fame career. However, it should be noted that with Rick Carlisle at head coach, the Mavericks are always a threat to outplay expectations. While that isn’t likely to translate into a playoff berth for Dallas this upcoming season, it’s something to consider.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Harrison Barnes

After signing a four-year, $94 million max contract with the Mavericks, it was obvious the franchise was putting a lot of stock into Barnes as their next superstar. The first season of his career for Dallas went pretty much as anticipated for a starter transitioning into a “go-to guy.”

Depending on who you ask, he even exceeded those expectations. Strictly as a scorer, the Mavericks can count on Barnes to put the ball in the basket. His 19.2 points per game led the way by far for a team that was lacking offensive production to put it lightly. He’ll need to work on snatching up boards and sharing the wealth more to be considered an all-around player, but things are looking up for the 25-year-old going into year two.

Top Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel

By acquiring Noel at the trade deadline in February, Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson addressed a desperate need and came through with flying colors. For most players in the NBA, it takes a minute to get used to a new system and different teammates. That was not the case for the 6-foot-11, 228-pound Kentucky alum.

Noel hit the ground running as soon as he arrived. His athleticism and constant activity brought a new dimension to the Mavericks on both ends of the floor. Noel’s leaping ability makes him a dual-threat as a shot blocker and rebounder. Expect him to really come through playing a full season with this team, especially since he’s betting on himself to earn a maximum contract next offseason.

Top Playmaker: Seth Curry

Up until last summer, Curry was a journeyman guard who had played for four teams in three years. His breakout season with the Mavericks may have finally been what he needed to stay put with a franchise or find a home for the long term, at the least.

Similar to his brother in The Bay, the 27-year-old is a three-point assassin. On nearly five attempts per game, “the other Curry” shot 42.5 percent from the perimeter. His skill set isn’t limited or one-dimensional, either. He has the skills to create his own shot as an efficient scorer. Just like Noel, he is also pegged for a solid campaign in a contract year.

Top Clutch Player: Dirk Nowitzki

Father time is undefeated, but Dirk Nowitzki isn’t being put out to pasture quite yet. The golden boy of Dallas has plenty left in the tank to contribute. It’s all about staying on the court and taking care of his body this year. He missed 28 games last season, which is the least he’s played since 2012-13.

Make no mistake about it, though: If there’s a high-leverage situation at the end of a game in a two-to-three point affair, Nowitzki’s getting the look. And in all likelihood, that vintage fade away mid-ranger basketball fans are all too familiar with will go through the net.

The Unheralded Player: Dwight Powell

Powell probably won’t cut it as an every day starting big in this league, but off the bench, he is constantly full of energy and makes a huge difference. Each and every night he hits the floor, you know you’re getting 110 percent of his effort.

The 26-year-old center is aggressive hitting the glass, giving Dallas second chances on the offensive end. He’s solid at finishing inside and has great leaping ability. Hopefully, the addition of Jeff Withey doesn’t take away from his playing time too much because he’s really blossoming into a good rotational player.

Best New Addition: Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith made this past July’s summer league his personal coming out party, displaying his versatile skill set and incredible 48-inch vertical on multiple occasions. Averaging 17.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game, he was named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team due to his efforts.

Picked by his fellow peers in the 2017 NBA Draft class as the pre-season favorite for Rookie of the Year, all eyes are on Smith to be the future of the Mavericks. The confidence is there. The natural ability is obvious. It’s on him to deliver, and chances are the former N.C. State star won’t disappoint.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. J.J. Barea

Riddled with injuries all throughout the 2016-17 season, Barea was never able to truly get a feel for his game. Towards the end of the year, his presence was felt, but the veteran was also fighting for consistent playing time due to the emergence of the young Dallas guards. With a fresh start going into the upcoming campaign, things should return to normal for the 33-year-old to be able to play a significant role for this team.

2. Rick Carlisle

Last year had to be a taxing one on Carlisle, who experienced his worst season as a head coach in his 15-year career. Considering the conditions, from roster turnover to debilitating injuries, the Mavericks tried to grind through to the best of their abilities in an extremely difficult Western Conference. Things won’t get any easier going into next season, but at least they’ve got a sense of direction with a good mix of veteran and young talent. If anybody can bounce back from adversity, it’s an elite basketball mind like Carlisle.

3. Yogi Ferrell

Due to a depleted roster and unforeseen circumstances arising in Dallas, the 23-year-old Ferrell was thrown into the proverbial fire with just 10 games of previous professional experience under his belt. Carlisle stuck him into the starting lineup immediately after signing a 10-day contract and looked like a genius for doing so. From that point on, Ferrell showed that he shined when the lights were shining brightest. He earned Rookie of the Month honors for February and turned that temporary deal into a permanent one because of his hard work. There is no indication that he’ll take a step back in his sophomore year with better talent around him.

4. Salah Mejri

For somebody that doesn’t touch the ball too much, Mejri is extremely successful underneath. He’s had limited playing time, but when asked to step in for the Mavericks, he’s done his job well. He’s your more traditional big that stands there and contests shots, picks up the slack on the boards and scores inside. Of course, with his size, it’s difficult to keep Mejri in a lineup going with the speed of today’s game. Heading into his third season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get more playing time, though.

5. Josh McRoberts

It’s no secret that the majority of McRoberts’ career has been plagued by setbacks left and right. Following a frustrating tenure with the Miami Heat, a fresh start is just what McRoberts needs. The last time he was truly impactful as a vital piece of a team was in 2013. To put that in perspective, that was on the Charlotte Bobcats, who hadn’t yet re-branded at the time. However, if McRoberts is able to stay immune to the injury bug, he’ll make an impact with the reserves. It’s a welcome addition to a club that needs a dual-threat frontcourt option.

– Spencer Davies

SALARY CAP 101

The Mavericks have had the choice this summer to either stay over the $99.1 million salary cap or drop under. To date, they have stayed above by virtue of multiple trade exceptions (the highest at $1.5 million), their $8.4 million Mid-Level Exception and $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception. Dallas could get to roughly $17.5 million under by waiving non-guaranteed players and renouncing their exceptions. Twelve players have fully guaranteed contracts, with seven hoping to earn one of three open roster slots. The favorites are Devin Harris with $1.3 million locked in, Jeff Withey $350,000 and Dorian Finney-Smith at $100,000.

Next summer, the Mavericks could get under the cap by about $51 million, provided Wesley Matthews opts out of his final year at $18.6 million. Dallas also has a $5 million team option on Dirk Nowitzki. Throughout the 2017-18 season, Nerlens Noel can block any trade, since he re-signed with the team on a one-year qualifying offer of $4.2 million.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Aside from ranking fourth in the NBA with an 80.1 percent conversion rate at the free throw line and defensively only allowing 100.8 points per game, there wasn’t too much good last season for the Mavericks as a whole. Looking ahead, there’s plenty to look forward to. For one, they’re starting the season out with a healthy squad, which was a battle for the entire previous year. Secondly, having a dynamic back court coupled with Noel in the starting lineup should allow the pace to increase and scoring opportunities to open up for everybody, an area where they ranked dead last in the league. Carlisle isn’t one to throw in the white towel because of one sub-par season. Dallas probably won’t be seeing the postseason, but they’ll compete in every game as their young core continues to mesh.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

There’s inexperience with all of this young talent on the roster. Luckily for the Mavericks, they’ve got Nowitzki, Barnes, and Barea with meaningful postseason games under their belts. As the three-and-D wing, Wesley Matthews will have to step things up if he wants to keep his starting job. What also isn’t working in Dallas’ favor is a very crowded West. To say making the playoffs will be difficult is an understatement.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will Rick Carlisle handle the logjam at guard?

It’s a great problem to have, but there’s some serious thinking to do in how these rotations will shake out for the backcourt. With Ferrell and Curry breaking out last year, you’ve got to give them the platform to contribute.

But at the same time, what about Barea who is a consistent option? Devin Harris was one of the best defensive players on the team post-All-Star break (99.6 DRTG on/110.7 DRTG off). Let’s not forget you’ve got a potential budding face of the organization in Smith. He absolutely has to see the floor. It will be interesting to follow along throughout the season with this situation because there has to be an odd man out at some point.

– Spencer Davies

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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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