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New York Knicks Remain Stuck in Neutral

The Knicks’ hope for a better future fell off the rails in the matter of a few days, writes Tommy Beer.

Tommy Beer

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It was all good just a week ago…

As recently as the middle of last week, the New York Knickerbockers were drawing praise from basketball pundits across the land. It appeared the Knicks were on the right track and there were legitimate reasons for New Yorkers to be optimistic.

After having parted ways with Phil Jackson, New York appeared to be closing in on hiring an accomplished general manager in David Griffin. One of the primary reasons why an experienced executive such as Griffin would be interested in the job was because the Knicks had plenty of cap space to work with this summer, and potentially even more in the near future.

Other than the crippling Joakim Noah contract, Courtney Lee was the only other player on the entire roster with a guaranteed contract that extended past the 2018-19 season.

The logical decision for New York going forward was to focus on the future and dedicate themselves to a complete and thorough rebuild. The most important piece was already in place: Kristaps Porzingis, the franchise cornerstone, around which the rest of the roster will be constructed. The Knicks also have Willy Hernangomez locked into an incredibly team-friendly contract and recently drafted Frank Ntilikina, whom the organization hopes will form a terrific partnership with KP.

One crucial step in a disciplined, successful rebuild is maintaining cap space. Even if they did have the room to add a max player this summer, the reality is the Knicks are so far away from being a threat to the top teams in their division, let alone a contender for the championship, that one player wasn’t going to make a significant difference. As a result, the smart play during this free agency period was to stay on the sidelines and patiently wait until value presented itself.

Last summer, NBA GM’s sprinted out of the gates at the start of free agency, offering massive contracts to flawed players. The salary cap was spiking, and impatient teams were looking to make an immediate splash. The Lakers agreed to pay Timofey Mozgov $64 million over four years within hours of the start of free agency. L.A. later inked Luol Deng to a contract worth $72 million. The Grizzlies gave Chandler Parsons $95 million. The Knicks handed $72 million to Joakim Noah.

After that initial splurging, the teams that waited were able to secure some solid values. Miami inked Dion Waiters to a two-year, $6 million pact. The Mavericks stole Seth Curry, signing him for two years at less than $6 million. The Spurs got Dewayne Dedmon to sign for similar terms.

This year, front office folks seemed to have learned their lesson (seeing the Lakers being forced to trade away D’Angelo Russell just to dump the contract of the aforementioned Mozgov on the eve of this year’s free agency frenzy, may have scared them straight). There were very few shocking contracts agreed to in the first few days of free agency. Even All-Stars such as Kyle Lowry and Paul Millsap got far less than the max. In addition, far fewer teams were willing to lock up players long term, instead offering a plethora of one and two-year deals.

It seemed the Knicks were prudently protecting their cap space as well. Not only was it in the best interest of their rebuilding efforts to keep their hands in their pockets, but they also did not yet have a general manager in place. Steve Mills was calling the shots in the interim, but the Knicks appeared to be content to stand pat, unwilling to make any franchise-altering decisions until they hired their new GM.

And then, it happened. Late Thursday night, word broke that the Knicks had signed restricted free-agent Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million offer sheet.

The Hawks had until midnight on Saturday to match it, but it was fairly obvious early on they would never even seriously consider agreeing to pony up that type of money for Hardaway Jr. Multiple NBA insiders reported that the Hawks were willing to pay up to approximately $45 million. The Knicks ended up paying $25 million more than the Hawks were comfortable with.

On top of that, Mills inexplicably felt the need to include a player option for the fourth year and a 15-percent trade kicker. The trade kicker makes the contract incredibly difficult to move. Given the drama surrounding the Carmelo Anthony situation, the Knicks, of all franchises, should be painfully familiar with the complications that can result from such seemingly innocuous details in a deal.

The Hawks formally announced they would not match on Saturday.

Then, on Sunday, word leaked that David Griffin had withdrawn his name from consideration for the GM job in New York.

And, here we are.

It is important to note that Tim Hardaway Jr. is a quality player. He’s only 25 and is coming off the best few months of his NBA career. Hardaway averaged 17.5 points per game over the second half of the 2016-17 campaign. He’s a capable outside shooter, which is something the Knicks certainly need. He was a subpar defender early in his career, but showed significant improvement over his two years in Atlanta. Under the right circumstances, such as the Knicks inking him at closer to $8 or $9 million per season over three years, it would have been an understandable signing.

However, the contract the Knicks offered has a disastrous downside.

First, it is a significant risk to assume Hardaway Jr. will match, let alone exceed, the production he posted late in the 2016-17 season. Prior to this past January, Hardaway Jr. had never averaged more than 13 points per game in any month of his entire four-year career. There is a rather large sample size that suggests that his flaws will prevent him from becoming an above-average shooting guard. And, for the amount of cap space the Knicks invested into him, that’s exactly what they’ll need to see.

For players that absorb nearly 20 percent of a team’s cap space, it’s imperative that they become solid starters, if not stars.

Still, if the Knicks were just one piece away from becoming a true contender, and Hardaway Jr. was the final ingredient that they thought would put them over the top, then maybe it would understandable to wildly overpay for his services. That is clearly not the case.

Worse yet, even if Hardaway Jr. exceeds expectations and things break right for New York, that “best case scenario” likely means the Knicks will win around 35-37 games.

There’s a reason New York has been unable to escape the muck of mediocrity and the Atlantic division basement for the better part of two decades (the Knicks have lost 768 games this century, more than every team in the league except the Timberwolves). It’s because the Knicks refuse to commit to a full-fledged rebuild. Starting way back with the dreadful decision to trade Patrick Ewing at the end of his career, they have never taken the steps necessary to embark on what is an admittedly arduous process.

The Knicks current objective should NOT be winning 37 games next season. The goal should be methodically building a balanced roster that is capable of consistently winning 50-plus games a few years down the road.

In addition, one common theme in the Knicks’ lack of success has been their inability to defend. The Knicks have finished the regular season ranked in the top-half of the league in Defensive Efficiency just once over the last 17 years. Coincidentally, that also happened to be the sole season this century they finished with more than 50 regular season wins and advanced past the first round of the playoffs.

At the end of each disappointing campaign, as free agency approaches, Knicks coaches and front office personnel usually proclaim that their defensive performance the prior year was unacceptable and that they’ll focus on improving that end of the floor going forward. Yet, time and again, the Knicks chase offensive-minded players when they open up their checkbooks. Tim Hardaway Jr. is another such example. Besides the fact that they grossly overpaid for Hardaway Jr.; that that they still don’t have a veteran point guard to mentor Ntlikina and feed the ball to KP and Willy; that they already have a solid starting shooting guard in Courtney Lee locked into an affordable long-term contract; Tim Hardaway Jr. will not improve the team defensively.

And one last point on Hardaway Jr.: If THJ does develop into the stud that Mills obviously believes he will, Hardaway Jr. has a player option for that fourth and final season, which means he can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent in the heart of his prime.

Lots of Knicks fans seem agitated and perplexed as to why so many in the media are ripping the Hardaway Jr. signing. Via Twitter replies, frustrated fans ask incredulously: “Maybe they slightly overpaid, but the Knicks just added a young, athletic player who can score in bunches. How can that possibly be a bad thing?!?”

It seems counterintuitive to fans and casual observers of the NBA, but sometimes when a team signs a good player, it actually results in that team being further away from title contention. Adding a good player on a bad contract can be debilitating.

Landing solid/mediocre players on good/great contracts are how smart teams flesh out their roster.

Due to the constrictions of the salary cap, every single dollar counts. Overpaying by a few million can be crippling. Overpaying by upwards of $20 million can be catastrophic.

For instance, just last week the Celtics were forced to trade away Avery Bradley, one of the game’s most feared perimeter defenders and a rising two-way star, solely because Boston desperately needed to clear $3 million dollars off their books to sign Gordon Hayward.

This past weekend, the Nets traded journeyman Justin Hamilton in exchange for DeMarre Carroll, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2018 second-round pick. This was an illustrative example of how preserving cap space can net a shrewd franchise future assets.

The Knicks’ cap space both now and in the future has been greatly diminished. As a result, New York has far less flexibility. Having financial freedom both this summer and in the years ahead is simply far more valuable than adding an athletic scorer to a terribly imbalanced roster.

Unsurprisingly, we have recently seen other teams secure cap-friendly deals. The Suns just signed promising big man Alan Williams to a three-year, $17 million salary. The Knicks had expressed interest in adding Williams, but didn’t have the cap space to make a competitive offer. (Hardaway’s average annual salary will be greater than the $17 million total Williams will make through 2020). Justin Holiday, who played well on both ends of the floor for the Knicks last season, signed for $9 million over two years. Tyreke Evans will make just $3.2 million next season.

These are the types of low-risk, high-reward contracts the Knicks should have been handing out.

At the very least, New York should have made every effort to hire a permanent GM, allowing him to sign-off on all important decisions. Which brings us back to the loss of David Griffin as a front office candidate. Apparently, Griffin wanted to bring with him a trusted cadre of scouts and executives and to have the final say in basketball-related decisions. The Knicks and owner Jim Dolan inexplicably balked at this reasonable request. Despite the putrid record of the team during the tenure of the front office personnel currently in place at Madison Square Garden, Dolan and the Knicks refused to grant autonomy to a GM with three straight Finals appearances and a championship on his resume.

Knicks fans that have watched this organization operate shouldn’t be surprised. Unfortunately, it’s the continuation of a vicious cycle.

Two common denominators during the decade-plus the Knicks have spent in the doldrums has been too much Jim Dolan and not enough defense.

Less than a week ago, it appeared the Knicks were on their way towards escaping the pitfalls of the past and inching their way towards respectability by committing to patiently building a team the right way.

Yet, just a few days later, here we are…

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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