Throughout the past decade, no team in the NBA has summed up basketball purgatory quite like the Sacramento Kings. They currently own the league’s longest playoff drought at 12 years. For all that time they’ve been in the lottery, they seemingly have very little to show for it. There was a time when the old Arco Arena was among the most feared arenas in the league for opponents. Now the Kings home arena is more of a place where visiting teams can pencil in an easy victory.
All is not lost, however. It does appear that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. The Kings enjoyed a great free agency period last summer when they managed to sign three of the most respected veterans in the league in George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. Two of the three have since moved on, but the fact remains that those guys were willing to come to Sacramento. Now, with a few recent draft moves, it appears that the Kings are finally headed in the right direction.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Kings can always be counted on to zag where most other front offices would zig, and they did exactly that once again to begin the 2018 offseason. In drafting Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic, Sacramento passed on a guy many considered the single can’t-miss prospect of the draft – and no one is going to forget about it anytime soon if Doncic becomes a star while Bagley, as some worry he will, becomes mostly an empty stats guy. Elsewhere, it was another roller coaster summer for the Kings. They made a huge restricted free agent offer to Chicago’s Zach LaVine, a smart move given the cap situation around the league, but the Bulls matched. After a curious trade that sent Garrett Temple out for a reunion with Ben McLemore, the Kings are left with a guard and wing group that’s pretty thin after young core pieces De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, plus swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic. They’ve still got several intriguing frontcourt pieces even beyond Bagley, including Skal Labissiere, Harry Giles and Willie Cauley-Stein, but will there even be enough court time for all these guys to develop? They’ll have to fight for minutes with guys like Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos and newly-signed Nemanja Bjelica – none of whom are good enough to anchor a playoff-caliber frontcourt at this point. It could be another head-scratcher of a season in Sacramento without some moves made, even if Fox or Hield takes some real steps forward.
5th Place – Pacific Division
The Sacramento Kings are a tough organization to figure out. Each season the team makes head-scratching moves that come off as just random and without much purpose. This offseason, the Kings Signed extended a four-year, $78 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Zach LaVine, which the Chicago Bulls matched. I just don’t see LaVine as the missing piece that Sacramento desperately needed, especially with other young guards already on the roster. Despite the constant head-scratching moves, the Kings still have some interesting prospects on the roster, including De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Marvin Bagley III. While the team has some nice young talent, it is nowhere near playoff contention in the Western Conference and still seems to operate without a long-term vision in mind.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
There isn’t much else to say about the Kings that hasn’t already been pointed out. Their roster all in all is a mess. They have too many bigs and guards, but not enough wings. They have vets with no place on the roster and no one knows exactly what they’re doing. In other words, they’re still the Kings. They do have a solid youth movement on their hands led by the likes of De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles. For the next couple of years, they’ll have to decide who they want to stay long-term as they rebuild. For now, expect Sacramento to be among the bottom dwellers.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Matt John
It’s going to be a joy to watch head coach Dave Joerger maintain the development of his younger players. He could have a three-headed monster in the making if things go the way they’re supposed to. De’Aaron Fox showed flashes last season in the clutch. Now, he’ll get not one, but two new, talented rookie teammates in Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles, who missed all of last season. Buddy Hield is flying under the radar as the sharpshooter most of us predicted he’d be in the pros as well. As much as they’ll likely be fun to watch grow together, there will be ups and downs.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
Zach Randolph and Iman Shumpert — those are the Kings’ two highest-paid players. Think about that for a second. The Kings have almost no proven veterans; they are team truly built around their youth, and while that youth could be impressive in a few years, this year is going to be tough, especially in the West. The Kings desperately need one (maybe two) of their promising young guys to really blossom for this team to go anywhere significant. Rebuilding is a long and brutal process. The Kings are midway through it with a lot to show for their trips through the lottery, but expecting them to be anything more than a fun young team might be misplaced.
5th Place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield
As of right now, the Kings’ roster is still taking shape. It’s quite possible that once the season begins, this list may end up being drastically different from what’s being predicted. But with no games having been played yet, based on everything we know up to this point, Buddy Hield is currently the best offensive player on the team.
When he was traded to the Kings during the 2016-17 season, he immediately put up 15.1 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field, and 42.8 percent from the three-point line. His numbers dropped this past season to 13.5 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting, but he did knock down a career-high 43.1 percent from three. Although he came into the league as a four-year college player, he’s just now entering his third NBA season. He’s a great shooter who can knock down shots from anywhere on the court. One area he stands to improve upon is his ability to get to the rim and draw contact. He only averages about one free throw attempt per game. If he can show that part of his game this season, he could be in line for a breakout offensive year.
Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein
Even after three years in the league, Willie Cauley-Stein is still a work in progress. He has shown, however, the possibility of him becoming one of the better interior defenders in the NBA. He’s already become the Kings’ best interior defender, as he showed this past season his shot blocking ability. He also displayed glimpses of being a solid one-on-one defensive player. Defensive rebounding was also a strength of his.
What Cauley-Stein needs to improve upon is becoming a much more consistent defensive player. He’s got all the tools and skills to really become one of the league’s best defensive anchors in the paint. In today’s NBA, big men are earning spots by being able to switch defensively and guard multiple positions. Cauley-Stein has the physical tools to do just that. But even as it stands, he is one of the Kings best defenders.
Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox
As a rookie, De’Aaron Fox immediately emerged as Sacramento’s top playmaker. He may not have had the rookie season that some of the peers did, but he showed enough to warrant the Kings taking him with a top-5 pick. A point guard is an extension of the coach on the floor. A point guard quarterbacks the team and ensures the offense is run to perfection.
Fox was thrust into that role as a rookie and he did very well. He’s already a great player in transition and he displayed a willingness to keep his head up and watch for his teammates in position for easy buckets. Point guard is a tough transition to make from college to the NBA game, but Fox has shown enough glimpses to assure Sacramento that he’s their floor general of the future.
Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox
One area that Fox seemingly excelled in during his rookie season was his clutch performances. There are many players who shy away from big moments late in games, but Fox has proved beyond doubt that he is not one of those players.
Although he was a rookie on a team that had a couple veteran options, he never hid from clutch situations. It was the exact opposite in fact. He relished those moments and his aggressiveness on the court and willingness to take big shots stood out. He actually won a few games for the Kings with his late game heroics, including some game winning shots. That lack of fear in big moments is something that can’t be taught. It’s either in you or it’s not, and Fox proved that he definitely has it.
The Unheralded Player: Harry Giles
Harry Giles had almost become a forgotten name to the general public. There was a time when he was projected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft. He was considered the top player in his high school class and a highly sought after recruit. Unfortunately, he was hit with major injuries that ended up affecting his draft stock. The Kings drafted him with the knowledge that he probably wasn’t going to suit up for his rookie season.
The world got their first glimpse of Giles in the NBA when he suited up a couple games for the Kings during summer league. He predictably looked rusty, but he did provide flashes of the player that was once talked about as a potential No.1 overall pick. He displayed potential to become a versatile scorer as well as an elite defender. He can switch between forward spots and he could be able to guard multiple positions. You can laugh all you want, but a healthy Giles will certainly be in the running for Rookie of the Year.
Best New Addition: Marvin Bagley III
Marvin Bagley had plenty of hype entering his senior year of high school. He was widely regarded as the best player in the country. He announced his college decision live on ESPN and his arrival in Durham seemingly guaranteed Duke would make a deep postseason run. Instead, the Blue Devils had a disappointing ending to their season and some of Bagley’s flaws were magnified, causing some to ridiculously assert that he shouldn’t be taken with one of the top picks.
Thankfully for Sacramento, they did not fall for that. Bagley may have struggled somewhat in summer league, but like his teammate Giles, he showed enough in the limited games he played to justify the Kings taking him with the second overall pick. Bagley has an incredibly versatile skill set. He is a big man who can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim as well as shoot from the perimeter. He’s got some semblance of a back to the basket game, but that is one part of this offensive package that he’ll have to improve upon. College isn’t always the best indicator of NBA success, and Bagley’s game is more suited to the pro level. Do not be surprised if the Kings end up with two potential Rookie of the Year candidates.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Justin Jackson
When the Kings selected Fox, Giles, and Justin Jackson all in the 2017 NBA Draft, it looked like one of their best drafts in a very long time. Fox and Giles were definite lottery talent players, but Jackson has the potential to be a very good NBA player in his own right. He had a decent rookie season that saw him play in 68 games including 41 starts. He exploded during summer league, where he showed a versatile scoring package. He will need to improve his three-point shot, and if he can do that, he’ll be the prototypical 3&D player.
2. Frank Mason III
The Kings garnered a lot of praise for their draft haul of Fox, Giles and Jackson. But the one guy who may have looked more NBA ready this past season was second-round pick Frank Mason III. Mason emerged as one of the Kings top contributors off the bench. As a rookie, he helped run the second unit with the poise of a veteran. The Kings did sign Yogi Ferrell in the offseason, but Mason did well enough to prove that he should get first crack in the rotation as the backup point guard.
3. Bogdan Bogdanovic
Bogdan Bogdanvoic didn’t come over to the NBA until a year after he was drafted, but he was immediately the Kings’ best rookie last season. He was NBA ready right from the start and was named MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. He can shoot, he can pass, and he’s got good size for a guard. He should be a starter level player in the NBA for at least a few more years.
4. Wenyen Gabriel
Wenyen Gabriel was signed to a two-way contract with the Kings, so it’s likely that he’ll spend most of the season with the Stockton Kings, Sacramento’s G-League affiliate. He had two so-so years at Kentucky before going undrafted and ending up on the Kings summer league team. He showed some glimpses in Las Vegas and he’s only 21 years old. He’s already got a nice shooting touch from outside and he’s in the mold of an interior shot blocker. He should get some nice time to develop in the G-League and could be a player to look out for in the future.
Their young core. It appears as if the Kings’ trips to the lottery have begun to yield results. Perhaps all of their futility the past decade will finally pay off. Fox, Giles, Jackson and Mason was a great draft haul. Fox, Jackson and Mason have already displayed NBA readiness while Giles is a potential Rookie of the Year candidate. They still have Skal Labissiere, who exploded after the DeMarcus Cousins trade. He came back down to Earth last season but he’s just scratched the surface of what he could potentially develop into. And then there’s Bagley. Bagley’s got all the tools to be a superstar in the NBA. The Kings are certainly hoping that’s what he becomes.
A losing culture. Constant losing can be devastating in the NBA, especially with young players. That’s the risk you take when you end up tanking or just flat out being bad. Just like how a culture of winning can take place, the opposite is true as well. Losing becomes the norm and that’s what fans and players alike come to know and expect. The Kings have a long way to go to get back to respectability. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s got to start somewhere. The Kings really need to show the world this season that they no longer are a pushover. They don’t need to win so much as they need to be competitive. A bunch of losses by one point is better than a bunch of blowouts.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Kings make the playoffs?
As the current owners of the longest streak of missing the playoffs, the fans up in Sacramento have got to be anxious for something good. The bad news is the Kings are nowhere near ready to compete for a postseason berth, not in the Western Conference. The good news is that they may finally have the foundation to eventually reach that goal. It’s baby steps, and to borrow a phrase from the Philadelphia 76ers, they need to “trust the process.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.