The Brooklyn Nets enter the 2019-20 NBA season with very different expectations than they did a season ago. Lots of teams enter training camp talking about culture and/or how they’re being overlooked. Well, the Nets were one of the few teams that were right in 2018-19. They entered last season having won only 28 games the season prior and ended the season with 42 wins and a playoff berth.
Being overlooked can benefit a team in numerous ways, but that is not a luxury they will have this season.
The Nets swapped out D’Angelo Russell for Kyrie Irving, they return a fully healthy Caris LeVert and they still have Kevin Durant to look forward to in 2020-21. Further, they fleshed out their depth at the center position and swapped out Allen Crabbe for Taureen Prince. Long story short, the Nets are ready for the national spotlight. Now they’ll have to live up to the hype instead of playing above expectations.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Nets became contenders incredibly quickly – going from the laughing stock of the league to the envy of it in about two years. Even with Durant missing most – or probably all – of 2019-20, the Nets will still boast top-10 talent. They swapped out D’Angelo Russell for Kyrie Irving and Jared Dudley for Wilson Chandler (who will serve a 25-game suspension to begin the season). The Rodions Kurucs allegations are unfortunate and troubling, but it’s a single issue rather than an indication of a bad culture within the team. They’ll be fun this season and if Durant returns to form in 2020-21, look out. The one caveat for 2019-20 is if Kyrie can put his ego aside and be the Nets on-the-court leader. He struggled to do so in Boston. But last year was a learning opportunity and Irving should be better prepared to be a team-centric leader with the Nets this year.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Drew Maresca
The Nets had one of the best offseasons in the league. It’s just unfortunate for them that they likely won’t reap the benefits until the 2020-21 season as Kevin Durant is expected to miss the entire year as he recovers from an Achilles injury. Not to worry, Kyrie Irving and company are more than capable of leading the Nets back to the playoffs. Sean Marks inherited a mess of a team when he took over in the front office, and he’s done a remarkable job of cleaning it all up and putting a real contender together. Brooklyn has become a destination for marquee players and that was evident this past summer. Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, and Wilson Chandler were solid pickups. Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs were spot on draft picks. It will be huge if this team can manage to win a playoff series while Durant recovers.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Brooklyn Nets have sure come a long way from 2013 when they were trading just about every future draft asset possible in a failed attempt at a title. After a few seasons of smart and patient moves on the periphery, the Brooklyn Nets managed to sign both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant as free agents this offseason. Irving is coming off of a drama-filled season in Boston but is still in his prime and one of the top point guards in the NBA. However, Durant will likely miss this upcoming season after tearing his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Despite the lost season for Durant, this is a major win for the Brooklyn Nets, who managed to outmaneuver the New York Knicks in attracting Irving and Durant. Brooklyn made some nice smaller transactions as well, including trading D’Angelo Russell, via sign and trade, along with Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham to the Golden State Warriors for a protected 2020 first-rounder as part of the deal to acquire Durant. The Nets also added Taurean Prince, who could be a nice addition on the wing, in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks. Signing Garrett Temple to a two-year $9,772,350 contract (team option on final season) is also a good value. However, I’m not a big fan of signing DeAndre Jordan to a four-year, $39,960,716 contract considering his declining performance and with Jarrett Allen already being on the roster. However, Jordan is close friends with Durant, so adding him makes sense and could be a good move if Jordan ends up playing with more intensity than he has in recent seasons. It wasn’t a perfect offseason for Brooklyn, but adding Irving and Durant is a major win and sets Brooklyn up nicely in the short and long-term.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Nets have earned their keep and standing in the Association. Behind the brilliance of Sean Marks, they went from one of the most undesirable situations in league history to arguably the healthiest situation in the present day. The success has led to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant making their way to the Barclays Center. Irving will be on his own this year with KD on the sideline, but there’s something about being home that lifts a weight off your shoulder. He’ll leave the drama behind in Boston and Cleveland to start anew under head coach Kenny Atkinson. With a backcourt partner like Caris LeVert, things could get real very fast regarding the cohesiveness and danger this team presents. DeAndre Jordan will be hounding the rim on both ends of the floor, back tapping whatever misses comeand finishing whatever passes he’s thrown. Taurean Prince might’ve been one of the best under-the-radar acquisitions in the league, as his commitment to the defensive end and improvement as a shooter are well-documented. With all of this said, the Atlantic Division rivals the Pacific for the toughest in the Association. Regardless of where they end up, the Nets are playoff-bound again – and this time, it could be a special run.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
On paper, the Brooklyn nets won the off-season in a walk. They nabbed arguably the top two free agents in the market and added to a roster via trade that was already respectable. The problem is Kyrie Irving was a cancer to the Celtics a year ago, and Kevin Durant may miss most of, if not all of the season to an injury that kills basketball careers. On paper these moves are incredible, but in practice, the Nets may have killed a really good thing. The Nets had built an impressive young core that looked to be a team on the rise but to make it all work they parted with the roster’s only All-Star and went all-in on the named guys. If Irving can bounce back to his All-Star form and buy into his young guys and his coach, then Brooklyn will be better. If Durant can be the guy that comes back from an Achilles to remain an All-Star, the Nets could be title contenders. The problem is neither one of those things seems likely, especially not this year. The Nets bet big, but it remains to be seen if that bet will pay off.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Nets were extremely creative over the offseason, maximizing their cap space to sign Kyrie Irving while using D’Angelo Russell in a dual sign-and-trade deal with the Golden State Warriors for Kevin Durant. The move gave Brooklyn a hard cap for the season at $138.9 million, but given the team has 15 guaranteed players at $126.1 million with no additional exceptions, the spending limit is mostly immaterial.
Taurean Prince is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. The Nets already reached a deal with Caris LeVert on a three-year, $52.5 million deal. Brooklyn also has to decide on team options for Jarrett Allen and Dzanan Musa before November.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kyrie Irving
Irving’s talent is almost impossible to comprehend. He is a top-five shooter, ballhandler and finisher. He is extremely crafty, can score in isolation, initiate the offense and play off the ball. His defense leaves something to be desired, but mostly because he gives up serious size to opposing guards. He is undoubtedly the Nets most skilled and versatile offensive player – at least until Durant returns from injury. There is enough talent alongside Irving so he doesn’t need to not burn himself out, and can even rest (i.e., load management) when it’s situationally appropriate. Irving will probably start the season with a major chip on his shoulder. But he won’t be judged on how he starts the season – it’s all about how he ends it. Regardless of how he plays, the most important thing will be for Irving to demonstrate patience and a willingness to mentor his new teammates. Taking a true leadership role hasn’t been Irving’s strong suit and displaying progress would make a lot of executives in Brooklyn feel a whole lot better about their investment in him.
Top Defensive Player: Jarrett Allen
Allen boasts a resume that few players throughout the history of the game can, having blocked LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and James Harden.
While the newly acquired DeAndre Jordan will eat into his minutes – and possibly even steal his starting job – Allen is the star of the defensive show. Allen isn’t going to hand over the starting job, telling Nets Daily that he prefers to start, but also that he’ll accept whatever role Coach Atkinson assigns him.
Allen has a strong work ethic and a great attitude, especially considering he’s only 21 years old. He still needs to grow his game in a lot of ways, but his defensive instincts have been spot-on throughout his young career – he posted the eleventh most blocks in the league last season in only his second year in the NBA.
A major knock on Allen was on full display in the postseason last year against Joel Embiid and Philadelphia. Embiid made a habit of bullying Allen in the post, and Allen simply couldn’t hold his ground. But according to Nets Daily, Allen added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, which will come in handy when battling bigger and more physical opponents – and which could help separate him and other above-average rim protectors as early as this season.
Top Playmaker: Spencer Dinwiddie
Spencer Dinwiddie attacks the basket with supreme confidence – he averaged a career high 6.6 points in the paint in 2018-19. But he can also dish the rock, too. He averaged 6.6 assists per game in 2017-18 and 4.6 in 2018-19.
He’ll probably play alongside Irving a bit but since the Nets lack true point guards, he’ll also almost certainly rack up minutes as the lead guard for the Nets’ second unit, allowing him to demonstrate his ability to create for others.
If Dinwiddie can shore up the second unit, the Nets will – once again – boast two top-tier point guards. And the drop off from Irving to Dinwiddie might be the smallest across the entire league as far as starting and backup point guards is concerned, which is a huge buoy to a team’s offensive continuity.
Top Clutch Player: Joe Harris
Joe Harris gained national attention in the last year or so, thanks entirely to his shooting ability. Harris is definitely more than just a shooter, but he is also a certifiable assassin from long-range. He shot 45.9 percent from three-point range last season and ran around screens at an elite level – according NBA.com, Harris ranked 5th in the league in average speed on offense at 5.17 mph. He also shot 47.9 percent on 4.2 attempted catch-and-shoot three-pointers per game.
Also, his time with Team USA this summer should only improve his game and work ethic, having been exposed to superstars and their processes, including Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum.
Harris’ unassuming approach and demeanor also make him a perfect fit with other similar-minded Nets like Jarrett Allen. And having a team-first shooter like Harris is a must for teams hoping to compete for a championship (e.g., Kyle Korver).
The Unheralded Player: Caris LeVert
It might be a stretch to call LeVert unheralded, but the presence of guys like Irving and (eventually) Durant will allow him to fly under the radar, even after a quasi-breakout year last season.
Fresh off of a three-year extension with the Nets, LeVert can now put financial distractions aside and focus exclusively on his game – not that that’s been an issue. He looked primed for an All-Star selection through the first few weeks of last season, but an ankle injury derailed his year and cost him more than 30 games.
A healthy LeVert will benefit from the increased offensive threat that is Kyrie Irving. He is an ideal third option alongside Irving and Durant come 2020. But LeVert will happily develop his game as the second option this season next to Irving – and the Nets could find themselves contending for an NBA title if LeVert takes his game to the next level.
Best New Addition: Kevin Durant
As much as Durant doesn’t affect the on-the-court product this season, building a dynasty is about much more than one year. Durant’s addition truly validates the Nets ascension. They have completely arrived as a force to be reckoned with. Irving was a great addition and boasting a strong core and excellent coaching staff is equally important, but adding a top-three active player moves the needle in the NBA like few other things can. Durant has the luxury of being patient with his rehab and recovery. While rumors already began to circulate about Durant’s return thanks to video of him walking without crutches in Los Angeles this summer, it’s more likely than not that Durant takes his time and returns at the start of the 2020-21 season. And the Nets should do everything in their power to ensure that is the case – unless his recovery is so far ahead of schedule that the team and every expert available all agree that he there is no doubt he is back to 100%.
– Drew Maresca
WHO WE LIKE
1. Dzanan Musa
Musa possesses a good jumper and the ability to guard NBA wings. His potential is obvious. Unfortunately, Musa sprained his ankle before the start of the 2018-19 season and he never found his niche with the club. But considering the Nets moved all of their first-round picks last June, the Nets can look to 2019-20 as Musa’s second rookie year. And it’s not that big of a stretch considering he’s actually younger than the Nets’ actual rookie – Nicholas Claxton. And there is reason to believe that Musa will establish a spot in the rotation. He has a good motor and defensive instincts, and he performed extremely well in his stint in the G-League last season (approximately 20 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game). And more importantly, he added 20-pounds this offseason, which should prepare him to defend more positions.
2. DeAndre Jordan
As much as Allen is the Nets’ defensive anchor, he struggled defending Embiid in the playoffs (as stated above). Jordan’s game is very similar to Allen’s, only he is 10 years older and approximately 30 additional pounds heavier. Having two starting-caliber centers who can’t share the floor with one another – neither of them can stretch the floor – might be unusual for the modern NBA, but it also guarantees that they’ll always have a shot blocker and rim runner available. Signing Jordan to a four-year deal with no team options was curious, but he’s obviously a good addition.
3. Nicholas Claxton
Claxton was rumored to go slightly higher than 31 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, but the Nets lucked out and grabbed him with the first pick in the second-round. He has above-average length and athleticism and his jump shot showed some potential in his sophomore season at Georgia. He will struggle to secure consistent minutes with Jordan and Allen ahead of him on the depth chart, but he has the ability to learn from two of the best shot blockers and rim-runners in the game. Claxton can definitely grow into a solid back-up center, and he could even develop into a starter if he learns to extend his motor throughout the game and continues to develop offensively.
4. Wilson Chandler
Chandler is a versatile player with a well-rounded offensive game and the ability to defend at least three positions. His three-point shooting has improved dramatically over the years – he shot 30 percent on .9 attempts per game as a rookie and 37.3 percent on 3.1 attempts per game last season. Chandler also adds a significant veteran presence. And at $2.56 million in 2019-20, he will be more than worth the money he’s being paid – once his 25-game suspension for PED use is up.
5. Coach Kenny Atkinson
Coach Atkinson – along with GM Sean Marks – has really streamlined the Nets rebuilding timeline. They seemed so far away only two short years ago, and now they could compete for a championship as early as this season. Atkinson’s pick-and-roll heavy offense was allegedly a draw for Irving and Durant, but his influence supersedes Xs and Os. Atkinson totally rebuilt the team’s culture and he created a great locker room environment, which resulted in his gaining the full trust and support of his locker room. Swapping out Russell for Irving could potentially challenge that last point considering how close the team was last season. Atkinson has his work cut out for him in satisfying two of the tougher players to coach and keep happy. But if anyone can do it, Atkinson can.
– Drew Maresca
Shooting. Joe Harris was among the best shooters in the entire league last season.
As a team, the Nets ranked fourteenth overall in three-point shooting percentage last season and some of their best shooters (by percentages) are no longer on the roster – Russell, Allen Crabbe and Jared Dudley. At first glance, it could be perceived that the Nets are in trouble.
But the Nets actually managed to improve their shooting, at least on paper. They added Irving, who shot 40.1 percent from three-point range in 2018-19. They also added Taurean Prince (39.0 percent from three-point range last season) and Wilson Chandler (37.3 percent from three-point range last season).
All three of the aforementioned players represent upgrades from an efficiency standpoint (although they shoot slightly less than the players they’re replacing). Just think, the Nets could realistically put out a starting lineup with Irving, Harris and Prince – who would have shot above .400 from three-point range last season on above-average volume. And there’s still Chandler, LeVert and Dinwiddie for opponents to contend with.
Further, the Nets weren’t shy in launching threes last season. While they didn’t shoot an elite percentage, they did shoot the fifth most three-pointers last season. So with their upgraded lineup, the Nets stand to take and make even more three-pointers.
– Drew Maresca
Too few stretch fours. The Nets have tremendous versatility – only it’s mostly centered around the guard and center positions. They have two guys who would traditionally be considered point guards (Irving and Dinwiddie), another seven wings (LeVert, Harris, Prince, Chandler, Musa, Kurucs, Temple) and three centers (Allen, Jordan and Claxton) – none of whom are known for shooting or passing from the perimeter. And that’s the vast majority of the Nets roster.
Sure, positionless basketball has been adopted by essentially every team in the league. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need versatile bigs – it just means that you need multi-dimensional ones. The Nets don’t have a single big man who can shoot and handle the ball while also rebounding and maintaining a defensive presence in the paint. Now that is a tall order for most players, but that’s why really good stretch-fours are in such high demand.
The Nets 2018 draft picks—Musa and Kurucs – can both potentially grow into stretch fours; both are 6’9 and both have the offensive characteristics of a modern-day stretch-four. But neither boasts the physique to bang with bigger power forwards. Musa allegedly gained nearly 20-pounds this offseason, but Kurucs’ situation has hit a snag. The Nets are certainly disappointed in Kurucs’ recent legal troubles, and they will be greatly affected by the outcome. But either way, neither is prepared to log heavy minutes at the four spot just yet.
The Nets can definitely play around their deficiency and get by without a stretch-four, but they become significantly better if they’re able to add a top-tier forward who can stretch the floor offensively and bang down low and rebound defensively.
– Drew Maresca
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can Kyrie Irving play nice with others?
It’s hard to say so with certainty. His recent past doesn’t speak highly of his ability to do so. He abruptly asked for a trade from Cleveland, and then he wore out his welcome in Boston thanks to an allegedly holier-than-thou attitude.
But Brooklyn might be different. After all, he likely won’t have to endure any prolonged periods of subpar play, which could change his thinking on things – and that probably won’t happen given the level Coach Atkinson had his team operating at last year.
And further, Irving had selected Brooklyn as his destination of choice. While he requested out of Cleveland, Boston was not on his short list of preferred teams. We haven’t seen a prime, locked-in Irving since the 2016 NBA Finals. His recent experiences will serve him well in his dealings with Durant, LeVert and his other teammates.
Additionally, Irving’s played for some accomplished coaches – but none as universally loved by their teams as Coach Atkinson is in Brooklyn. And because of that, Atkinson can get even more out of Irving than did Mike Brown, David Blatt, Ty Lue or Brad Stevens.
So if Irving is willing to be a big brother to his teammates and help lead the way, he’ll have the requisite support of his coaches – and that could result in the 2019-20 version of Irving being the best we’ve seen yet.
– Drew Maresca
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.