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Can the Atlanta Hawks Keep Their Team Together This Offseason?

The Hawks have been the NBA’s darlings this season. Can they keep this team together for the long haul?

Nate Duncan

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When word began to leak out about the NBA’s new television deal late on Sunday night, October 5, the focus immediately turned to the league’s free agent landscape.  Cap dorks immediately began feverish calculations. The eventual conclusion is that the salary cap could rise to as much as $90 million for the 2016-17 season, when over $2 billion per season in TV money will line the league’s coffers.  While reports have indicated that the NBA has engaged the players’ union in talks to “smooth” the impact of the new deal over successive seasons, it now appears that the players are unwilling to acquiesce to such a scenario.  It now appears that the summer of 2016 will be a free agent free-for-all unmatched in league annals.

But for those who follow the league closely, contracts signed in the 2015 offseason could have nearly the same intrigue despite a comparatively modest projected increase from $63.065 million to $67.4 million.  A number of converging factors make this summer absolutely fascinating.  One, of course, is that looming 2016 offseason.  Maximum contracts are delineated as a percentage of the salary cap at the time they are signed, but do not adjust upward based on a rising cap in subsequent seasons.*  With the cap set to rise by almost a third in 2016, max contracts signed in 2015 could look relatively cheap in subsequent years.

*With an exception covered in the bullets below.

Now consider that nearly half the league could have $15 million or more in cap room, with many others possessing a realistic possibility for a significant contract.  While that is a lot of teams by historical norms, it pales in comparison to 2016, in which pretty much the entire league will have huge cap room.  That year, the competition between teams along with the larger maximum contracts will result in a colossal feeding frenzy. Teams are no dummies–they realize they will likely get a lot more bang for their buck this offseason than the following year.

All of these factors could serve to inflate the 2015 market by quite a bit more over past years than the projected $4 million jump in the cap alone would indicate. And that could make this summer rather difficult for a current league darling, the Atlanta Hawks.  Hawks GM in absentia Danny Ferry deserves plaudits for having built such a flexible and competitive roster.  But the price of that flexibility is the 2015 free agency of two starters and a key reserve: Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antic.*  All were wisely signed to two-year contracts in the Hawks’ landmark summer of 2013.*  With Millsap 28, Carroll 27 and Antic 31, the Hawks were locking these players up through what were likely the best years they had left while avoiding overpaying for possible decline years.  Now though, Atlanta must pay the price for those players outperforming their modest deals.**

*Ferry signed Millsap and Carroll for less starting salary and half the years that outgoing free agent Josh Smith received in Detroit.

**Atlanta would surely love to talk contract extension with all three to prevent their hitting the open market, but the 2011 CBA prohibits extensions on contracts any shorter than four years, while preventing raises of more than 107.5 percent from a player’s previous salary.

Here is what the Hawks’ 2015 offseason could look like, including cap holds for Millsap, Carroll and Antic.*

*We will assume the remainder of the Hawks’ free agents can be renounced when appropriate, extinguishing their cap holds.

 

Hawks Current Cap Holds

Under that scenario, they are currently projected to have over $9 million in cap space even with those three free agents’ cap holds.  Add in a cap hold from their first-round pick, which will probably be about number 11 since it can be swapped with the Brooklyn Nets, and that drops to around $7 million. But due to the short-term contracts signed by Millsap and Carroll, that number is not as delicious as it might seem.  Were they completing three-year deals, the Hawks could sign outside free agents up to the cap, then re-sign Millsap and Carroll for anything up to the maximum salary using the full Larry Bird exception, which allows teams to go over the cap to sign their own free agents.  But since Millsap and Carroll have only been with the Hawks two years, Atlanta is limited to the Early Bird exception if they want to go over the cap to re-sign them.  If Atlanta is over the cap when they re-sign them, that exception limits them to the higher of 175 percent of their prior salary or the Estimated Average Player Salary, likely around $5.7 million in 2015-16.  They also may only offer a four-year deal, rather than five years if the players had full Bird rights.

Millsap is a particularly difficult case as a 30-year-old coming off consecutive All-Star appearances.  He has bucked the aging trend for shorter power forwards, having his two best seasons at 28 and 29 by adding significantly to his skill level since his arrival in the A.  His abilities to shoot threes, take bigger players to the basket on closeouts and post up effectively are essential to the Hawks’ beautiful offense.  Defensively, he is highly underrated after garnering a reputation as a defensive liability playing next to Al Jefferson in Utah.  All told, Millsap ranks 16th in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus statistic, adding 5.07 points per 100 possession to the Hawks’ bottom line.  His well-rounded game is especially rare as one of only five players in the league recording both an offensive and defensive RPM above 2.00.

Right now, it is clear Millsap is a premium player, although he likely benefits immensely from the spaced floor and ball movement of Coach Mike Budenholzer’s system. Nevertheless, if he keeps up this performance the rest of the year, he would likely be worth his individual maximum of around $19 million were we only considering next season. Unfortunately, the age-related decline Millsap has successfully postponed to date remains an issue for anything longer than a one-year deal, which free agents of his caliber rarely sign.  So what is an appropriate deal with Millsap?

Remember that Marcin Gortat re-signed for a five-year, $60 million contract last offseason as a 30-year-old with a lower cap and less certainty about the influx of new TV money.  While that may have been a bit of an overpay by the Wizards with the length of the contract,* it probably was not too far above market value.  Millsap, of course, is a much better player than Gortat.

*Gortat hasn’t even been closing a lot of games for Randy Wittman in Washington, although it is possible the Wizards are not using him properly.

The most Millsap can glean via the Early Bird Exception is $16.6 million.  If the Hawks were to offer him a four-year deal starting at that amount, it would be a very fair offer considering the likelihood of decline in the later years.  Depending on the negotiations, the Hawks could possibly allow for a declining salary, opening up more room to add pieces in the upcoming years.  This would result in a four-year deal totaling around $60 million.  If Millsap demands a starting salary of more than $16.6 million, the Hawks would have to use cap space to sign him.

The timing and amount of his re-signing could also prove crucial due to the delicate situation with Carroll.  Unless Millsap re-signs for a starting salary less than his $12.35 million cap hold (unlikely in this environment), the Hawks will want to delay his signing until after Carroll to allow them as much cap room as possible. And if Millsap signs for more than the Early Bird exception, it really limits what they can do with Carroll.

The Early Bird limitations could be problem in the case of Carroll, who is due a major raise from a bargain $2.4 million this year.  He probably even deserves more than the $5.7 million Estimated Average Player Salary.*  I previously sung Carroll’s praises as one of the league’s most underrated players, and selected him to my team of East All-Stars for a “real” All-Star game. He is now up to 40 percent on threes while shooting a robust 4.3 per game.  But he also provides great cutting and energy offensively, leading to a high free throw rate for a secondary player and an overall .591 True Shooting Percentage.  Those skills in concert with his abilities as a defender at both wing positions (so the Hawks can hide Kyle Korver) and smallball four (the latter of which the Hawks don’t really utilize) are a very rare combination. Of the other wings on the market this summer, only Danny Green and Khris Middleton offer the same combination of proven three-point shooting and defense.

*This is just my opinion. It is possible Carroll may continue to remain criminally underrated and find his market value lower.

Were he 27, Carroll could merit a four-year deal starting at eight figures per in this new environment. But at 29, a long-term deal is a little dicier.  The Hawks might try one of two approaches.  The first would be a four-year deal starting right at the Estimated Average Player Salary with the maximum 7.5 percent annual raises, totaling $25.4 million.  While this may be a smaller starting salary than Carroll could get elsewhere, the number of years may be more than other teams would offer.  Depending on the market dynamics, the Hawks could offer a player option on the fourth year.  Keeping Carroll within the confines of the Early Bird exception could allow it to take advantage to add another two-way wing or big.  Of course, this also assumes Carroll and Millsap were willing to wait to actually sign their deals until after Atlanta had used its cap space—a rather dicey situation that would require a lot of trust between the parties.

 

On the other hand, if Millsap and Carroll sign immediately, but are willing to stay within the Early Bird exceptions, the Hawks can stay over the cap and retain the $5.5 million Mid-Level Exception and the $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception.  This would certainly be their preferred route.

However, Carroll may find a deal within the confines of the Early Bird exception below his market value.  In that case, the Hawks would like to look at offering him a shorter deal with higher salaries that decline in value throughout the length of the contract.  The downside there is any deal starting at higher than the Early Bird Exception would require the use of their cap space. What’s more, by using cap space they would lose the MLE and BAE, limiting any further additions to the $2.8 million Room Exception. Nonetheless, the Hawks may have little choice. Including the first-round cap hold, the most the Hawks could pay Carroll is $10.2 million to start.

Re-sign Carroll big

So a two-year deal around $21 million would be the idea.  However, that would require Millsap waiting to sign until after Carroll, and staying within the Early Bird exception.  If both Millsap and Carroll require salaries above the Early Bird Exception, the Hawks will have to look into jettisoning players like Thabo Sefolosha, Adreian Payne, Shelvin Mack, or Kent Bazemore.  That would not be ideal, but none of those players are immovable.

 

It is also possible that the Hawks may find Carroll’s contract demands too expensive. In that case, they could have the space to look for his replacement(s).  If Carroll signs elsewhere or is renounced, the Hawks could have that same $10.2 million to work with in a market that includes a fair number of wings. But that again would require the dicey plan of asking Millsap to wait to sign his new contract, and that the contract fit within the Early Bird exception.

Antic is a far simpler proposition due to what should be lower salary demands. The Macedonian is not a great individual player, but as a backup center who can shoot threes and avoid getting taken advantage of in the post he allows the Hawks to keep their style of play rolling with their bench units.  At age 33 he probably will not get a ton of offers on the open market, so a two-year deal (the minimum allowed for an Early Bird contract) starting at around $2 million per year should get it done for him.  As a restricted free agent, the Hawks have the right to match any outside offer.

Assuming the Hawks continue their dream season and reach at least the Conference Finals, retaining Millsap and Carroll should be their preferred approach.  Adding another piece is possible via cap room or more likely the MLE, but depends on the amounts of their contracts and when they are signed.  The more likely outcome is retaining Millsap and Carroll, then adding a minimal piece via the Room Exception.  Even if that occurs, in 2016 Hawks could still have as much as $20 million in cap to add another free agent and still re-sign Al Horford.  If they keep winning like this, Atlanta could prove a premium free agent destination for the first time in its history.

Team Rebounds:

  • There are many good arguments for smoothing, laid out by Basketball Insiders’ and ESPN’s Larry Coon in this piece.  As he notes, the players will be entitled to 51 percent of the revenue even if player contracts do not add up to that much–the owners would simply write the players checks to alleviate the shortfall. However, the players may get some perceived value out of getting as many big contracts as they can on the books prior to a likely CBA opt-out by one of the two sides in the summer of 2017.  Smoothing is also something the owners want more than the players.  It may just be good negotiating to avoid simply agreeing without other concessions from the NBA, which the league in turn may be unwilling to give up.  On the other hand, cynics may also note that player agents would be against smoothing because they get a cut of new contracts, but do not get a cut of checks the league gives the players to cover any shortfall below 51 percent.  What’s more, with the league’s two biggest stars set to be free agents in 2016, and LeBron James having specifically positioned himself to be so that year, they would not be too happy about their maximum salary for that year being reduced due to smoothing.
  • It was noted earlier that contracts do not adjust upward with a rising cap. They are limited to 7.5 percent annual raises for a player re-signing via Early Bird or Bird rights (or extending with his prior team) and 4.5 percent annual raises when signing with another team or changing teams via sign-and-trade. The only exception is trade bonuses, which can encompass up to 15 percent of the remaining salary on the contract at the time the player is traded.  Trade bonuses have usually been of little relevance for max players, since their built-in raises outstrip the growth in the cap, and a trade bonus cannot cause a player’s salary to exceed the overall maximum for his experience level.  But with the cap going up like crazy after 2015, even max players will be able to get their full 15 percent trade bonuses in the event they are moved.  Expect agents to push much harder for trade bonuses on max contracts than in the past–and to get them in this buyers’ market.
  • As of this writing, the Warriors currently possess the fourth-best point differential in NBA history, behind only the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.  If the Warriors can keep this up all season (and win the championship, of course), their feat will be much more impressive than those predecessors’.  Those teams all benefited from recent expansion to fatten up their victory margins.  The NBA expanded by eight teams from the 1966-67 to 1970-71 season, nearly doubling the number of teams from nine to 17.  The ABA’s 11 teams by 1970-71 siphoned away even more talent, meaning it was far easier for teams with a few dominant players to eviscerate the league as those Bucks and Lakers did.  The Bulls’ 72 win season also came in an expansion year, a few years after the league added four more teams.  Throw in terrible drafts from 1988 to 1991, and the league was much more watered down back then. With more talent from overseas, better training and player development, and perhaps most importantly much smarter front offices than in the past distributed throughout the league, winning in the NBA is harder today than it has ever been.  That makes what the Warriors are doing all the more remarkable.

 

 

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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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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