For all intents and purposes, the first season of the Dwane Casey era in Detroit went according to plan. The Pistons went 41-41, made the playoffs and were trounced by Milwaukee in a sweep in the first round.
This is the space Detroit finds themselves in: A middling team with slim, top-heavy talent that could as easily sneak into the postseason as they could find themselves out of it. But in a league that’s shown competitiveness where overall competence can be a vehicle for drawing free agents, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
If there is a time to strike when the league least expects it, it’s now. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond’s first year-and-a-half together has revived this Detroit group back into a playoff team. Dwane Casey’s done this with the Raptors before, and we could be seeing a quicker transformation in the Motor City. Reggie Jackson finally seems to be getting back to himself after multiple seasons of hampering injuries. Luke Kennard should be a popular candidate to make a significant jump as one of the better tertiary scorers in the game. The team brought in Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris and Tony Snell to bolster its depth as well. This writer would be surprised if Detroit doesn’t finish somewhere in the top eight in the East for a second straight season.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Pistons underwhelmed in 2018-19. But at least Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin made it through an entire season without an injury. Entering 2019-20, they definitely added some nice pieces like Derrick Rose, Tim Frazier, Markieff Morris and rookie Sekou Doumbouya. But their roster didn’t have enough star power in the 2018-19 season to get them beyond the first-round of the playoffs – and they’ve added no new star power since. There is far too much depth and parity in the East for the Pistons to expect too much success. Their best bet might be a self-initiated rebuild. Andre Drummond has a player option for 2020-21. I’m sure most people in the Pistons’ front-office are already praying he opts out to try his hand in free agency.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Drew Maresca
The Detroit Pistons had a pretty solid offseason, in my opinion. I think drafting Sekou Doumbouya at 15th overall in this year’s draft was a nice move. Signing Derrick Rose to a two-year $15 million contract and Markieff Morris to two-year $6,560,000 contract (player option on final season) is a good value overall. I also like that the team claimed Christian Wood off waivers. And while Michael Beasley hasn’t turned out to be the player he was projected to be coming out of college, he could add some scoring off the bench and was signed to just a one-year, $2.2 million deal. The Pistons don’t have the overall talent or depth of the Milwaukee Bucks or Indiana Pacers, but they are a solid Central Division team and could be a tough matchup on any given night.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Pistons seem to be stuck in “no man’s land.” That is, a team that’s good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to actually win anything significant once they’re there. They do have Blake Griffin, a player 29 other teams would love to have. Griffin has expanded his game to the point where he’s one of the best all-around big men in the league. Another bright spot for Detroit is the fact that Reggie Jackson played in all 82 games last season and shot a career-high 36.9 percent from three. Andre Drummond also had a resurgent season this past year. The three of them from the Pistons core group. They also have some intriguing young players. Bruce Brown became a starter as a rookie, and Sekou Doumbouya is an interesting prospect. In the East, the Pistons are pretty much a lock for the postseason, but unfortunately for them, their prospects of advancing past the first round seem rather slim.
3rd Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Pistons are one of those teams that has everything they need to be a playoff contender. They have two All-Star level guys in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, they have solid guards, some depth on the bench, quality coaching. There is no reason the Piston’s shouldn’t be a playoff team… except for injury concerns. Durability is the Pistons big unknown. Blake Griffin, who is basically everything to this team has missed 10-15 games (or more) a year since 2013. Last year was maybe his best year, where he logged 75 games but was hobbled going into the playoffs, ultimately requiring another surgery. The Pistons are good enough when healthy, but that’s not the same variable for the Pistons as it is for virtually everyone else, mainly because of the core players have missed serious time over the last few years making them hard to believe in.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Pistons are flirting with the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with $130.8 million in guaranteed salary towards 14 players under standard contracts. The team will reportedly sign Michael Beasley to a make-good deal. If he or Christian Wood lands the final roster spot, the franchise will be right up against the tax.
By using most of their Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions on Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris, Detroit has a hard cap of $138.9 million. Before November, the franchise needs to decide on the team option for Luke Kennard. Thon Maker is extension eligible before the start of the season.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin is far and away the best offensive player on this Pistons team. In 75 games last season, Griffin averaged a career-high in points at 24.5 per game while adding in 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists. As some of his athleticism has faded due to age and nagging injuries, Griffin has accordingly reinvented his game over the past three-and-a-half seasons. This culminated last year when Griffin shot 36.2 percent from three on seven attempts per game (also a career-high), on his way to his highest effective field goal percentage since 2013-14. This new wrinkle in his game has allowed Griffin to remain a top player and elite on the offensive end. Assuming his left knee holds up, he will continue to produce at the level he always has this season.
Top Defensive Player: Andre Drummond
Death, taxes and Andre Drummond controlling the Little Caesars Arena paint. Drummond enters his eighth year having played at least 78 games in all but one season. He’s led the NBA in rebounds per game in three seasons, including the last two. He’s led the NBA in total rebounds four straight seasons, and in offensive rebounds for six straight. His career average in blocks per game is 1.8, steals per game is 1.6 and he’s been number one in defensive win shares for two years in a row. Enough said.
Top Playmaker: Blake Griffin
One of the more underrated things in the NBA over the last 10 years is Blake Griffin’s playmaking ability. While most dedicated basketball fans have been aware of it for years, it feels like the general public doesn’t recognize how much Griffin holistically brings to an offense. Despite not being a primary ball-handler, Griffin has averaged right around five assists per game for the last five seasons. And while that number may not jump out at you, in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass, Griffin had an assist rate of 26.9 percent, putting him in the 99th percentile compared to the rest of the league. In fact, he hasn’t had an assist rate outside of the 95th percentile for his entire career.
Griffin’s proficiency from anywhere on the floor has been extremely obvious since he became a competent three-point shooter. That playmaking ability is even more pronounced in Detroit where the Pistons desperately need him to do so.
Top Clutch Player: Blake Griffin
There’s no reason to look anywhere else. Griffin is Detroit’s best offensive player and playmaker. His ability to shoot from three makes him the go-to player in any late-game situation the Pistons could find themselves in. The only other potential answers are Reggie Jackson or newly-acquired Derrick Rose, and you’d be hard-pressed to convince many people they’re better options than Griffin at this point in their careers.
The Unheralded Player: Luke Kennard
Kennard gets the nod here primarily because he’s the only capable shooter on the roster outside of Griffin and Reggie Jackson. No one else outside of Tony Snell really takes threes, and Snell will never shoot at a high enough volume to move the needle. Kennard is a 40 percent guy you expect to stay that way even when his attempts go up. He was also very good in Detroit’s first-round playoff series loss last season, where he averaged 15.0 points per game and was 9-15 from three in four games.
Best New Addition: Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose! After some light talks of a Chicago reunion, Rose ultimately chose to sign a two-year deal with Detroit. Rose has been somewhat of a repetitive story over the last five seasons; seasons full of injuries and uneven play. However, Rose’s memorable 50-point effort in this past season gives Detroit hope that he still has something left in the tank. Production similar to last season would be a welcome addition to the Pistons.
– Drew Mays
WHO WE LIKE
1. Reggie Jackson
While oft-maligned, Reggie Jackson is still an assertive guard teams have to account for. Last season, Jackson played all 82 games and posted career-highs in three-point percentage and three-point attempts. He finished third on the team in scoring behind Griffin and Drummond and is capable of making something happen at any moment. With Griffin operating as a point-forward and Rose now in the fold, Jackson will hopefully be able to direct his energy towards playing away from the ball and attacking accordingly. That’s what’s best for him individually and the Pistons as a team.
2. Markieff Morris
When you think of the Detroit Pistons, you think of hard-nosed, grind-it-out basketball. This began with the Bad Boys and rolled into their championship season in 2004, but the essence still exists in 2019, and Markieff Morris fits that vibe. Morris is a tough veteran who will look to provide frontcourt depth behind Griffin and Drummond.
3. Tony Snell
Throughout a six-year career, Tony Snell has become a Central Division staple. Snell spent three years in Chicago followed by three years in Milwaukee and now enters his first year in Detroit. Snell is the ultimate role player, a long-armed wing who is a career 38.2 percent three-point shooter. He will fit in just fine, likely playing 20 minutes per game as he did for Detroit’s division foes.
4. Sekou Doumbouya
Detroit’s first-round pick may have been the youngest prospect in the draft, but he has the most professional basketball experience of anyone selected this past June. Doumbouya began playing pro basketball when he was 15 and spent 2018-19 playing in a league in France. Though it will take Doumbouya time to develop, he’s a skilled 6-foot-9, 229-pound forward who gets to learn from Blake Griffin every day. There’s plenty of reason to expect exciting things from him this year.
– Drew Mays
Last season, Detroit was a relatively weak offensive team. Without much in the way of offseason additions, that will likely be true again this season. Accordingly, the offensive strengths for the Pistons are Blake Griffin and their offensive rebounding. Barring injury, Griffin can carry this team offensively. He’s still that good.
Regarding the offensive glass, the Pistons were sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate. What is a great way to boost an otherwise struggling offense? Get more chances. Any team with Andre Drummond will be good with that.
Defensively the Pistons were solid. They finished 12th in the league in both points allowed per 100 possessions and turnover rate and will need to at least repeat those numbers to vie for the playoffs.
– Drew Mays
The offensive talent around Griffin. Detroit has been in the bottom third in points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage the previous three seasons. Reggie Jackson will need to be more good Reggie than bad Reggie, Kennard will need to build upon last year’s playoff performance, Rose will need to be effective and healthy and Doumbouya will need to add something. Of course, if Griffin’s knee flares up for an extended amount of time, it may not matter how everyone else plays.
– Drew Mays
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Pistons return to the playoffs in an improved East?
Even if Blake Griffin misses time, it still feels like the Pistons will slog their way to 38-40 wins. That’s just what they do. The question is, will that be enough to once again make the playoffs in a revamped East?
This writer’s guess is no. Every team above Detroit in the Eastern Conference last year will be relevant again this year, and several teams have legitimate reasons to believe they can be playoff teams. Detroit’s roster is thin. Coupled with the injury history of their core, it seems wise to take the field for that final playoff spot.
– Drew Mays
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.