Last season was a big step forward for the Sacramento Kings. And for Kings fans, it was a long time coming. For years, the forgotten sons of California have been the poster child for mediocrity in the NBA. They’ve had lottery finish after lottery finish with nothing to show for it — but that all changed last season.
Through the first couple of months of the season, the Kings even held a winning record. They ultimately finished the season at 39-43, but it was their best finish in over a decade and good enough for ninth in the Western Conference, just outside the playoff picture.
Still, no matter how you slice it, there were plenty of reasons for optimism in Sacramento — mainly, that De’Aaron Fox emerged as a budding superstar. In his second season, Fox firmly established himself as the Kings’ point guard and franchise cornerstone of the future. Marvin Bagley III also emerged as a core piece of the foundation, thus giving Sacramento two draft lotteries in a row that they seemingly got right.
The midseason acquisition of Harrison Barnes also showed that the front office is firmly committed to winning and changing the losing culture that has been prevalent in Sacramento. It should be another season of growth for the Kings and we should know a little bit more about them once this season gets underway.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Shockingly, the Kings are one of the sweethearts of the NBA. They’ve got a great deal of young talent including Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles III, that latter of which is still somehow only 21. There is also strong support around them with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Trevor Ariza. But no one is more important to the Kings’ success than De’Aaron Fox – and if he continues to improve, they very well may qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2006. But the Pacific Division will be super unforgiving and coming away with a division crown is next-to-impossible for 2019-20.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Drew Maresca
The Kings finally showed signs of growth this past season, finishing just one spot short of the playoffs. They actually had a winning record at one point during the season. After years of being in the lottery and having nothing to show for it, it appears that they finally struck gold the past two drafts with De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III. Their recent free-agent signings and trades have also made a lot of sense, something that couldn’t be said about the Kings for over a decade.
The real question is going be can they build off the success from last season and continue their upward trajectory. Even though their roster should be improved, there’s no guarantee that they make the playoffs or finish above .500. On paper, they should be able to build upon last season’s win total, but it’s possible that they might still be on the outside looking in. As long as they don’t take a step back though, that’s all that matters. But the Kings should be able to finish at least at .500 — that alone would be a huge victory for a growing franchise.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– David Yapkowitz
The excitement in Northern California is palpable when it comes to their Kings, as it should be. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield make up one of the most dynamic backcourt duos in all of the NBA. Their pace is fast and calculated, scoring in bunches while also involving teammates. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III will bring the energy that’ll give everybody fits. Though the make-up of their rostered core has essentially stayed the same, they’ve added veteran presences to bolster the experience level. Trevor Ariza, Dewayne Dedmon, and Cory Joseph will help not only with development but also in the win column. Head coach Luke Walton’s stint with the Lakers didn’t go as planned like it once did with the Warriors — but we’ll see if Sacramento is the right fit with this promising group of players.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
The Sacramento Kings signed Harrison Barnes to a new four-year, $85 million contract. This is the biggest move the Kings made this summer in what was a relatively quiet offseason. That is admittedly a lot of money for Barnes, but I will give Sacramento credit for frontloading the deal so that Barnes will be making just $18,352,273 in the 2022-23 season, the final year of his contract. Sacramento has a surprising amount of depth and has balanced out the roster with an interesting mix of young and upcoming talent, along with some notable veteran players.
Adding Trevor Ariza is a nice move if he has some gas still left in the tank, especially considering only $1.8 million of his salary is guaranteed for next season. I also like the additions of Dewayne Dedmon and Cory Joseph. Between these three, the Kings have added some defensive punch, which the team was in serious need of. However, the team still lacks the top-end talent to contend for anything more than a bottom-end playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference.
4th Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
It has been 13 seasons since the Kings last made the postseason, think about that for a minute. Top draft picks like Brandon Roy, Andrew Morrison and Andrea Bargnani were the names being talked about in the draft when the Kings last saw a playoff game. It is time. The Kings have so much young talent ready to burst on to the NBA stage as stars, so it is time. Sacramento has a head coach now that should make it work. It is time. De’Aaron Fox should be an All-Star level guy this season. Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes are exactly the right counter punches to Fox — plus they have size and athleticism, and added some solid veterans to anchor the team. It is time. With the Warriors hobbled with injury, there is a window for the Kings. It’s time.
3rd place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Kings used cap room to add veterans like Trevor Ariza, Cory Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon to a young team that wasn’t far from making the playoffs in the Western Conference last season. The team still has $4.8 million to spend via the Room Exception. Sacramento has 14 guaranteed players, suggesting the final standard roster spot will be fought for by Tyler Lydon, Isaiah Pineiro and Eric Mika.
Looking ahead, the Kings need to pick up team options on Marin Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, Caleb Swanigan and Harry Giles before November. Buddy Hield is eligible for a contract extension before the season, which is reportedly under discussion. If Hield does get a sizable deal, the Kings may not have significant cap room next summer.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield
Buddy Hield struggled a bit when he was first traded to Sacramento, but now he’s developed into one of their major building blocks. Last season, his third in the NBA, Hield had his best year yet. He started all 82 games while putting up 20.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 42.7 percent from the three-point line, plus 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
When the Kings initially traded for him as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, owner Vivek Ranadive famously proclaimed that he had Stephen Curry potential. Now Hield is no Curry, of course, but he’s a talented offensive player in his own right. He’s expanded his game to the point where he’s more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble. Entering his fourth season, and with a potential contract extension looming, look for him to take another step forward and establish himself as one of the league’s top perimeter scorers.
Top Defensive Player: Dewayne Dedmon/Trevor Ariza
I’ve got to go with two players for this category. Both new additions, Dedmon and Ariza will bring plenty of value to the Kings, especially on the defensive end. Dedmon is likely going to be the starting center and a good fit next to Bagley in the frontcourt. He isn’t particularly quick, but he is mobile enough to be a deterrent at the rim when opposing guards attack the basket, plus a decent man defender in the paint.
Ariza may be getting up there in age, but he is a veteran guy who still can be a positive on the defensive end and cover multiple positions. It’s currently unclear how much Ariza will actually be deployed, but what the Kings really need from him is to be a defensive leader. Or, Ariza’s role should be someone who will help set the tone defensively and cause a ripple effect trickling down to the rest of the team. He spent last season shuffling between lottery teams in Washington and Phoenix and, now on a team looking to win, his defensive mindset should really stand out.
Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox
Hield may be the Kings’ best offensive player at this moment — but with the game on the line, there’s nobody else on the team who you would want the ball in the hands of over Fox. Two years ago as a rookie, Fox hit several game-winners and stepped up in late-game moments. He proved he wasn’t afraid of the moment and he’ll continue to be the player the Kings will trust with the game on the line.
Part of what makes him so dangerous in crunch time situations is that he can make the right play. In the clutch, the correction option isn’t necessarily shooting the ball. Sometimes the best move is reading the defense and making a play for someone else on the team. Fox is a solid playmaker and, in late-game situations, he’s that much more difficult to defend in that he could create a shot for himself or find a teammate for a better look. Look for him to continue his growth and cement a reputation as one of the league’s best clutch players.
Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox
Just like the Kings will want the ball to be in Fox’s hands late in the fourth quarter, they’ll also want the ball in his hands throughout the majority of the game. As mentioned before, Fox has the ability to make the correct play whether that’s as a scorer or as a facilitator, and the young guard is always willing to get his talented teammates involved.
One area that Fox excels in is in transition. He’s incredibly quick on the break, and he’s constantly got his head up looking to see who’s running with him. If you get out on the break with Fox, there’s a high chance he’ll find and get you an easy look at the rim. He averaged 4.4 assists per game as a rookie, and he almost doubled that last season with 7.3. He’s got all the tools to solidify himself as one of the NBA’s elite playmakers.
The Unheralded Player: Marvin Bagley III
It’s hard to imagine a player who was a top-two pick in the draft being unheralded, but here we are. While Luka Doncic, and to a lesser extent, Trae Young, dominated the top rookie conversation last season, others, including Bagley, had great years. He may have been hit with injuries at key times last year, but he still averaged 14.9 points per game on 50.4 percent shooting and 7.6 rebounds. And that was with him coming off the bench.
Bagley should be the team’s starting power forward from day one. He is already a solid scorer in the paint, but where he stands to improve is his shooting. He’s a pretty good shooter from mid-range, but he can really add another dimension to the Kings offense by becoming a more consistent three-point shooter. He could also become a better player on the defensive end of the floor, where he has the tools to be a player who can guard multiple positions. With increased minutes this season, expect him to take a bigger leap in year two.
Best New Addition: Cory Joseph
The addition of Joseph was big in that he gives the Kings a legitimate backup point guard who can give Fox a breather. Throughout his career, Joseph has been solid. He’s a player who knows his role and doesn’t try to overstep that. He runs the offense with the second unit and he provides a defensive spark off the bench. Needless to say, that’s all the Kings will likely ask him to do.
Fox hasn’t really had a reliable backup and now he does. Although facilitating and defense will be the main things he will be asked to do, Joseph can score if necessary. He’s a decent shooter from both mid- and three-point range. The Kings have a couple of other options offensively with the second unit, so Joseph will do a solid job quarterbacking them when the starters need a rest.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Harrison Barnes
Barnes is just a solid player that plays hard on both ends of the floor. When the Kings acquired him at the trade deadline last season, he immediately made an impact. His scoring might have dropped slightly from Dallas, but he wasn’t asked to do as much on the offensive end as the Mavericks needed him to do. He shot pretty well with the Kings too, 45.5 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range. Along with Fox and Hield, Barnes helps form a very good perimeter trio. He’s also capable of playing power forward in some small-ball lineups.
2. Richaun Holmes
Holmes has quietly become one of the better backup centers in the league. All teams need solid second units and the Kings did a good job this summer of solidifying their bench. Holmes is very active around the rim both offensively and on the defensive end. He’ll crash the glass for second shot opportunities, always ready to catch a lob. Defensively, he can protect the paint and alter shots when opposing players attack the rim. On the cheap, that’s an absolute win for Sacramento.
3. Harry Giles
Giles is the real wild card here on the roster. His potential development could be the key for Sacramento to really take another step forward. Of course, Giles missed his entire rookie year with an injury and then he started off predictably slow as he adjusted to the NBA game last season. As the campaign went on, however, he started to show glimpses of the player who was once considered a highly-touted prospect. He has a very versatile skill set that is perfect for a big man to thrive in today’s NBA. Alongside Bagley as well, the Kings are in a great position for youthful big men.
4. The Kings’ Front Office
The Kings’ front office was once synonymous with incompetence. And even in the early days of Vlade Divac, both as the general manager and president of basketball operations, they still made some very questionable decisions. But in the past two years or so, they’ve actually put forth some great moves. Even better, their drafting has seemingly been spot-on. Their free-agent acquisitions have been wise and thrifty. The trades they’ve made have made sense. Hope springs eternal in Sacramento and this front office led by Divac is a big reason why. The Kings finally showed improvement on the court last season — let’s see if it will all continue in harmony.
Wing scoring, that’s a major point of strength for the Kings. The trio of Fox, Hield and Barnes have the potential to be one of the most lethal scoring units in the league out on the perimeter. All three shoot at 45 percent or better from the field, as well as 37 percent or better from the three-point line. They all can create their own shot, and Hield is rapidly improving in that regard. Simply put, they’re players that you can give the ball to and be comfortable as they try to generate some offense. Best, all three are relatively young too with their best basketball ahead of them. Laugh now, but don’t be surprised if we’re talking about this group quite a bit this season when it comes to perimeter scoring.
Defense was still a major issue for the Kings last season, and they’ll need to improve in that regard if they want to seriously enter into that upper echelon in the Western Conference. Thankfully for them, some of their new additions should help in that regard. Ariza, Dedmon, Joseph, and Holmes are all capable defenders. They’re also going to be coming off the bench, with the exception of Dedmon who will likely start. Barnes is a good defender in the starting lineup, but it’s going to take a collective effort from each starter to be a better defensive team.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Kings finish with a winning record?
Sacramento actually had a winning record early in the season. They only finished two games under .500. With continued development from their core guys and the impact of their new free-agent additions, yes, the Sacramento Kings will finally finish the season with above .500 for the first time in over a decade. Will it be good enough, however, to make the playoffs? That remains to be seen as the Western Conference has plenty of good teams. But an injury here or there on another team and that winning record could come with a Sacramento appearance in the postseason.
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.