The Brooklyn Nets are coming off a wildly successful season, relative to the season prior. They increased their win total by an impressive 14 games, eclipsing .500 and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
But instead of seeing an organic rebuild through, the Nets identified an opportunity to put their rebuild into hyper speed. And they took it – signing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to max contracts. And while it’s become incredibly commonplace for stars to change teams and pair up, the Nets are in the unusual situation of being without one of their new stars – Durant – for what will probably be the entire 2019-20 season.
While the Nets still have more than enough talent to improve on their 2018-19 win-total without Durant, the increased expectations and extra hoopla that goes along with playing in Brooklyn may result in those within the organization feeling added pressure to achieve success sooner than later. So what do the Nets need to happen for 2019-20 to be considered a success?
Before we dive into the keys to success, it’s worth noting that while — as said in the Nets’ 2019-20 Season Preview — this year should be viewed as an opportunity to build a foundation. We can assume that the Nets will instead be judged harshly almost immediately — and even more so when they inevitably struggle. Therefore, the Nets will need a lot to break their way to receive praise from outside the locker room.
So what, pray tell, do the Nets need to go right in order for 2019-20 to be deemed a success? The following is a list of three things that could greatly improve the Nets’ in 2019-20 – none of which are moonshots, but none are guarantees, either.
Uncle Drew Stays Injury-Free
The first thing that must be in place is a healthy Irving. Irving’s impact on the game is obvious. He can score from almost anywhere on the floor, breakdown defenses off-the-dribble regardless of who’s defending him and create for teammates like few others can.
But in order to affect the game, he must remain healthy. Irving hasn’t played in 70 or more games since 2016-17. In fact, Irving has only played 70 or more games in three of his eight professional seasons. And he’s played in less 60 games in three separate seasons, too.
Irving has suffered from numerous ailments throughout his NBA career (and even before). including an injured toe/foot in college and a concussion early in career. He also sprained his shoulder, strained his hip (twice) and broke his hand, finger and jaw – just to name a few. He was also famously shut down following Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals (broken knee cap) and for most of the second-half part of the 2017-18 season (knee soreness resulting in surgery) – the latter also caused him to also miss the entire 2018 NBA Playoffs.
To say that Irving is injury prone may be a stretch, but there is a clear history – especially with his knees. And what’s more concerning, Irving already suffered an injury in his first season with the Nets – before the calendar even turned to October; he suffered a facial fracture – which is nowhere near serious enough to force him to miss time, but it will force him to wear a mask. So as much as the Nets’ roster, organization and coaching staff will look to Irving to lead the way on-the-court, he must be available to do so. And staying healthy is a big part of that equation.
Kyrie Irving Takes Charge
The second thing the Nets must have break their way to reach their full potential in 2019-20 is for Irving to grow into a leadership role. Historically, Irving’s leadership style has left much to be desired. He seems to disengage from teammates and rub them the wrong way when he’s needed most.
To his credit, Irving owned up to his past transgressions at the Nets 2019-20 media day.
“A lot of those battles I thought I could battle through (in Boston’s) team environment, I wasn’t ready for,” Irving said. “And I failed those guys. I didn’t give them everything I could have during that season. In terms of me being a leader and bringing everyone together, I’ve failed.”
While it’s nice to see Irving taking responsibility, a plan to improve is equally important. Irving also alluded to not taking the “necessary steps to get counseling or therapy” in past seasons, and specifically while dealing with various stressors in Boston.
Irving also said that he didn’t let others (teammates) close because, “a lot of the joy I had from basketball was sucked away from me.”
Irving is a smart and savvy individual, and he understands that interacting with the media is all about sincerity. Hopefully for Irving and the Nets, Irving’s statements were entirely genuine – and there is no reason to suspect otherwise. But more importantly, he’s hopefully put a support network around him – especially if he recognizes that professional situations have become overwhelming in the past. The Nets badly need an engaged and team-centric Irving to set the tone for their roster in 2019-20. And it’s pretty clear that – at least at times – Irving is the only guy capable of slowing himself down.
Caris LeVert’s Time To Shine
The final key to the Nets short-term success is Caris LeVert understanding his role now and in the future. LeVert appeared to be on track for his first All-Star appearance last season, but a foot injury limited him to 40 games in 2018-19. No one is questioning if LeVert is capable of stepping into the side kick role alongside Irving. After all, LeVert has experience playing alongside a high-usage point guard. In fact, the best comparison to what this season might be like for LeVert is probably the end of last season after he returned from injury.
Upon LeVert’s return, teammate D’Angelo Russell had blossomed into something of a star. Russell posted a usage rate of 33.6 in the 2019 playoffs, whereas Irving’s was only 29.8 through the same span (albeit in two series vs. the Nets one). And while head coach Kenny Atkinson was clearly more cautious with a recently healed LeVert than he will be this season, LeVert still averaged 16 points and 4.3 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and 45 percent on three-pointers through the first-round series against Philadelphia — not bad. And after a summer of conditioning and body work, we should only expect more.
But the bigger challenge for LeVert will be the mental side of blocking out the noise about a possible Durant return this season, controlling only what he can, and then taking a backseat to Durant upon his return.
On paper, that shouldn’t be a problem. LeVert is a scorer and slasher who plays well on-and-off the ball and converts effectively from multiple spots on the court – LeVert shot 33.3 percent from three-point land, 40.4 percent from 10-16 feet from the basket, 40.3 percent from 3-10 feet and 59.4 percent at the rim (he surprisingly shot 26.7 percent from 16 feet to the perimeter, which was probably a point of emphasis for him in the offseason).
But the game isn’t played on paper. LeVert is only 25 years-old and might feel he’s ready to take on a bigger role. He may also struggle with shifting to a role that’s predicted on playing off-the-ball even more – especially if he’s forced to do so midway through the season without time to prepare in practices, training camp and preseason exhibitions.
Optimistic Nets’ fans will point out that the third-fiddle role worked out well for Klay Thompson in Golden State playing alongside Steph Curry and Durant. But Thompson’s game is uniquely crafted to complement traditional scorers – remember when Thompson famously scored 43 points on the Knicks last season while dribbling the ball only four times? Very few players have that skillset or the freedom to play that style. And with Durant and Irving (rightfully) dominating much of the ball – and without a motion-heavy offense like Kerr’s to keep the ball and players moving – LeVert may struggle to get touches.
Atkinson will have his hands full in keeping all of his scorers happy, and LeVert could be the odd man out. If LeVert begins looking too far ahead, it could negatively affect both the present and the future equally. However, if he remains in the moment and capitalizes on the opportunities with which he’s presented, the Nets could have an even bigger big three next season than they think they do at the moment.
The Nets are primed for success in 2019-20 and beyond, but their unique situation with Durant and his rehabilitation process means they need additional output from a select few players – namely Irving and LeVert. The team needs Irving to remain healthy and grow into a locker room leader, and Brooklyn needs LeVert to block out rumors about Durant returning this season – which will inevitably swirl in a market like New York – while remaining flexible upon Durant’s return, whenever that may be.
If all of those things happen as prescribed, the Nets could find themselves ahead of schedule and ready to contend as soon as this season.
But if any of the above go awry, the Nets’ dynasty could be over before it begins.