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Will the Thunder’s Big Gamble Pay Off?

Nate Duncan breaks down the Oklahoma City Thunder’s recent trades and what it means for this season and moving forward.

Nate Duncan



Now that the Oklahoma City Thunder’s moves for this 2014-15 season appear complete, let’s return to simpler times – last September before Kevin Durant’s foot injury was revealed.  Oklahoma City was one of the elite contenders, and my personal pick for the 2015 Championship.  The Thunder had fastidiously hoarded assets, and in fact had so many recent draft picks that they felt comfortable reaching with the 29th selection on Josh Huestis, on the condition he play for a year in the D-league.  With Steven Adams poised to ascend to the starting lineup, the only real hole was a bonafide two-way wing who could play above-average defense and reliably drain threes.  In the last few years the Thunder had been forced to choose between offensive and defensive units, with one-way options like Thabo Sefolosha and Andre Roberson (defense) and Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin and Anthony Morrow (offense) as the options on the wings.  With better scouting in the playoffs, teams helped off the defensive wings with impunity (the San Antonio Spurs rendered Sefolosha unplayable in 2014), while the Thunder had struggled to stop elite wings and point guards.  With Morrow, Lamb and Roberson the main options this year, the situation had not much improved, although Morrow is at least a knockdown shooter.  What’s more, the lack of quality wings limited Scott Brooks’ ability to unleash small lineups with Durant at power forward.  Opposing teams could either hide their power forward on the defensive wing, or the Thunder’s defense would suffer too badly if they went with the offensive guy.

The Thunder of course got off to a very rough start to the year.  Durant missed almost the first two months, has missed more time since with smaller injuries and now is out again for an unknown amount of time.  Westbrook missed time with a broken hand, while a Reggie Jackson trade became fait accompli after he refused a reported four-year, $48 million extension offer.  With this year slipping away and Durant’s impending 2016 free agency on the horizon, the Thunder–long trade season bystanders–sprung into action.  They moved most of their expendable assets, namely Jackson, their 2015 first-round pick and another first-rounder in the first allowable draft two-years after the first pick is conveyed.*

*The protections on those picks, per our essential Basketball Insiders Team Salary pages: 2015 (top-18 protected, top-15 protected in 2016 and 2017, otherwise converts to 2017 and 2019 second-rounders). Then a first-rounder two years after first pick is conveyed, which is lottery protected from 2017-2019, otherwise converts to two second-rounders).

In return, the Thunder obtained potential rotation players Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler.  All four are useful players, the former two possessing considerable upside. Waiters essentially fills Jackson’s role as a shot-creator for the second unit.  The 22-year-old Kanter is a very talented old-school brute with a skilled post game who can beast on the offensive glass.  Singler is a quality wing who is shooting over 40 percent on threes and won’t kill the Thunder on defense.  Augustin struggles on defense, but is a better fit offensively than Jackson since he provides more shooting and distribution. He can play off the ball with Westbrook in small lineups.

But conspicuous by absence is the true two-way wing the Thunder really needed.  In the course of firing so many prized bullets, the Thunder behaved more like they were still in asset accumulation mode than a team trying to fill the holes on a championship contender.  Kanter and Waiters are both young players with intriguing offensive ceilings (Kanter more than Waiters in my book), but very few who watched them in their first NBA homes would deem them winning basketball players at this point.  Both struggle with defense and execution at this point in their careers despite gaudy numbers on occasion.  Their best skills, individual scoring, are fairly uncomplementary when paired with Westbrook and Durant, who are far better at that than they are while still creating for others as well. What’s more, Waiters and Kanter have been prickly when asked to accept reduced roles in the past.  Kanter in particular may chafe as he seeks to build his value entering restricted free agency in the summer.

With the recent news of Durant’s upcoming absence, acquiring more wing depth and scoring should help the Thunder maintain playoff position in his stead.  It bears asking if the Thunder knew more missed time for Durant was likely, in which case obtaining a starting-quality small forward in Singler was an excellent move to preserve their playoff chances.

Nevertheless, with the number of viable options on the Thunder roster, reduced roles for everyone are coming in the playoffs. If Westbrook and Durant play 36 minutes per game (and possibly more in the playoffs), that leaves only 72 minutes distributed between Roberson, Singler, Morrow, Waiters, and Augustin among the smalls.  With Serge Ibaka playing 36, Kanter and Steven Adams would presumably get the lion’s share of the remainder at the four and five.  But that leaves no minutes for Nick Collison and Mitch McGary, not to mention Steve Novak, Perry Jones, and Lamb.  Frankly, the Thunder now have a ton of talent that simply cannot be used in the playoffs.  Consolidating their assets into a real two-way wing like Arron Afflalo (available for less than Kanter),* or even moving on other available players like Iman Shumpert or Wilson Chandler might have rounded out the roster in a much more useful fashion.

*Perhaps an overrated defender, but still better on that end than any of the OKC wing brigade aside from the offensively punchless Roberson.

Make no mistake, the Thunder certainly have a better overall roster than at the start of the year.  Singler and Augustin in particular should be upgrades for this year over their departed counterparts.  But overall OKC resembles an 18th century ship of the line that can only bring some of it’s considerable broadside to bear on the enemy at once.  Consolidating that firepower into a cogent eight-man rotation might have been a more useful application of the assets expended.

But perhaps more interesting are the financial implications.  Oklahoma City will be taxpayers for the first time this season, doling out $2.9 million in tax payments while foregoing the league’s tax distribution, usually around $3 million per team. That in itself is a surprise, given the Thunder’s famous reluctance to pay the tax likely cost them James Harden.  It is a bit odd the Thunder did not make an effort to get under by trading Jeremy Lamb given his complete absence from the rotation, although that may have been an impossibility at the late hour when the Kanter and Novak deal came together.

Depending on who re-signs and for how much, the potential tax implications beyond this season are massive.  Here is the Thunder cap sheet for the upcoming summer:

Thunder Current

The Thunder have $78.3 million committed without including restricted free agents Kanter and Singler.  Both will expect significant raises.  If either leaves, OKC will likely be unable to use the full mid-level exception due to their proximity to the apron.*  If they did, they could face big problems with the resultant hard cap, like the Clippers have this year.  In any event, Singler and Kanter are both better players than could likely be obtained via any cap exceptions this summer.  Thus there will be considerable pressure to retain them, especially considering the assets surrendered in exchange.  No doubt the Thunder will be going all out for their final audition season to secure Durant’s long-term commitment.

*There might be some ways around this, such as dumping Jones and Lamb or using the stretch provision on Novak’s $3.7 million to spread that amount over three years.

What kind of contracts will Singler and Kanter command? Assessing the overall market for this summer would be an entire series of articles in itself, but suppose Singler re-signs for a three-year, $18 million deal and Kanter for four years, $48 million.*

*Either of these estimates could end up too low given the potential volatility of the market and what are reputed to be Kanter’s outsized demands.  The Thunder would also likely start their deals as low as possible and give them the maximum raises to reduce the tax payment in year one.  This is just a rough estimate.

In that case, the Thunder would be deep into the tax, $14.2 million over the tax line with $26.6 million owing to Uncle Adam.

Kanter re-sign

This scenario does not even consider this summer’s signing of 2014 first-rounder Huestis, which the Thunder promised to induce a year of indentured servitude in the D-league.  Any additional signings at that point would cost $2.50 per $1, or even $3.25 per $1 once they exceed $15 million over the tax.  Even if Clay Bennett and his ownership group have turned over a new leaf, that leaf would have to be gilded indeed to stomach a tax payment over $25 million.  Even if Singler were allowed to walk, Huestis and Kanter alone probably put Oklahoma City around $10 million over the tax line with a $16 million payment.

Another interesting note is the scenario if Durant re-signs.  OKC will catch a slight break for 2016-17 as he will have nine years of experience, making him eligible for the 30 percent rather than 35 percent max for players with 11 or more years of experience.  As a result we may see Durant sign a three-year maximum deal with a third-year player option so that he can become a free agent again after 2018 when he will be eligible for the 35 percent max (and the cap will likely have gone up quite a bit more than even in 2016).

Nevertheless, Durant’s cap hold for his projected $25.4 million max salary in 2016 will likely preclude OKC doing much in free agency even if he re-signs, assuming Kanter and Singler are retained this summer.  And that is to say nothing of retaining 2016 free agents Waiters, Augustin, and Morrow.

The upshot of the last two months’ activity is OKC going all-in for this year–and possibly for the years to come–with this supporting cast.  It was probably their last chance at acquiring young players who can both help now and continue to grow.  But if that strategy is continued to its ultimate end, it is going to cost Bennett a pretty penny next year.  If Kanter or Singler fail to become major contributors this year, that kind of tax bill could prove very difficult to stomach.  And if Kanter’s contract demands prove too exorbitant or he wants to go somewhere he can start, it is not impossible that the Thunder would move on from him after the season in part to lessen the tax bill.  They are making all the right noises about re-signing him for the long term, but every team with a restricted free agent says that to dissuade higher offers they might have to match.

Even if Singler and Kanter are retained, it is very likely the Thunder will feel the need to engage in significant cost-cutting moves this summer.  For that reason, they may regret failing to find takers for Lamb and Jones during this season before their fourth-year salary increase and another season on the bench makes trading for them less palatable.  It also calls into question the $3.7 million per season extension for Collison.  “Mr. Thunder” was rewarded for his loyalty using a rare CBA provision for players with more than 10 years of service with the same team, which allowed his extension to start at a higher amount.  But he is probably a minimum contract-quality player at this point in his career, and probably will not really be in the rotation if Kanter is around.  If the Thunder have to surrender assets to dump salary, or give up a valuable player to reduce the tax bill, the needless overpay for Collison could end up looking bad.

Regardless of how this season turns out, the Thunder finances will be a key question this offseason.


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



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



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



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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