Even after elimination, the Nets are still championship favorites

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In 2010, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in Miami, three All-Stars leading the Heat to an NBA Finals appearance and ultimately a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Those three stars ran it back in Miami and won the next two championships, delivering on a promise to win big for the city they represented.

The Nets publicly made a similar promise, to win at least one championship in a three-year window of heightened expectations with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden running the show. Injuries derailed the Nets this season, but they are confident in their odds of following the Heat blueprint.

As they should be.

“Absolutely,” Steve Nash said during an end-of-the-season press conference. “I think that’s gotta be our approach. We were very close. We faced a lot of adversity and if we can refine and improve what we do, why can’t we take this with us, grow, learn and be back with even more resolve, more of an understanding of what it takes to win?”

The Nets were not a perfect basketball team by any measure. They got wrecked on the glass and in the paint more nights than not. They came along on defense toward the end of the season, but did not have the personnel to rank atop the league. Their energy and intensity was a variable at best, as evidenced by their repeated slow starts and early double-digit deficits. They didn’t take the best care of the ball and they relied too heavily on their stars, which led to their undoing when Kyrie Irving went down with an ankle injury and James Harden attempted to play on one leg.

Yet the Nets still had a chance, and had a shot here or there gone down, or had they gotten a stop, or secured an offensive rebound, or had Kevin Durant’s shoe been one size smaller, or had Jrue Holiday not scored five points in one minute at the end of regulation in Game 7, or had Nash called a timeout in the season’s final possession, the Nets could have been in the Eastern Conference Finals as heavy favorites against a Hawks team they beat twice in the regular season.

Kevin Durant, James Harden and the Nets lost the battle this year, but could emerge victorious the next.

Kevin Durant, James Harden and the Nets lost the battle this year, but could emerge victorious the next. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

If the Nets would have beaten the Bucks, Irving would have returned in the conference finals, Harden’s hamstring would have improved and the Nets could have been your 2021 NBA champions.

Those rosy dreams were dashed by injury nightmares that threw their season off course. The Nets season is akin to maybe the Lakers, who lost LeBron James and Anthony Davis amid glaring deficiencies on both ends of the floor. All that star power should carry you to an NBA championship. When you lose early, however, those weaknesses are uglier than the injuries.

“I don’t think any team’s ever perfect, right? You’ve got to take some good with bad,” Nets GM Sean Marks said. “There’s a little bit of yin and yang involved here.”

The yin: No team in the NBA has three stars greater or equal to Durant, Harden and Irving. Not even close. The yang: Those players make a combined $117 million in a league with a $109 million salary cap. The Nets can’t afford other elite players unwilling to take a pay cut to win a championship. And when one star goes down you are left with the sum of your parts. Durant was the best player on the floor (and possibly in the league), but the rest weren’t a match for the Bucks, who had great players on both ends of the floor.

This is where the Nets must improve, even though “must” is a stretch for a team one spray of injury bug repellent away from winning the series, the conference and maybe a championship. They are paying DeAndre Jordan $10 million annually even though he did not play at all in the playoffs and does not fit into the Nets’ scheme. So now they must acquire a player who can rebound and protect the paint — someone like Jarrett Allen, who they traded away for Harden.

They must add depth without the cap space to do so. Spencer Dinwiddie is expected to decline the player option on his contract and enter free agency this summer, a source told The Daily News. If Dinwiddie was healthy in time for the playoffs, he could have played Irving or Harden’s minutes.

They must add some toughness, as PJ Tucker’s grit in one series exceeded Bruce Brown’s intensity on the season. Brown is another free agent expected to receive significant interest after his breakout season as a screener in Brooklyn. The Nets can try to keep him, but it will cost them plenty in luxury tax.

And if the role players who didn’t get any burn in Game 7 aren’t going to play in meaningful games, then those players need to be replaced with some who can. That is less of a necessity, however, in a world where three stars are fully healthy.

The Nets have weaknesses, but so do all teams. Their strengths far outweigh those shortcomings, but their strength lies in its star power, and if two stars get injured, one is not enough, no matter how bright Durant shines.

“What’s gonna be identity moving forward, and who’s gonna be a part of that? Where are some of the deficiencies that we want to try and make up,” Marks said during the press conference. “And then there’s some obvious areas where, you know, we’re pretty elite at. So how do we continue to grow them without, you know, taking a backseat and other areas? So, again, I don’t think that happens overnight. I think it’s the course of several weeks, a month of work.”

The Nets are ready to get to work on the nitty gritty, but in truth, most of the heavy lifting is done already. Three of the world’s brightest stars aligned in Brooklyn and two of those stars got hurt in the playoffs. If they can stay healthy, there’s no reason to believe this Nets team can’t win it all. They weren’t healthy, and they almost pulled it off anyway.

“I’ll be honest, I’m extremely excited about where this could go, and where we honestly envision this going,” Marks continued. “But the injuries, that’s part of sports, so I don’t ever want to use that as an excuse. ... Could we have done a better job in some areas? Potentially, yeah. But until we debrief and sit down, and really focus on those, we’re not totally going to know.”

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