Nets 2021-22 NBA season preview and prediction

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James Harden Steve Nash Kevin Durant NETS TREATED ART 2021 Brooklyn Bridge in background
James Harden Steve Nash Kevin Durant NETS TREATED ART 2021 Brooklyn Bridge in background

The Nets enter the 2021-22 season with the highest expectations in the NBA, both internally and externally.

Injuries to two of their stars ended their postseason run in round two last season, despite Kevin Durant’s otherworldly efforts.

Now they’re back with an equally loaded roster, a full offseason and training camp to work with, and a newfound chip on their shoulder.

Here is a preview of Brooklyn’s upcoming season and their chances at bringing the championship to Atlantic Avenue...

Offseason recap

None of Brooklyn’s big-minute postseason players were lost, save for Jeff Green. Spencer Dinwiddie left in free agency but didn’t get to contribute much last season due to injury. So long as their Big Three is intact, the Nets offseason will be judged by how they fill the gaps around them with limited cap space and picks.

It’s safe to say they understood the assignment. Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown re-signed after strong postseasons. Brooklyn traded Landry Shamet for Jevon Carter to provide some backcourt defense when called upon. They also beefed up their frontcourt by signing Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge, and James Johnson.

Perhaps the two most influential additions were that of Patty Mills and Cam Thomas. The former is a veteran scorer with lots of deep postseason experience, while the latter is already proving to be a steal at his pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

The Kyrie Irving dilemma

We can’t discuss this Nets season any further without mentioning Irving. His refusal to get vaccinated for COVID-19 has clashed with city mandates making him ineligible to appear in home games. Instead of accommodating a part-time player, Joe Tsai and Sean Marks, decided to indefinitely sideline the star.

Is Brooklyn still the favorite without Irving? Yes, but the gap is significantly smaller. Milwaukee can conceivably win a seven-game series against Durant and James Harden. An injury to either of them in the regular season, with no Irving, turns the Nets into a mid-tier team. If this situation drags into the playoffs and someone goes down, well we saw what happened last year.

There are two realistic resolutions -- Irving gets vaccinated or the city lifts its mandate -- and one unlikely scenario in which he’s traded. The bigger question is when does the situation grow untenable to the point one of the above happens, and how will it impact the team?

February 15, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13, right) and guard Kyrie Irving (11, left) during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
February 15, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13, right) and guard Kyrie Irving (11, left) during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Rotations

Assuming Irving won’t be good to play for a while, expect the Nets to roll out Harden at point guard flanked by Joe Harris and Durant on the wings with two “bigs” up front. One is likely to be Griffin, with the other being Millsap, Bruce Brown, and Nic Claxton among others in flux depending on health and performance.

Though head coach Steve Nash experimented with a number of looks this preseason, the above starting lineup allows Mills to retain his bench role and slide Durant down a position so as not to wear him down too much in the regular season. The smaller Durant at the four or five lineups will come to play in crunch time and the postseason.

Mills will be Brooklyn’s sixth man with the aforementioned bigs playing a role off the bench, plus Aldridge. Fans shouldn’t be surprised if Johnson, Thomas, DeAndre’ Bembry, or Carter get minutes as well. A set 10-man rotation likely won’t exist while Nash continually experiments in the regular season.

Without Irving, Brooklyn will need to decide on a fifth man for their go-to, do-or-die lineup. Assuming Harden, Harris, Durant, and Griffin make up four of the slots and Nash prefers the benefits of small-ball to an extra big when it counts, the fifth will end up being between Mills and Brown depending on the matchup.

Prediction

Barring catastrophe, Brooklyn should be able to cakewalk its way to home court advantage in the playoffs. However their 2021-22 isn’t about the first 82 games, but how they secure the next 16.

Health is the biggest factor with Irving a close second. Even without their explosive maestro, a healthy Nets team will be the favorites across the league, for good reason.

No other team in the league can claim to have two players vying for best player in the league, and in a star-driven NBA, combined with Brooklyn’s reliable depth, that’s the ball game. Nothing is ever assured, but the Nets have a helluva championship window in front of them this season.

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