Plenty Has To Break Right For Brooklyn Nets To Emerge From Eastern Conference

Written By Mike Mazzeo on February 22, 2022
New York Sports Betting NBA Futures

The Brooklyn Nets still have a shot at coming out of the Eastern Conference. 

But a lot needs to break right. 

The Nets came into Monday at +600 to win the NBA title at most online sportsbooks in New York. Although DraftKings had Brooklyn, the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns tied as +425 favorites.

With the All-Star break closing and the season resuming Thursday, even after the blockbuster trade that sent away James Harden (in exchange for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round draft picks), even with only the eighth-best record in the East, Brooklyn still remains in the conference title hunt.

Yet there are several issues still facing the team.

First and foremost: Kevin Durant’s health

Kevin Durant was leading the league in scoring in mid-January when he went down with an MCL sprain in his left knee that was expected to sideline him four-to-six weeks.

The 33-year-old superstar could potentially return to the lineup this week, though he may need more time. If Durant is the all-world player he was before his injury, the Nets are capable of overcoming several of their other issues.

Durant’s legacy as an all-time great is already secure. But his legacy in Brooklyn will come down to whether he made the right choice by essentially siding with BFF Kyrie Irving over James Harden. Brooklyn not winning a title with arguably the best player in basketball on its roster would be a failure. 

Availability of Kyrie Irving also important

After the Harden trade, Irving basically took a victory lap on Twitter. He’d won.

As a source suggested the day of the deal, Harden’s biggest issue was Irving’s lack of availability. And the only reason the anti-vaxxer was allowed to come back on a part-time basis was because Durant wanted him to. Everyone knows how much of a box-office draw Irving is —with a mesmerizing package of dribbling moves and layup finishes — but he’s a road-only player at this point.

Will the New York City mandate be lifted allowing him to come back full-time? That’s TBD, since NYC mayor Eric Adams is leery of sending the wrong message. As it stands, Irving is available for only eight of Brooklyn’s last 23 regular-season games — and one of its last eight.

If No. 11 can only play in the Nets’ road playoff games, that’s a huge issue — regardless of Goran Dragic’s addition on the buyout market. 

Ben Simmons’ integration within Nets rotation

On paper, Ben Simmons represents an intriguing fit for Brooklyn given his versatility and defensive prowess. He could potentially get some touches in the post, serve as the screener in 1-4 pick-and-rolls, push pace on the fast break and serve as a fulcrum on “D” in switch-everything closing units.

Yet the 25-year-old hasn’t played in an actual game since June 20, 2021. And, according to ESPN, he is still weeks away from making his Brooklyn debut. Is he mentally right? Will he be physically capable of playing 40-ish minutes by the playoffs? Will he be fouled and sent to the free-throw line in the fourth quarter of postseason games?

We really need a Nets-Sixers series, don’t we? 

Don’t forget about health of Joe Harris

Joe Harris’ rehab from ankle surgery hasn’t gone as planned. Whether Brooklyn gets its most lethal 3-point marksman back is still a question.

The Nets still have other strong shooters on their roster like Seth Curry and Patty Mills. And Curry has shown an ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs. But the low-maintenance Harris provides elite floor balance and spacing in most lineups. There’s no real roster replacement here. 

Issues on the interior for Brooklyn

The Nets have plenty of names up front — Andre Drummond, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Claxton, Blake Griffin, James Johnson — but it’s really a serviceable, by-committee approach that lacks a massive impact player.

You could certainly envision a bigger role for Drummond, but he was Joel Embiid’s backup, after all. Plus, there are spacing issues when he and Simmons play together. Aldridge, who came out of retirement due to a heart issue, is terrific in the mid-range. But you do wonder if he can hold up over the course of a potentially deep postseason run. Meanwhile, Griffin’s minutes and production have waned. And Claxton was just on the trading block.

It’s something Brooklyn will have to overcome. 

Lack of continuity

Steve Nash loves continuity. What coach doesn’t?

But, under the current mandates, the most games Durant, Irving and Simmons are eligible to play in together before the playoffs is eight, starting Saturday in Milwaukee. That’s not much time to figure things up. It’s still incredible that Durant, Irving and Harden played just 16 games together — going 13-3.

As my friend Marc Stein said, that might be the most disappointing Big Three ever given what was expected. 

Goran Dragic to the rescue

Credit to leader-recruiter Nash for sealing the deal on this one.

Dragic, Nash’s former backcourt partner in Phoenix, provides a steady veteran presence who just might have a couple more dominant postseason performances left in the tank. Whether the Nets will say it or not, the 35-year-old provides a hedge in the event Irving can’t participate in home playoff games. He might even end up starting the play-in game in Brooklyn. 

Can Cam Thomas be counted on?

Veteran teams don’t typically play rookies in the postseason. There’s too much at stake for mistakes. Yet the value of Cam Thomas as a microwave scorer off the bench could cause that to change.

Plus, Durant reportedly had a huge hand in drafting him and telling team brass not to trade him. And, as we know, what KD says goes in Brooklyn — even if the GM title belongs to Sean Marks. If Thomas does get minutes in the playoffs, he could potentially be on a short leash. 

No favors on the schedule

The Nets (31-28) currently sit in eighth place in the East playoff standings — 2.5 games above ninth-place Charlotte. They would like to avoid the play-in round. But the Nets odds start a tad shaky when they return from the All-Star break.

Their next eight games feature five teams seeded higher than Brooklyn in the East:

  • Feb. 24, vs. Boston Celtics
  • Feb. 26, at Milwaukee Bucks
  • Feb. 28, vs. Toronto Raptors
  • March 1, at Toronto Raptors
  • March 3, vs. Miami Heat
  • March 6, at Boston Celtics
  • March 8, at Charlotte Hornets
  • March 10, at Philadelphia 76ers

Not exactly an easy slate. Irving would be available for five of them. 

Competition in East

On paper, there are a lot of interesting teams — Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, Cleveland. Many of them are facing similar issues to Brooklyn.

  • The Sixers have to integrate Harden and Embiid, a potentially unstoppable duo if they can develop strong cohesion.
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo has been playing at an MVP level — again — in 2022.
  • The Heat’s top-six of Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro is as solid as anyone’s, with an elite coach in Erik Spoelstra.
  • The Cavaliers may still be too young, having to learn how to win in the postseason.
  • The Celtics have been on an incredible run of late
  • The Bulls are one of the league’s biggest surprises

Should be a fun NBA playoffs. The Nets certainly have a shot to emerge out of the East, if NBA betting lines are any indication. But a lot of things are going to have to break right. 

Photo by AP / Eric Gay
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Mike Mazzeo

Mike Mazzeo is a contributing writer for PlayNY, reporting on legal sports betting in New York while covering the potential legalization of NY online casinos and poker. He previously wrote for ESPN, the New York Daily News and The Ringer, among others.

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