Year one of the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving era in Brooklyn will be devoid of Kevin Durant — as the 2013-14 NBA Most Valuable Player Award recipient is expected to miss the 2019-20 season due to an Achilles tendon injury. In the meantime, the Brooklyn Nets will look to build off their 2019 playoff appearance.
While winning the NBA Finals, let alone the Eastern Conference without Durant is a stretch, the Nets can still set out to accomplish some feats and take the next step in their road to contention.
Here are four realistic goals for the Nets this season.
4. Caris LeVert becomes a go-to scorer
LeVert is a well-versed player. He can score, play at a high level defensively, and has continuity with some core members of his team. Before a gruesome leg injury early in the 2018-19 season, LeVert was averaging an impressive 18.4 points per game and playing like one of the best young wings in the NBA.
This season head coach Kenny Atkinson and friends need LeVert to become a consistent go-to scorer, and he has the offensive tools to do as such. He gets to the hole off the dribble and finishes, is athletic, and is willing to hoist up outside jump shots. Unlike the beginning of last year, the Nets have a definitive number-one scorer in Irving. Now they need secondary scoring.
With Irving attracting the bulk of opposing team’s defensive attention, opportunity opens up for others. Given LeVert’s keenness to score in a multitude of ways, including cutting and finishing inside, Irving has an elusive option to defer to when a scoring opportunity doesn’t present itself.
If LeVert becomes more adept at playing in isolation and slowing the game down, it gives the Nets more offensive firepower. Yes, a year from now his role won’t be the same with Durant present, but the Nets need to establish reliable scoring outlets for the present and future. There’s not a bigger candidate on their roster to do that than LeVert.
3. Sustain defensive tendencies
Last season the Nets were a gritty team, and it helped shape their identity, especially on the defensive end. It’s vital that the same mindset and tendencies flow through them this season. However, they lost some of their gritty players and/or defensive assets such as Ed Davis, Jared Dudley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, DeMarre Carroll, and Allen Crabbe in the offseason.
Last season they were third in the NBA in opponent three-point shooting percentage (34.1 percent). Losing the aforementioned players hurts that aspect of the Nets’ defensive arsenal. They need others to fill the void, as well as their frontline to set the tone defensively.
Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan are intimidating rim protectors, and there are a handful of defensive-savvy wings present such as LeVert and Taurean Prince. The Nets should be steady inside with their seven-footers, making a pest-like defensive perimeter game the missing piece to the Nets being an elite unit on that end of the floor.
The Nets want to establish a bad-boy mentality. Everyone knows the future of their offense. Taking others by surprise with sturdy and swarming defense would make the Nets a team that could get in others’ heads, and it could slightly help mask some of their offensive deficiencies or Durant not being present.
2. Reach the second round
The Nets reached the first round of the playoffs last season, so, naturally, the goal should be to make it to the second round this season, right?
The Nets aren’t invigorating fear into the conference, so to speak, but they have a roster talented and proven enough to reach the second round. Irving is a star; a healthy LeVert is a dangerous player; Prince is an athletic two-way player; Allen and Jordon are defensive backbones; Spencer Dinwiddie is an offensive spark plug; Joe Harris is an elite outside shooter; Garrett Temple and Rodions Kurucs provide nifty scoring.
It’s the East. Excluding the Nets, there are two title contenders (Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers), a couple of teams with upside (Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers), and a bunch of teams banking on the mindset of just getting into the playoffs and seeing what happens. Moving up the conference standings and/or staying in the four-to-six seed slots likely means that the Nets wouldn’t have to face the Bucks or 76ers in the first round. They’re as good as the bulk of the field, could theoretically be a bit better this season in terms of both wins and on-court improvement, and have playoff experience under their belt.
It’s not the end-all factor but the same result as last year, or worse, would be a sour way for the Nets’ season to swing. They should be making adjustments based on last season, developing cohesion on both ends of the floor, and continuing to be a gritty team — making them a star away from contending (Durant).
1. Kyrie Irving becomes an even-keel leader
When someone says that Irving has a mysterious personality or the social aspect of his game is questioned, it doesn’t mean that Irving is a bad person or that he can’t be a role model for his teammates. At the same time, he has to be a leader for the Nets.
Last season Irving supposedly had a bizarre time with younger players on the Boston Celtics, and his state of mind remains an enigma. And let’s be honest: when you read the report, regardless of its accuracy, about members of the Nets organization having concerns about Irving’s “mood swings”, were you shocked, or did you nod your head?
With the Nets, Irving is surrounded by several young players and/or veterans who have complementary skill sets. Last season can’t happen again. Irving needs to be a mentor, build sustainable chemistry with his teammates, and get everyone involved.
Irving signed up for this. He knew in the weeks prior to free agency that Durant was likely going to miss this season. He could’ve re-signed with the Boston Celtics or signed with a team that was more ready to contend this season. There’s no excuse or reason for him to complain. Plus, he signed a four-year, $136 million deal. Pretty sweet coin to solely run an offense for a year while you wait for one of the three best players in the sport to get healthy, right?
If Irving exorcises the stigma surrounding his image with actions both on and off the court, it’ll pay enormous dividends for both him and the Nets.