3 biggest concerns for Nets’ 2021-2022 season
Check out the power rankings ahead of the 2021-2022 NBA season, and chances are you’ve seen a list with the Brooklyn Nets sitting pretty on top. ESPN’s post-free-agency power rankings and Bleacher Report both seem to agree with NBC’s claim that everyone is chasing the Nets. Spend some time speaking with a few jaded Nets fans on the other hand, and if they’re like my buddies, they may respond with something like, “Yeah, yeah, we heard that last year but then Murphy’s Law happened.”
So let’s do a premortem here. If you showed me next summer in a crystal ball and it showed me the Nets not winning the championship, here would be my best three guesses for what went wrong.
Biggest threats to Nets’ title dreams
1. Variety of maladies
Remember back in 2014 when Gregg Popovich listed Tony Parker as out with a “variety of maladies?” Coach Pop was a pioneer in the load-management field and even used to have some fun with his injury reports. Pop once listed Tim Duncan as “DNP-old.”
The health of their stars is by far the biggest threat to the Nets’ championship aspirations.
Kevin Durant looked absolutely fearsome by the playoffs last season, his first year back following surgery on his torn Achilles But KD only appeared in 35 regular-season games in 2020-21, in part because of a nasty hamstring injury he picked up, and also because the coaching staff (justifiably) wanted to be conservative with his return to play from major surgery.
James Harden was playing like his usual MVP-caliber self, even adapting his game to more of a facilitator’s role than he played in Houston. But a hamstring injury sidelined him for some time. When he aggravated the issue in the opening moments of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks, it was another major setback. Harden wound up returning to the series, but he wasn’t anywhere near his normal self.
Kyrie Irving also enjoyed some MVP buzz around his name, especially when he carried the squad during the extended absences of his teammates. But he landed awkwardly during Game 4 of the second round and spent much of this past summer rehabbing an ankle.
They’re built to be able to sustain some injuries. They just can’t afford to deal with them all at once. Every one of their Big Three has some injury risk. The probability that at least one of them spends some time riding the pine in a big moment is the biggest concern of all here.
2. Another superteam emerges from the shadows
With Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard and Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray both rehabbing injuries, and with the Philadelphia 76ers in Ben Simmons trade/holdout purgatory, it’s difficult to look at the NBA landscape and identify a team that might be one splash trade away from truly challenging the Nets’ supremacy. Last winter, the Nets completely altered the NBA power dynamics by landing James Harden in a future-picks-based trade offer that didn’t cost them too much in talent.
Is there a team out there that could do the same if, say, Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal indicate they might like a change of scenery? The Los Angeles Lakers don’t really have the ammo, having spent so much of their war chest acquiring Anthony Davis. The Miami Heat would probably need Tyler Herro to play more like Zach LaVine before they had a seat at the Lillard table.
The Golden State Warriors, theoretically, could field a superteam if they were to land a star for some package built around Andrew Wiggins, James Wiseman, and the recently drafted Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Might the Phoenix Suns consider shopping a package centered on Deandre Ayton and one of Mikal Bridges or Cam Johnson? The Atlanta Hawks have some coveted contracts and young players to potentially consolidate for an All-Star.
I’m really just spitballing here, but if you told me the Nets were healthy and did not win the title, I’d begin to wonder what contender might have swung a blockbuster trade.
3. Giannis vaults into the stratosphere as Nash’s core struggles with chemistry
The final concern would simply be Giannis Antetokounmpo. To this humble writer’s eye, the best players in the playoffs last year were Kevin Durant and Giannis at the top, with Luka Dončić and Kawhi Leonard right up there as well.
Giannis, in many ways, took another leap last season. He was already a two-time MVP, but he transcended yet again. Is it possible he has another level to reach? If he can knock down his free throws, 3s, or even short-range jumpers (the type he did find some success with against Blake Griffin during the playoffs) more consistently, he possesses the type of scary talent which could topple any would-be dynasty.
If Nash rests or simply does not have his starters available for much of the regular season again, the team could struggle with chemistry. The Big Three only appeared in 202 regular-season minutes last year. Having three of the greatest offensive talents ever is quite the luxury. But is there a scenario where they again fail to log big minutes together and ultimately fail to reach “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” status.
Remember all of those silly “there’s only one ball, and what about defense” takes we were subject to last year? It’s not impossible they come back if the team is forced to load manage their way through the season while Giannis vaults to infinity and beyond.
If you told me the Nets were reasonably healthy and there was no other superteam out there, here would be my best guess as to what went wrong: Kyrie Irving took some more “personal time” and the distraction impacted the team. Furthermore, they had some nagging injuries and took a very cautious approach, which meant they couldn’t develop chemistry. And, finally, the Bucks just steamrolled the league and locked up home court. In a massive Game 7, Harden didn’t play well, and some role player (like Bobby Portis) erupted with a random 25-point game. We then all wait for reports that KD wasn’t feeling quite healthy because you always wonder that when he gets outplayed by someone.