The one thing standing in the Brooklyn Nets’ way of winning the Eastern Conference
When healthy, the Brooklyn Nets are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. That’s the key, though. Injuries are the only thing standing in the Nets’ way of making the NBA Finals for the first time since 2003.
Regarding their roster, the Nets are the clear-cut best team in the NBA from top to bottom. Head coach Steve Nash has arguably the best big three in NBA history from a talent standpoint in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
Joe Harris is a premier three-point shooter. Nicolas Claxton is a continually improving center. Blake Griffin is a steady inside finisher who can handle the rock. Paul Millsap is a sturdy defender who can play in the post and stretch the floor. LaMarcus Aldridge has a killer midrange game.
Patty Mills can be a smooth floor general who’s an efficient shooter. Bruce Brown can be an offensive spark plug. Jahlil Okafor is a capable inside scorer. Sekou Doumbouya is an athletic forward. Rookies Cameron Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe are rotation-caliber players from the jump.
There’s not a single weakness in this rotation. They have stars, shooting, scoring, facilitating, defense, speed and a combination of veterans and youth. All that said, half of Nash’s rotation has an injured past and present to consider.
Durant appeared in just 35 regular season games in the 2020-21 campaign due to injury and rest after not playing the season prior. Irving has seen his season cut short four times over the last seven years. Harden is coming off a season where he dealt with hamstring hiccups. Griffin hasn’t played a full season in three years. Millsap has missed extensive time in three of the last four NBA seasons. Aldridge is 36 and coming back from a scary heart condition.
Given their depth, the Nets would still be a competitive team that can compete in the early rounds of the playoffs without a couple of their stars and veteran big men. Heck, they nearly beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round with Irving sidelined and Harden playing at half-speed near the end of the series.
At the same time, the Bucks are the defending NBA champions with a core in its prime (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday). Staying in the Atlantic Division, the Philadelphia 76ers just had the best record in the East and could be adding a prominent new face to the mix given the ongoing Ben Simmons saga.
Generally speaking, Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are the presumptive best teams in the East based on star power and recent playoff tendencies. Concerning the trio of powerhouses playing against each other, they have no margin for error. The Nets’ margin for error is based on how deep the injury report runs.
The East will be deeper next season, as the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks are emerging forces, the Miami Heat acquired Kyle Lowry and the Boston Celtics are a prime bounce-back candidate. Meanwhile, teams like the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets are no jokes, themselves.
A couple injuries to the top-third of the Nets’ roster still has them on the same level as some of the previously mentioned teams, if not higher. But it won’t be enough to beat the Bucks or 76ers.
Now, the big three and friends will have something this fall that they didn’t have last season which was a training camp to get acclimated with one another. A midseason blockbuster trade in the NBA isn’t necessarily going to yield intended results from the jump, as Harden was a significant piece to throw into the fire from a chemistry and ball movement perspective.
Knocking or mentioning a player or team’s injury history isn’t criticizing them for getting hurt or implying that they don’t try to stay healthy. Objectively speaking, one has to take into account injury history when assessing that player or team’s chances of having a great season. If a player is only appearing in half of their team’s games, it’s difficult to expect them to be at full force or make it through the playoffs.
We’ll use Irving to put this into perspective. His ankle injury last postseason was a complete fluke, as he landed on an opponent’s feet after an inside shot attempt; there was nothing he could’ve done differently to stop it from happening.
At the same time, as previously alluded to, Irving has now seen his season end due to injury two times in the postseason and another two times in the regular season with three combined teams (Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and each of the last two seasons with the Nets).
Situations like this, as well as Durant’s unfortunate significant and at times nagging injuries of the last four years, can’t be disregarded from forecasting the 2021-22 Nets. It’s not criticism, rather it’s objectivity.
“Load management” is a nauseating topic and assignment but one that has become a part of the modern-day game. It’s one that the Nets have to weigh more than any other team in the NBA given the paramount nature of those whose workloads they would be limiting have on the team’s success (Durant, Irving and Harden).
The Brooklyn Nets have all the talent, impact players and complementary skill sets needed and then some to win an NBA championship. What they don’t have is the sincere conviction that their roster can hold up for an entire season. This team goes as the health of its front eight go.