The Brooklyn Nets enter 2021 under a new set of expectations. For the first time in years, pieces are now in place for a championship run. A big part of Brooklyn’s hope hinges on Kevin Durant’s health. The two-time NBA Finals MVP is now 18 months removed from a significant Achilles tendon injury. But with Durant and Kyrie Irving, the belief now is that star power can lift the Nets into title contention. So let’s review what changed and how Brooklyn can make significant noise this season.
A NEW COACHING CULTURE (AND ROSTER CHANGES)
The big splash in the offseason involved the hiring of new head coach Steve Nash. The transition from the Kenny Atkinson years should be an interesting one. Nash (and assistant Mike D’Antoni) were the architects of Phoenix’s revolutionary ‘seven seconds or less’ offense. How, or if, they plan to implement this aggressive coaching philosophy will be a key point to look for in 2021.
With Kevin Durant, the Nets are set to play at a different speed. Over his three seasons in Golden State, the Warriors shifted from an up-and-down group to the league’s 10th ranked pace. Both Durant and Irving love to dictate the beat of the offense. That clash in coaching against playing style should not be overlooked. At the same time, Brooklyn spent the offseason hunting for friendly faces to surround its two stars. Here is a look at their reshaping:
Nash must strike a balance between past roster contributors and the influx of new faces. This is now ‘The Durant and Irving Show’. How well Nash navigates this dynamic will go a long way in determining Brooklyn’s fate this season.
FIRST THING’S FIRST, WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE NETS IN 19-20?
Coming off a surprising playoff run, many expected the Nets to leap in the standings last year. But with Kyrie Irving’s injury, most of the scoring burden fell back to Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. While the duo had enjoyed previous success, things slowly crumbled offensively. A big contributor to the downfall was the Nets’ heavy isolation culture. Brooklyn was one of four teams to record at least 620 isolation possessions. But the results were underwhelming:
Neither player was able to duplicate their offensive outbursts from prior seasons. With the significant uptick in usage, Dinwiddie’s true shooting percentage crumbled to a subpar 54%. On the flip side, LeVert’s 0.78 points per isolation possessions placed him in the 31st percentile among all NBA players. The result was an offense built for two star players, but without two star talents.
The introduction of Kevin Durant changes that math for Brooklyn. Steve Nash is equipped to deploy a similar concept–this time, one of the game’s most dominant isolation weapons is at his disposal.
A SPOTLIGHT ON KEVIN DURANT’S PLAYMAKING
With Kevin Durant back in the mix, Brooklyn is now set up to inflict significant offensive damage. The 6’10” ball-handling forward will immediately become the Nets’ primary scoring option. Durant uses his massive 7’5″ wingspan to dominate matchups in isolation. Just two seasons ago, he placed among some of the most dominant isolation scorers in the game:
Inserting this type of production into Brooklyn’s offense is a significant step. Nash now has an iconic reference point to close games out. But Durant is not just a scorer. His ability to create off the dribble suits his new teammates well. This offseason, Brooklyn spent money (and assets) on a plethora of shooting options. Two names draw particular attention. Durant is surrounded by a pair of elite spot-up shooters in Joe Harris and Landry Shamet. Last season, both players combined for an impressive 41% on 555 catch-and-shoot attempts. In other words, proceed with extreme caution when double-teaming Durant, as he has several passing outlets at his disposal.
It is this dynamic that also opens up many lineup options. In Golden State, Durant was deployed as a center 10% of the time. A similar role under Nash enables Brooklyn to inject significant offense on the wings. This roster is loaded with scoring depth. But it is going to take Dinwiddie and LeVert to accept complementary roles. Doing so turns Brooklyn into a devastating offensive group.
KYRIE IRVING’S ROLE AND PARTNERSHIP WITH DURANT
On the flip side of Brooklyn’s offensive arsenal is one of the league’s most devastating pick-and-roll ball architects. Kyrie Irving is a ball-handling maestro, capable of splitting traps and attacking the basket at the blink of an eye. In Irving and Dinwiddie, Brooklyn has a pair of electric pick-and-roll scorers. Two seasons ago, the duo ranked near the very top in that category:
The lob presences of DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen should only benefit both guards. But it is Kyrie’s role that opens up a new set of opportunities. Back in Boston, head coach Brad Stevens played into Kyrie’s attention in many creative ways. One that included utilizing Marcus Smart as the screener:
Deploying Kevin Durant in the same Marcus Smart role puts defenses in a significant bind. Durant is nearly automatic from mid-range and trapping Irving only enables an open look for the Nets star. Conversely, leaving Kyrie isolated is also problematic, as he can easily collapse the defense and create chaos off the drive. It is the on-court ethos between Durant and Irving that places the Nets at the top of the conversation in the East. How the duo develops the necessary chemistry will dictate Brooklyn’s story this season.
OFFENSIVE FIREPOWER BUT DEFENSIVE SHORTCOMINGS
While Brooklyn is set up for a top-5 offense this year, the same cannot be said for the defensive end. The influx of shooters puts Nash in a vulnerable position. Lineups that include Harris and Shamet leave a crater on the perimeter. In Jordan (and Allen) Brooklyn is well set up to eliminate shots near the rim. Last season, the Nets allowed only 31% of their shots within 6 feet of the basket (2nd lowest among all NBA teams). But this hardly tells the story, as teams can now dictate matchups when both defensively-deficient players hit the court.
It will be worth monitoring what General Manager Sean Marks has up his sleeve. Brooklyn’s time is now, and that creates an environment of action. If the defense takes a substantial hit, does Marks dangle Jarrett Allen or Spencer Dinwiddie for immediate relief? Names such as Thaddeus Young, PJ Tucker, and Trevor Ariza could provide the ideal defensive medicine. Regardless of when (or if) that time comes, look for teams to target Brooklyn’s weaknesses on the perimeter, thus inserting a monkey-wrench in Nash’s offensive alternatives.
NETS SEASON PROJECTION
A team with two probable Hall of Fame talents should find little resistance on its way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Brooklyn is well-equipped in a conference full of good (but not great) teams. The questions circulation the team are very clear. Is Durant healthy? Will the partnership with Kyrie work? A simple ‘yes’ to either question puts Brooklyn ahead of the pack. But to clear the hurdle into the NBA Finals may require a few roster tweaks. At the same time, a season in which Durant struggles to find his footing could be catastrophic, thus opening another door in a tightly-competitive conference.