Sean Marks, Kyrie Irving, Kenny Atkinson
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

Setting realistic expectations for the Brooklyn Nets, after a whirlwind offseason that included Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, is critical.

For the first time in the Sean Marks–Kenny Atkinson era, the Brooklyn Nets will enter a new season facing high expectations. The Nets have thrived over the past couple of seasons in an underdog role, outperforming the talent on the roster through camaraderie and team spirit.

Devoid of talent or assets after the gut-wrenching Paul Pierce trade back in 2013, the Nets slowly managed to build a strong foundation and culture over the past three years under this regime, culminating in the addition of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan this offseason.

This year, all eyes will be on the Barclays Center as the Nets look to open a new chapter in the franchise’s history book. Considering the hoopla, realistic expectations must be the mindset. A 7-8 improvement without a “championship or bust” label in the first year hits the mark.

With Durant likely out for the entire season, following the ruptured Achilles he suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, much of the scrutiny will be on Irving as he will have to lead this team by himself next year.

It’s hard not to draw parallels with the situation Irving inherited in Boston at the start of last season when the star guard came back to a young and promising team fresh off a season in which they outperformed their expectations. But in Boston, Irving was completely isolated from the younger players on the team. He didn’t have a friend like Spencer Dinwiddie to help act as a liaison between the returning members of the squad and himself. There was no Roc Nation relationship between him and his backcourt partner.

Kyrie’s struggles with Celtics coach Brad Stevens were evident last season, but those around the league have been quick to point out the differences between Stevens and Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. While their teams play a similar brand of basketball, Atkinson is far more confrontational than the former Butler coach and is not afraid to lay into his players if necessary.

But that no-nonsense style often brings the best out of his players and, given his track record with point guards, Atkinson is unlikely to change his approach anytime soon. He has helped Jeremy Lin, Jeff Teague, Russell and Dinwiddie all enjoy breakout seasons under his tutelage and will look to help Kyrie take that next step into a true superstar.

Even without Durant next season, the Nets are a much better basketball team than last year when they won 42 games and finished sixth in the Eastern Conference. As well as D’Angelo Russell played after Caris LeVert’s injury, Kyrie Irving, when healthy, is a top-15 player in the league and a former NBA champ. He averaged 23.9 points, 6.9 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game while slashing .480/.401/.873 compared to Russell’s 21.1 points, 7.0 assists, and 3.9 boards on .434/.369/.780 shooting – while still having a lower usage rate than D’Angelo.

As Matt Brooks touched on earlier, Irving is a great fit for the Nets on the court. He’s a better isolation scorer, a better pick-and-roll player, and a better spot-up shooter than Russell and his numbers should only improve under Atkinson’s point guard-heavy system.

As Wes Wilcox pointed out on the Full 48 Podcast with Howard Beck last week, Nets fans were never able to enjoy D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert both playing together at their best last season. The Nets were LeVert’s team through the opening 16 games, and Atkinson then handed the reins over to Russell once the Michigan product went down with his injury. While LeVert came back at the end of the year, he wasn’t at full strength until the playoffs, where Russell was shut down by Ben Simmons.

When healthy, LeVert was the Nets’ best player last season, and really managed to showcase his two-way potential in the series against Philadelphia. If can avoid another injury, he should figure to make that leap into a borderline All-Star, which he was on his way to doing last season.

The addition of DeAndre Jordan will provide some much-needed size on the inside for the Nets. Brooklyn was simply overpowered in the first-round against the Philadelphia 76ers, after backup center Ed Davis went down with an injury, as Jarrett Allen just didn’t have the size to deal with Joel Embiid and Boban Marjanovic.

A former Defensive Player of the Year, Jordan still possesses great length and shot-blocking instincts- skills that he can pass on to Allen. The two will form a nice combo down low. Jordan should also be able to help provide some of that veteran locker room presence that the Nets will lose with the departures of Jared Dudley, DeMarre Carroll, and Davis.

In Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler and Taurean Prince, the Nets managed to pick up useful, versatile 3-and-D guys who can play both ends of the floor. Chandler and Prince both fit the mold of a Kenny Atkinson 4, as hard-nosed competitors capable of stretching the floor. The Nets struggled with bodies to guard Sixers’ wings like Butler and Tobias Harris, but at 6-8, both Chandler and Prince will provide enough size to guard bigger 3’s and 4’s.

Rodions Kurucs was thrust into the starting role as a rookie last year and was a key part in the Nets’ mid-season resurgence. But Kurucs was forced to the bench for much of the series against the Sixers as Philadelphia and Ben Simmons were able to capitalize on his lack of strength. The Latvian has spent time working on his body this offseason, already putting on over 10 pounds, and has looked too good to be playing in Summer League during the Nets’ opening games in Vegas.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for next season is that almost all of the Nets’ 14-win improvement from 2018 to 2019 was organic. The Nets didn’t make many roster additions last offseason, but still managed to win 50% more games because of the work of the coaching staff. The Nets have been huge on player development in recent years as they haven’t had their own draft picks, and key pieces like Dinwiddie, Allen, and Joe Harris will figure to continue to improve as well.

With Kawhi Leonard leaving the East to go back home to L.A. to join the Clippers, the Nets will have the third-best player in the conference next season in Kyrie Irving. Philadelphia and Milwaukee look to be in the top tier of the East next season, but both lost key pieces in Jimmy Butler and Malcolm Brogdon respectively. Brooklyn will jump up into the second-tier with Indiana and a revamped Boston squad.

Taurean Prince has recently made his goals clear but while the Nets are clearly a better basketball team now than they were at the final buzzer against Philadelphia, without Durant, they are still a tier below those top teams in the league. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to hear Nets players showing this kind of ambition, but in reality, a 7-8 win increase and a playoff series win would be a successful season for this roster and would show more growth for this organization.

Sean Marks and the Nets have been able to pull off this remarkable rebuild by making sure not to skip steps along the way. Adding Kyrie to an already talented roster is another step in the right direction, but Marks’ rebuild will not be complete until Durant touches the floor.

Next season is not “championship or bust” for the Nets. Rather, it’s about integrating their new star and building on the success from last year. If Kyrie is able to drive this team to at least one series win, it would show signs of his growth as a leader and a teammate, laying the perfect foundation for Durant to return and take this team to the promised land in 2020/21.

A new era of expectation has arrived in Brooklyn and the Nets are ready for it.