Despite all the bumps and hiccups, the Nets are in good shape through a quarter of the season
With the NBA season now a little over a month in, teams are just about a quarter of the way into their 82-game season. Here is an in-depth overview of this Brooklyn Nets season so far:
Entering the season, the Nets were pegged by many as the favorites to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy. However much like in life, you can’t count your chickens before they hatch. No matter how you frame it, the biggest news piece so far in the NBA has been the absence of Kyrie Irving due to New York City’s COVID mandate which does not allow unvaccinated athletes to play in closed gyms.
The Nets, tasked with the decision of having Irving suit up only for road games or not play at all, chose the latter. Without Irving however, the Nets still entered the season with a solid roster spearheaded by Kevin Durant and James Harden.
It was a shaky start to the season as Brooklyn was blitzed on opening night by the Milwaukee Bucks in a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinals. They picked up a gutty come from behind win against the division-rival 76ers before dropping some ugly losses to Charlotte and Miami. It didn’t help that Joe Harris was a slow starter and Harden looked like a shell of himself.
Rounding into form
Sitting at 2-3, the Nets found their groove against some less-than-challenging competition. Brooklyn would win eight of their next nine games including a 5-1 effort on a six-game road trip. Their only loss during that span came against the Bulls on the second half of a back-to-back. It was just the third time in franchise history the Nets had won five games on a single road trip.
With the team sitting at 10-4 and first in the East, Brooklyn faced its first real test of the year against a Warriors team that looks like it has turned back the clock to 2016. The stage was set for a heavyweight bout and instead, it looked more like a massacre.
Golden State would seize control of the game in the second quarter and never look back. And as one would expect, the overreactions to the game were startlingly bad.
Stephen A. Smith voiced a rant about how he felt sorry for KD, how Kyrie Irving betrayed him and how he made the wrong decision leaving Golden State. Mind you, all this after a regular-season game in November.
How would Brooklyn respond? By going on another four-game winning streak including a beatdown of the Boston Celtics the night before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, the Nets most recently failed yet another litmus test at the hands of the Phoenix Suns who are arguably the hottest – no pun intended—team in basketball right now. It didn’t help that the Suns were on the second half of a back-to-back either.
Brooklyn would bounce back with a nail-biting win over the crosstown Knicks to cap off their quarter mark.
Struggles against quality opponents
The prevailing narrative on Brooklyn so far is that they struggle against “good” teams. It’s hard to argue when all six of Brooklyn’s losses this season have come to teams with records over .500 and all but one was by double-digits.
There’s a common theme in all of those games too. The Nets either come out flat to start the game, such as the case against Phoenix, Miami, and Milwaukee. Or they start strong but falter as the game progresses as was the case against Charlotte, Chicago, and Golden State. Turnovers and a lack of urgency have been one of if not the biggest things to point at in their losses.
Still, it’s hard to accurately judge how this team truly stacks up against other contenders when they’ve missed key players. Aside from Irving, Nicolas Claxton hasn’t played since the fourth game of the season due to an illness and he’s arguably Brooklyn’s best switch defender.
Bruce Brown has missed a handful of games and Harris, who just recently underwent ankle surgery, didn’t play in either of the Warriors or Suns games. The Nets just haven’t had time to gel and build chemistry due to roster turnover and ever-changing lineups.
Even without wins against “good” teams, the Nets are still beating the teams they should, which is all you can ask for. With all the headlines, missing superstars, and injuries, the Nets finding themselves still atop the East after the quarter mark should bring nothing but optimism for Nets fans.
You can’t discuss the Nets this season without bringing up how absolutely dominant Kevin Durant has been so far. Only two years removed from his catastrophic Achilles injury, Durant is currently averaging the third highest point total of his career.
Before the Knicks game, Durant’s stat line reads like this: 28.6 ppg, 7.6 rbg, and 5.6 apg with shooting splits of .548/.411/.854 and a true shooting percentage of 65%. Not to mention, he entered the game first in scoring and top five in total points (544). He’s also first in field goals per game (10.4) while ranking 12th in attempts (19.0). A big reason for this has been his insane shooting from the midrange. With James Harden struggling to return to form, Durant’s MVP-level start to the season is exactly what Brooklyn needed.
And speaking of Harden, it’s been a very Jekyll and Hyde start to the season for The Beard. With 20 games under the belt, the Nets and their fans still have no idea which James Harden will show up on any given night. It could be the good Harden, which we saw against the Pelicans and most recently against the Knicks. Or it could be the bad one which we also recently saw against the Suns. Although he finished with a triple-double, he shot 4-for-15 and had a team-high seven turnovers.
It’s hard to get a gauge on what the rest of the season will entail for the superstar guard. Harden recently said he’s still trying to figure out when to score and when to facilitate due to Kyrie’s absence. However, last season he appeared to know when to do both in games Irving didn’t play or when Irving was on the bench while Harden ran the second unit.
Spacing has also played a factor in some of the early season woes for James. Floor spacers such as Landry Shamet, Jeff Green, and Tyler Johnson were replaced with more defensive-minded players such as DeAndre’ Bembry and Jevon Carter. Claxton’s absence also means there’s no lob threat on pick and rolls. This allows defenses to stay at home and pack the paint when Harden does drive which has been a rarity this season.
Kyrie Irving doesn’t appear to be walking into Barclay’s anytime soon so it’s imperative Harden figure it out. The averages aren’t bad (20.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 9.4 assists) but consistency is the main issue. As great as Durant has been, he cannot do it on his own, as evident by the playoff loss to Milwaukee last season.
Fortunately for the Nets, they’ve gotten big production from some former Spurs in Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge. Whether it was coming off the bench or now most recently in the starting lineup role to the absence of Harris, the veteran Mills has provided Brooklyn with some great production. Entering Tuesday night Patty was averaging just over 12 points per game and is leading the NBA in three-point percentage (50%). Whenever Brooklyn seems to need a spark, Mills is right there with a flurry of threes.
In terms of Aldridge, there isn’t much to say aside from the fact he is Mr. Reliable. Like the savvy old head at the YMCA, you know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis. He’s able to get to his spot no matter who’s guarding him and has proven to be lethal in the mid-range, ranking fifth in total makes (53). At times this season, Aldridge has even been the Nets’ third-best player and was recently inserted into the starting role replacing Blake Griffin who has had a tumultuous start to the year.
One of the nicer surprises as of late has been DeAndre’ Bembry who, originally signed for his defense, has shown some promise on the offensive side of the ball. Since replacing the injured Bruce Brown in the starting lineup Bembry has averaged 8.4 points and 5.0 rebounds. Defensively he might be tied for Brooklyn’s best perimeter defender along with Brown.
And of course, we can’t forget about Cam Thomas. The electrifying rookie has cracked the rotation due to Brooklyn’s recent injury woes. With each passing game, it’s clear this kid can make a difference for this team and help fill the scoring void left by Kyrie.
Despite all the hot takes and fans panicking, the Nets’ first 21 games have to be looked at as a success, all things considered. They are off to one of the best starts in franchise history without clicking on all cylinders.
There’s still a lot of basketball to be played and this roster isn’t final. Maybe Irving does end up getting vaccinated, or perhaps Marks has another trade/buyout signing up his sleeve. Whatever the case, it should be anything but doom and gloom at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic right now.