The Nets were the NBA’s premier underdog story last season as they leapt over .500 for the first time since 2014. Brooklyn rose from the ashes of Billy King’s disastrous Celtics trade with a plucky band of misfits and former outcasts, with D’Angelo Russell leading the organization back to the postseason. Russell is now in Golden State aiming to become an adopted Splash Brother, and Brooklyn’s “underdog” label has been shed in favor of a pair of Finals heroes. The Nets won’t sneak up on anyone as we enter the next decade.
We’ll likely have to wait a year for the Nets to be the bully on the block in the Eastern Conference. Kevin Durant is out for the majority of 2019-20, and Brooklyn would be foolish to rush him back onto the court after he signed a four-year contract on June 30. The Clippers’ clock is ticking with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George possibly entering free agency in July 2021. The Nets don’t face such urgency, likely beginning their title window in 2020-21.
If we concede the Nets are unlikely championship contenders next season barring a miraculous recovery from Durant, where should we place Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference pecking order? The general consensus appears to be a touch skeptical. Kyrie and Co.’s over/under wins total was set at 45.5 for the upcoming season, just 3.5 more than their 42–40 record last year. Yet while the prognosticators have pegged Brooklyn as a mid-tier playoff team in the East, a brighter reality is likely to emerge at Barclays Center. The Nets could approach 50 wins next season, and behind Philly and Milwaukee, Brooklyn may be the third-best team in the East. Even without Durant, the Nets’ summer spending spree could pay immediate dividends.
Much of the skepticism surrounding the Nets likely centers around Irving. The former Cavs and Celtics point guard has squandered much of the goodwill gained from his 2016 Finals heroics, forcing a trade out of Cleveland in 2017 and all-but-detonating the Celtics’ chemistry in 2018-19. A sizable segment of the basketball media has since treated Irving as a leper incapable of leading a winning squad. But don’t be so quick to bury the former No. 1 pick. Each situation is unique, and Irving has more than enough talent to turn his narrative around. Kenny Atkinson’s run-and-gun style should play to Irving’s strengths more than the structure employed by Brad Stevens. The good vibes could very well continue in Brooklyn in 2019-20 as Irving replaces Russell.
Chemistry questions aside, Irving is an upgrade over Russell by nearly every conceivable metric, even after D-Lo’s career year in 2018-19. Irving outscored Russell and shot better from three last season. He posted 9.1 win shares to Russell’s 5.0, and Irving sported a lower turnover rate and higher Player Efficiency Rating. This isn’t a slight to Russell, who was electric in spurts and by-all-evidence a delightful teammate despite his previous reputation. But the Ohio State product is a fringe All-Star. Irving is a clear All-NBA talent.
The stream of controversies out of Boston last year obscured Irving’s impressive statistical season. He averaged a career-high in assists and was one of three players to average 23-plus points per game while shooting over 40% from three, joining Steph Curry and Karl-Anthony Towns (not exactly bad company for Minnesota’s big man). As Jayson Tatum clanked midrange jumpers and Gordon Hayward limped through his return to the floor, Irving remained the team’s offensive catalyst. Boston’s season was certainly tumultuous, but Irving’s shotmaking kept the Celtics afloat. He’s one of the best bailout scorers in all of basketball.
Irving won’t join a hastily assembled roster similar to LeBron and the Lakers last season. The Nets have one of the league’s more intriguing young cores, with a deep collection of quality youngsters. Expect Jarrett Allen to retain a sizable share of frontcourt minutes even after Brooklyn’s signing of 31-year-old center (and apparent Durant whisperer) DeAndre Jordan. Allen showed some defensive chops in his second pro season, evolving from a simple shot swatter to a solid back-line anchor. He dabbled with stretching his game beyond the arc in his sophomore season after some serious urging from Atkinson, and increased comfortability launching from the corner will only increase his value compared to the paint-bound Jordan. Allen’s versatility and Ed Davis’ offseason departure should leave plenty of minutes for the Texas product.
Allen’s growth was encouraging in 2018-19, yet the most promising members of Brooklyn’s young core reside in the backcourt. Both Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert should help alleviate the scoring load alongside Irving, with each player capable of starting for a host of other franchises. Dinwiddie will be a sensible backup and occasional backcourt partner for Irving. He’ll shield Irving from bigger guards with his 6’6” frame, and he has plenty of experience as a ball handler with a 24.9% usage rate in 2018-19. Irving thrived as an off-ball weapon with Cleveland, and he occasionally looked bogged down carrying a major segment of the playmaking duties in Boston. Dinwiddie will help shoulder the load.
LeVert is the most exciting running mate for Irving until Durant returns. The Michigan product was one of the NBA’s premier breakout players to start 2018-19 before a leg injury kept him out from Nov. 14 through January, leading Brooklyn with 19 points per game. LeVert is a strong isolation scorer with good feel in the pick-and-roll and impressive athleticism around the tin. Brooklyn averaged 110.1 points per 100 possessions with Allen and LeVert on the floor together last season, milking the two-man game with a pair of explosive athletes. LeVert will need to improve his jumper in 2019-20, but there remains the outline of a potential All-Star, especially in the weakened Eastern Conference. With LeVert, Dinwiddie and Allen (as well as stretchy swingman Taurean Prince and sharpshooter Joe Harris) Irving has plenty of pieces for a strong season with his third franchise in four years.
Milwaukee and Philadelphia are still the presumed crop of the East in 2019-20, and rightfully so. Giannis Antetokounmpo is perhaps the best player in basketball, and the Sixers’ roster is among the most talented in the league, especially on the defensive end. But Brooklyn could sit right behind the top two in the East. Kawhi bolted from Toronto to join Paul George in Los Angeles, and Boston will have a difficult time replacing Al Horford. Perhaps the Pacers gain a boost from Malcolm Brogdon or the Heat earn homecourt in round one with Jimmy Butler in and Hassan Whiteside out.
Regardless, no contender has truly emerged aside from Milwaukee and Philly. Brooklyn can fill the void. Irving is an upgrade over Russell and an emerging young core has remained intact. Atkinson is among one of the conference’s top coaches; he should bring the best out his star point guard. There are plenty of skeptics regarding Irving and the Nets, but the talent is in place for a 50-win campaign. The 2019-20 season won’t be a lost one in Brooklyn, even if Durant stays on the sidelines through the postseason.