The Nets Are Pushing Regular Season to Its Limits

Can Brooklyn win it all even if its stars barely see the court before the playoffs?
Author:
Updated:
Original:

Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving still need to catch up to P.J. Tucker, John Wall and Victor Oladipo—in minutes, that is. That’s how little the Nets’ star trio have actually played at the same time this season. KD, Kyrie and Harden have appeared in only 186 minutes together across seven games in 2021, an existence so fleeting that lineups that don’t even exist anymore still have a comfortable lead in minutes played. Brooklyn will already be attempting a particularly novel championship run this summer thanks to its “go ahead and score, we can get it back easily” defense. On top of that the Nets are running an even more fascinating contender experiment: Can Brooklyn win it all even if its stars barely see the court before the playoffs?

Though the midseason trade for Harden certainly complicated factors, you would be hard-pressed to find a title-worthy team whose most important players played such little time together before the postseason. Last year, for example, LeBron James and Anthony Davis logged 1,455 minutes as a duo during a season more shortened than the current one. Despite injury problems and an aging roster, Durant played 1,442 minutes alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in his last run with the Warriors. Keep going back, whether it’s the 2016 Cavs, 2014 Spurs or 2011 Mavs, and their best players were on the floor together a ton—and that’s after most of them played together for years before as well. Not only is Brooklyn unable to get its best players all healthy at the same time, but the Nets are also in the middle of a high-stakes season without any shared playoff experience among the current group (unless you want to count KD and Harden’s time with the Thunder).

All of this is setup for one of the most intriguing title chases in recent history. Can a team, during a pandemic-affected season with nearly no practice time, finally roll out its stars for a sustained period of time only weeks before the playoffs and still be taken seriously as a contender? Right now it’s hard to argue against the Nets. They’re the No. 1 seed in the East entering Friday despite all the injuries. Their offensive rating is the best in the NBA and would be the best in league history if it stays at 117.5. And Durant, their best player, is back on the floor after appearing in only 19 games before Wednesday’s win against the Pelicans.

And yet if Harden were to return on April 16 (the team said Tuesday he would be reevaluated in 10 days) and he, Irving and Durant played out the regular season, the trio would still have appeared only in 24 games together. If their current average time on the floor together from the seven games they have played holds, KD, Kyrie and Harden would finish the season having played nearly 624 minutes together. Simply put, is that enough time?

Obviously, much of this has been out of the team’s control. Harden didn’t join the team until mid-January. Durant had two absences related to COVID-19 protocols. Irving took personal time away from the team earlier in the year. The Nets aren’t simply giving up on the regular season, even if they’re being more cautious with injuries than most teams. The coaching staff deserves credit for unlocking the utility of role players like Bruce Brown, a rim-running guard doing a better DeAndre Jordan impression than DeAndre Jordan, and Nic Claxton, an athletic big who could mean more to the team come playoff time than buyout vets like Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Still, there’s something almost cynical about the Nets as much as it is thrilling. I don’t want to use my serious voice and ask, “Is this good for the game?” But, low-key, is this what the NBA wants? A supersquad created by guys who all left their previous teams in varying uncomfortable manners and are so talented that they can seemingly run through their conference without even having to, you know, play together? Again the NBA has always been star-driven. And this isn’t a conversation about agency. But as the league and its power brokers lean more and more into the championship-or-bust mentality, I think it’s fair to wonder whether the logical endpoint is a bunch of superteams who almost punt entirely on the regular season. This isn’t necessarily a new scare (small markets may even believe this is already the case), but the Nets have perhaps come the closest to testing out this specific formula.

To a degree this strategy has hit snags in the past. You only have to jump back to last season, when the Clippers raised eyebrows with their aggressive resting strategies for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, then came unglued in the playoffs as the Nuggets mounted pressure on them in the second round. (You could maybe throw the 2004 Lakers in here because of Karl Malone.) Other teams in the East may not have the top-end talent of the Nets, but they do have the sweat equity that comes from playoff defeats. The Bucks’ core of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton has been hardened by its postseason failures, and the same can be said for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Those trials and tribulations don’t automatically make the Bucks and Sixers favorites, but in a season like this one, their years of collective ups and downs have to mean something, right?

Maybe this is much ado about nothing. Maybe this is ultimately a weird season and whatever the Nets end up doing, whether they raise a trophy or flame out, isn’t a referendum on team basketball. But there’s a shockingly decent chance that Durant, Harden and Irving see more time as a trio during the playoffs than the regular season, especially if they make the Finals. If the strategy inadvertently ends up being successful, I wonder how long it would be until somebody else more deliberately tries to emulate it.

MORE MORNING SHOOTAROUND

Pina: Chicago's future is brighter than it appears

Mannix: Why you should not worry about the Lakers

Shapiro: Inside the Rockets' rebuild

Nadkarni: Should the Warriors embrace the pick-and-roll?

Herring: Nikola Jokić has been the MVP all along