The 2021–22 NBA season tips off on Oct. 19, and between now and then the Crossover staff will be analyzing all of the biggest story lines ahead of what promises to be an unforgettable campaign. You can find our NBA preview stories here.
Kevin Durant, no stranger to tough questions, settled into a chair at Nets media day in September to face a roomful of reporters with few of them. His health? Any lingering doubts about Durant’s once-injured right Achilles dissolved in a 40-minute-per-game playoff performance last spring. His future? Durant killed any speculation on that in August, signing a four-year, $198 million extension with the Nets through 2025–26. These days Durant is just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill MVP front-runner—on a team with the best odds to win a championship.
Skeptical of Brooklyn? You have to really want to be. After missing all of 2019–20, Durant averaged 27.0 points in 35 games last season. Kyrie Irving had the most productive season of his 10-year career, with an offensive rating of 121. James Harden, a volume scorer over eight-plus seasons in Houston, slipped seamlessly into a lead playmaker role. Injuries limited the trio to just 202 minutes together, but in that time they were dynamic, running up a 119.6 offensive rating—higher than the NBA-best 118.2 Brooklyn posted overall.
There’s reason to believe they can be even better. Take Harden, who sulked through a few weeks in Houston before being shipped to Brooklyn last January. His numbers with the Nets—24.6 points and 10.9 assists per game—were good. But he was out of shape and, by his own admission, unfocused. “I kind of blame last year on myself because I’m usually prepared, physically and mentally,” he says. “Last year was just draining [with] all the stuff that was going on. I didn’t have the right mindset and preparation for an entire season. Usually I’m very durable and I’m able to handle anything that comes my way, for the most part. This year, from top to bottom I feel totally different.”
There’s depth in Brooklyn. Good depth. There’s Patty Mills, the versatile combo guard who signed a two-year, $12 million deal after playing the last 10 seasons in San Antonio. There’s swingman Joe Harris, who led the NBA in three-point percentage (47.5%) for the second time in the last three years. There’s Bruce Brown, a 6' 4", 202-pound guard whose ability to defend a range of positions landed him a prominent role in the rotation last season.
There’s LaMarcus Aldridge, who joined the team in March after being released by the Spurs. During an April game against the Lakers, Aldridge—who had been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, an abnormality that can cause an irregular heartbeat, in 2007—felt palpitations. Within days, he retired.
Aldridge returned to Texas, where he underwent a battery of tests. “Just so I could return to everyday life,” says Aldridge. The results were good. He took more tests. More good results. He began thinking: Maybe I can come back. He called Brooklyn GM Sean Marks. Marks listened—and then tried to talk Aldridge out of it. “I wasn’t ready to stop,” says the 36-year-old power forward. “I was helping the best team in the NBA. I was having fun. I still love the game. I still bring something to the table.”
Aldridge will play a leading role in a formidable frontcourt. Blake Griffin, signed midway through last season, returns. At 32 he revived his career as a small-ball center in Brooklyn, connecting on 38.3% of his threes. Paul Millsap, a four-time All-Star, arrives from Denver, replacing Jeff Green, who had jumped to the Nuggets. Millsap will battle Nic Claxton and James Johnson for playing time.
“This team is not going to need me to go out there, go to work on the block and score 15, 20 points,” says Millsap. “I understand that, and knowing my role on this team is going to be big and crucial. Everybody knowing their role on the team is going to be crucial.”
Potential obstacles look more like mere bumps. There’s Irving, always a wild card. His uncertain vaccination status—New York City requires proof of vaccination to even set foot in indoor entertainment venues, including Barclays Center—ginned up some controversy early in training camp. But Irving thrived playing off the ball with Harden, freeing him to be more scorer than playmaker.
Defensively the Nets finished in the bottom third of the league last season, though team officials point to a postseason stinginess—fourth among the 16 playoff teams in defensive rating—coupled with the return of Aldridge and the continued development of the 6' 11" Claxton as reasons to be bullish. “We were really good in the playoffs,” says coach Steve Nash. “Numerically, the eye test and even getting more granular, we did a lot of things well when you consider our health at that stage of the season. We’ve got to build on that and pick up as close to where we left off as possible.”
If they do, who’s going to stop them? If Durant’s foot had been an inch back in the closing seconds of Game 7 of the conference semifinals against Milwaukee, then the Nets—without Irving and with Harden hobbled—would have sent the Bucks home. At 33 and in his 15th season in the league, Durant is peaking.
Durant shrugs at those who wondered whether he would be the same player after the Achilles tear. “I was expecting to do the things that I did,” he says. He enters the season in shape after a three-week, gold-medal-winning—some might say salvaging—stint with Team USA in Tokyo. He’s energized by the return of Aldridge, a close friend whom he convinced to join Brooklyn.
“He [retired] 49 points away from 20,000,” says Durant. “I want him to get that.” He sees the potential in a team that won’t have to spend months learning one another. “Everybody is more comfortable in this environment,” says Durant. “The IQ is pretty high with this group. It’s just a matter of us getting reps in. We’re looking forward to that. We have a lot of boxes checked. Once we get on the court, that’s the final one.”