The 2019-20 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
The similarities between the 2019-20 Brooklyn Nets and pre-Kyrie Irving Boston Celtics are many, from the collection of young talent to the coach who molded them into a sum greater than their parts. With Irving comes expectations, mostly because he is otherworldly talented and unafraid to remind you of it. It did not end well for Boston, just as it did not end well in Cleveland, so Irving is again out to prove he can commandeer a contender in Brooklyn, his destination of choice in free agency this summer.
When Cavaliers fans warned of Irving’s failures as the primary option, both prior to the arrival of LeBron James and when he rested, Celtics fans shrugged it off, even as Terry Rozier led their team to the Eastern Conference finals in Irving’s stead. Now, Bostonians are shouting caveat emptor from Brooklyn rooftops after one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.
Surely, Nets fans rejoiced when Irving and superstar partner Kevin Durant signed on in July, despite the fact Durant was less than a month removed from an Achilles tendon rupture that will likely keep him out this entire season. They should be confident their team can compete for a title in the near future and hopeful that Irving represents an upgrade over outgoing All-Star point guard D’Angelo Russell in the now. But be warned: There is a very real chance the Nets are no better this year, if not worse.
After a string of seasons in the Eastern Conference basement, the Nets caught lightning in a bottle last season. Caris LeVert emerged as a foundational player, and when he went down with a gruesome ankle injury, Russell ascended to stardom, manning the pick and roll for an offense that featured the under-appreciated Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie. Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson kept them all working and working together. The result was a surprising sixth seed and a first-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers that was much closer than the five-game result indicated. Much of that core is back for more.
Gone are Jared Dudley, Ed Davis and DeMarre Carroll, three of the most respected teammates in the league. Their production may not be missed, but their presence will. Harris credited all three of them for creating the chemistry that led to their success.
In their place are Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Wilson Chandler. Like Irving, Durant cast a curious cloud over the Golden State Warriors in 2018-19. It is anyone’s guess as to how they will coexist as leaders, especially with Durant only lending his voice from the sidelines. Jordan was a member of an infamously fractured Los Angeles Clippers locker room before mailing in last season on the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks. And Chandler is suspended for the first 25 games of this season.
Irving, LeVert and Dinwiddie has the potential to be one of the best guard rotations in the East, but how will the latter two respond to a six-time All-Star who made clear his desire to dominate the ball? Boston’s costars never figured that out. Russell paired better with Dinwiddie last season than LeVert, and it was Dinwiddie who helped draw Irving to Brooklyn. Where does that leave LeVert, who is still figuring out the extent of his capabilities as a 25-year-old rising star? Ask Rozier or Jaylen Brown.
Likewise, Jordan brings an All-Defensive reputation, and Allen is an emerging weapon in that regard. Combined they can protect the rim in waves. How will the 21-year-old Allen respond if he loses his starting job or a good share of his minutes to a past-his-prime Jordan? That Jordan received a four-year, $40 million contract that might eventually impede Allen’s 2021 restricted free agency is made more complicated by the fact that the veteran came as a package deal with good friends Irving and Durant.
These are the issues you cannot quantify by weighing the efficiency upgrade from Russell to Irving. In addition to locker-room dynamics, any roster improvement might also be impacted by the fact that LeVert, Dinwiddie and Harris all enjoyed career years last season. Harris, in particular, shot a league-best 47.4 percent from 3-point range in 2018-19, and LeVert has yet to prove his value as a bona fide second option over the course of a full season. How will they respond now in the face of expectations?
The Nets are not catching anybody by surprise anymore. That will be a test for Atkinson, too. Ask Celtics coach Brad Stevens how last season went when the returns of Irving and Gordon Hayward came with championship aspirations. Nobody really considers the Nets contenders this season. At least, nobody should. Durant’s absence leaves too great a whole at both forward positions, even if guys like Taurean Prince, Rodion Kurucs and Garrett Temple are capable of providing productive minutes. This is to say nothing of the possibility of another injury to Irving, who is nursing a third facial fracture suffered this preseason.
Still, the arrival of Irving and Durant brings considerable hype, even if one of them is shelved for 2019-20. A failure to improve on last year’s first-round playoff exit is not how anyone wants to start this three-year guaranteed window. There are no guarantees, particularly when you hand the keys to your franchise over to two of the most mercurial superstars in a league full of enigmas.
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