Can the Nets Overcome … Themselves?

For higher and (definitely) worse, the Brooklyn Nets don’t lack stress. Here are some things that occurred to them since Kyrie Irving was suspended on November 3:

  • Kevin Durant gave an interview to Bleacher Report‘s Chris Haynes through which, amongst many different issues, he stated: “Look at our beginning lineup. Edmond Sumner, Royce O’Neale, Joe Harris, Claxton and me. It’s not disrespect, however what are you anticipating from that group? You count on us to win as a result of I’m on the market. So should you’re watching from that lens, you are anticipating us to play properly as a result of No. 7 is on the market.”
  • A report emerged from The Athletic about the rocky relationship between Ben Simmons and his teammates. It included particulars about Brooklyn’s notorious players-only assembly on October 29, through which Markieff Morris “spoke up in entrance of all of his teammates about how they want Simmons to succeed and that he has to reply when he offers with adversity on the court docket.”

  • After back-to-back losses towards the Lakers and Kings, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn gave certainly one of the finest quotes in current NBA historical past: “I do not know if our minds, our our bodies, and souls are nonetheless in LALA can try this to you generally.” (Brooklyn allowed 153 factors in Sacramento.)

On Sunday evening, Irving returned to motion after serving an eight-game suspension for sharing a video with antisemitic tropes after which refusing to apologize or denounce his anti-Jewish language in public. Both Durant and Simmons have been additionally in the lineup. virtually every part was proper at Barclays Center for the first time in a very long time. The Nets proceeded to beat the short-handed Grizzlies by 12 factors and scored 70 factors in the second half. Wins are all the time good, however this one may be the first of Brooklyn’s season that sparks one thing deeper than simply aid.

For a crew that’s determined to place the most embarrassing episode in its historical past behind it, the victory is a possible (I repeat: potential) turning level. An precise sense of optimism could also be taking maintain.

Now on the verge of settling into some sense of normalcy, two questions matter: (1) What are the Nets? (2) Where do they go from right here? A couple of weeks in the past this crew was a humiliation. Now wholesome, with a brand new head coach main a resuscitated roster, there are precise causes to really feel optimistic about this group, distractions apart.

While Irving was suspended, the Nets went 5-3, ranked second in defensive ranking, third in internet ranking, and fourth in help proportion. With him again on the ground, Ben Simmons is beginning to look extra assertive and positively influence each ends (simply in time for Tuesday evening’s journey to Philadelphia!); Kevin Durant remains to be Kevin Durant; essential position gamers like Joe Harris and Seth Curry are rounding into type; and Yuta Watanabe has changed into the hottest shooter on the planet.

There are additionally causes to really feel like the Nets may implode at any second. The crew has a core character trait that may finest be described as erratic. Time will inform if they’ve sufficient shot making and self-discipline to beat, properly, themselves.

Big-picture questions loom. Durant could develop pissed off with Brooklyn’s inconsistency and demand one other commerce earlier than the deadline. There are 184 gamers who’ve taken at the least 100 photographs and none have a better heavy contest charge than KD. His job is tough, and if the Nets backslide there are some fascinating situations to contemplate even when few are more likely to occur. My private favourite ships Durant to the Blazers for Anfernee Simons—who cannot be traded till January 15—Jerami Grant, three unprotected first-round picks, and a pair choose swaps. (Portland must modify the safety on the 2023 choose they owe the Bulls to make this work.)

A commerce request would upend the Nets and alter the whole league’s complexion. But if Durant recommits himself to the group and Irving avoids peddling hate speech for the subsequent few months, Brooklyn’s solely on-court variable will likely be Simmons, who’s making a gradual return again to the singular two-way drive Sean Marks assumed he was getting in the James Harden commerce.

On Sunday, Simmons was again in the beginning lineup as a wrecking-ball level middle. He attacked the paint, rolled arduous off screens, acquired to his spots in the publish, crashed the glass, discovered open teammates, and put collectively his finest end-to-end basketball sport since Round 1 of the 2021 playoffs: 22 factors (on 13 photographs), eight rebounds, and 5 assists. When Simmons accentuates his personal energy by leveraging his teammates’ gravity and all the area it offers, excellent issues occur.

Simmons downplayed his efficiency afterward, reiterating that he has all the time believed he’d get again to who he was. His teammates agreed. “I count on this from Ben,” Durant stated. “So when he performs properly I’m not gonna get enthusiastic about it.” In actuality, this was an enormous deal for a crew that may’t accomplish something significant with out him. It’s additionally coming off one other evening that is value remembering.

The most pivotal second of Simmons’s season, although, would possibly’ve occurred on Thursday when he wasn’t even on the court docket. A pair minutes into the third quarter of Brooklyn’s tight win towards the Blazers, Sumner misplaced observe of Damian Lillard making an attempt to dodge a thicket of screens and it led to an open Anfernee Simons 3.

Vaughn changed Sumner with Simmons at the subsequent useless ball, slotting him subsequent to the remainder of the crew’s starters, and it is not hyperbole to wonder if that call will likely be seen as a watershed second for the Nets and Simmons after we look again at it three months from now.

Simmons performed 19 minutes throughout the second half—a complete topped solely by Durant—and had a better plus/minus than everybody in the sport. He set good screens, rebounded, competed on protection, ran efficient fastbreaks (the Nets are far more more likely to run off an opposing missed shot when he is on the court docket), and even rolled into an aggressive duck-in. It’s too quickly to know whether or not it is a return to type. Simmons does not look fairly like a max participant but, however he appears to be lastly realizing he is greater and sooner than 95 p.c of the league:

In Simmons’s first 5 video games again from knee soreness, Vaughn introduced him off the bench to experiment with totally different appears, together with enjoyable, tiny lineups that featured him at the 5 surrounded by a few of the finest shooters alive. Those teams aren’t sustainable on the defensive finish, however swap in Durant and Watanabe (who’s producing an absurd 1.58 factors per shot) for, say, Curry and Patty Mills, and all of the sudden there’s extra dimension with out sacrificing any area. (The Simmons-Durant-Watanabe-O’Neale-Harris lineup has performed solely 4 minutes this season.)

Defensively, Simmons may be Brooklyn’s personal Bam Adebayo, a bodily, positionless monster who switches nearly each display screen he is concerned in. The Nets can both put him on the opponent’s high offensive possibility or neutralize the motion by sticking him on whoever’s most certainly to set a ball display screen.

But the authentic points that made Simmons a polarizing participant earlier than he acquired to Brooklyn—an allergic response to leap photographs and a weary relationship with the free throw line—nonetheless exists. He cannot share the ground with teammates who do not shoot, which restricts lineup prospects and, extra particularly, forces Vaughn to both stagger Simmons and Nic Claxton (who missed Sunday’s sport because of private causes) or discover methods to juice the offense with each on the court docket. There are some possessions when Brooklyn’s sheer expertise will mitigate the situation, however even somebody like Durant cannot constantly overcome a cramped ground.

And then there’s Simmons’s free throw capturing, a deadly flaw that opponents are starting to select without delay once more. Simmons did not try a single free throw in his first three video games again, and Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups selected to deliberately foul him twice in crunch time on Thursday.

The Nets ought to be thrilled with what they’ve not too long ago seen from a number of essential gamers, together with Simmons and Watanabe. They even have motive to consider their offense will likely be even higher than it is already been: They rank first in quantified shot chance and twenty fifth in quantified shot making. Quite a lot of that’s because of uncharacteristically low 3-point percentages from Joe Harris, Durant, and Irving. Those ought to tick up, particularly if Simmons retains setting them up with wide-open appears in transition.

Granted it was towards an opponent that was down the NBA’s finest backcourt, every part clicked for the Nets on Sunday. They logged a season-high 33 assists and shot a season-high 60.2 p.c from the ground. There’s nonetheless quite a lot of basketball to be performed and it is unattainable to belief this crew till they spend a couple of extra weeks trying like they did towards Memphis.

But if Simmons, Durant, and Irving discover a option to complement each other, and in the event that they’re supported by a forged that was initially constructed to make their lives simpler, Brooklyn can truly resemble a playoff crew, if not one thing extra.

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