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NETS 2021: As enthusiasm builds, questions linger ... and not just about Kyrie Irving

Minnesota Timberwolves v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

After a long off season that began with laments about Kevin Durant’s foot and is ending with concerns over Kyrie Irving’s arm, the Nets are still the favorite to win it all. So say the bookmakers, the pundits and, of course, us fans.

Parades are, of course, be on hold. Lots of teams go into a season as favorites only to watch the last game on a big screen in Cancun (or Turks & Caicos, a Nets favorite), Still, it’s hard not to be enthusiastic, not with Kevin Durant and James Harden on your team. This is also the Nets 10th season in Brooklyn and those seven and eight year olds from Brooklyn Heights to Canarsie who bought their first gear back in the day are now fully invested. They, like all of us, can taste it, bittersweet and all.

Of course, questions big and small linger ... and not all of them surrounding how long Irving will be out. Here’s a few we hope the team can answer.

  • Will the defense which was the focus of so many off-season moves — from adding veterans like James Johnson, Jevon Carter and Patty Mills to signing two 3-and-D prospects to two-way deals — actually get it done?. The Nets went from 28th in regular season to fourth in post-season in defensive ratings but they’ll need greater consistency if they’re going to win it all.
  • How healthy can the Nets be? Healthier hopefully than last year, when the Big Three played together for only 224 minutes from Opening Night to Game 7 of the Buck series. Durant and Harden played only 35 and 36 games in regular season. The Nets reinforced depth chart will help, but if either KD or Harden goes down for a significant stretch of time and Irving is still out, well, that could spell disaster.
  • How soon can the Nets build chemistry? With Irving at home, the Nets have only six players left from the team that lost to the Bucks in June: Kevin Durant, James Harden, Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown and Nicolas Claxton. That’s it.
  • Who gets minutes up front? This isn’t such a bad question. Blake Griffin is back, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap are healthy, playing well in preseason while Nic Claxton once again showed promise in Thursday’s preseason games. Plus the Nets have added a veteran enforcer in James Johnson and a promising teenager in Day’Ron Sharpe.
  • Is the wing position stretched thin? Joe Harris looks like he’s over his Bucks series shooting woes and DeAndre’ Bembry looks like a nice pick-up particularly on defense. After that, is the roster imbalanced? A hot shooting Bruce Brown would help immeasurably since he already brings it on defense, but are the Nets taking Harris’ durability for granted? He’s missed a total of 16 games over the last four years.
  • Will Patty Mills provide added leadership as well as on-court production? Both will be needed without Irving in the gym or the arena. He was the biggest off-season acquisition if you measure things in terms of money. In an off-season where “vets minimum” was at the center of the Nets word cloud, Mills got a two-year, $12 million. Mills proved his mettle in the Olympics, bringing home Australia’s first medal with a record-breaking performance in the bronze medal game. And without Irving, Mills is now the only Net other than Durant with an NBA ring.
  • Will James Harden start slow? He spent most of the summer rehabbing his hamstring which gave him some trouble even before last year. His conditioning is better but getting back to James Harden-level excellence may take some time. He looked good Thursday. There are also questions about how much new rules will affect his ability to continue as a free throw magnet.
  • Finally, the big one, where does the offense come from with Irving watching from home in West Orange? We — and everyone else in Netsdom — have written about it. Start with KD and Harden of course. Add increased production from Griffin and Mills and Carter and Brown maybe Cam Thomas; better ball movement, particularly among the veteran bigs. We shall see.

Steve Nash has been cagey about it all, starting with Irving.

“When you lose an exceptional talent like that, your roster is built in a certain way over the parameters of having three guys,” Nash said recently. “So everyone has to slide up a spot, so to speak.

“We have to win with corporate knowledge, growth from last season, connectivity, team spirit and building those bonds that I think transfer on the court and off. Those are the things we’ll figure out as we go.”

In general, Nash has been in a lower-the-expectations mode in recent days. Coaches are like that, but he also understands nothing much matters till the guys take the court.

“There’s expectations and pressure and honestly, we got a long way to go,” Nash said following practice Saturday. “I feel like we’ve been on the court [together], practices and games, probably like 15 times. So this is the type of thing that’s going to take a long time for us to be a finished product.

“But can we get out to a decent start? Can we play at a decent level to start? Can we manage some of the shortcomings of a short camp early and a lot of new players? Guys still trying to get into conditioning? That would be great.”

Indeed, it would be and his remaining superstars have said all the right things, particularly Durant who after his outstanding play in the Olympics is increasingly seen as the best player in the world ... and a team leader.

“Kevin is Kevin and James is James and Joe is Joe,” Griffin said. “But the guys who support them, myself included, we have to just do our job and do it better.”

Fellow veteran LaMarcus Aldridge, who knows all about adversity and rising above it, suggested the team’s biggest advantage other than having two of the best players in the league is its veteran status.

“I think somebody younger might’ve been more distracted, but guys have been locked in,” Aldridge said.

Indeed, the Nets are among the NBA’s most experienced clubs. They are second in the NBA with an average of eight years in the league. Only the Lakers, with 10 years, have a more experienced roster. They are also tied with the Heat for the second oldest roster at 28.9 years.

More than the numbers, though, there’s the leadership embedded in Durant and Harden’s personalities. A little bit of ying and yang. KD is more chill, Harden more vocal. In the past few days, after KyrieGate, the two have said all the right things about their team. Near pitch-perfect in fact.

“This is not the ideal situation coming into the season but it’s out of our control. What we can do is come in and focus on our jobs every single day. What is being mad going to do? It’s not going to change his mind,” Durant said after the Nets preseason finale win over the Timberwolves.

“We’ll let him figure what he needs to do and let the team figure out what they need to do. Us as players, when we’re in the locker room or on the floor, we are going to work with each other. Life is amazing.”

Days earlier, Harden was also on message.

“We still have two pretty good leaders on the team. Obviously Kai is our leader as well, but we still have obviously myself and Kevin to lead, which we’re pretty good at,” Harden said. “And go out there and be great every single night.”

“For us, we just got to focus on the guys in this locker room that are here. That’s putting in the work every single day. That’s all we can control. That’s all we focus on,” Harden said. “Every single day is already a struggle. It’s already difficult just cause we’re trying to catch up and put it together. That’s the main thing we can focus on is getting better as a unit for whoever is in the locker room and preparing for the game for us.”

Questions will abound throughout the season, particularly about Irving’s availability. Expect to hear rumors about his status, about the city’s mandate, as often as you’ll hear, “Where’s Kyrie?” chants in opponents’ arenas.

Of course, questions abounded last year as well, starting with the big one, Will Kevin Durant still be Kevin Durant? (Remember that one?); Can James Harden adjust to a new challenge? (How’d that one work out?) How can the Nets get beyond their injuries — 38 different starting lineups, 28 different players under contract? Despite all that, they finished with the best winning percentage in franchise history.

Then, there’s the one constant, Sean Marks. Make no mistake, the Irving decision not to get vaccinated — and its possible repercussions — is the biggest crisis he’s faced since he walked in the doors of the newly opened HSS Training Center five years ago. The limits of player empowerment are being tested. If experience is any indicator, he’s up for it.