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NETS 2021 Roundtable: It’s ALL about championship aspirations

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

It’s that time of year!

With a strong preseason in the past, the most anticipated season in Nets history is upon us. The NetsDaily crew came together and assembled at their annual virtual roundtable. Happy basketball season to all!

1. Now that the Brooklyn Nets team is fully healthy and ready to roll into a championship-contending season, who are you most excited to watch and why?

Net Income: Most excited to watch James Harden. We only got a brief look at him last season — 36 games — but what we saw was exhilarating. Whatever happens with Kyrie Irving will happen. It’s fluid as Steve Nash says, but Harden is a show unto himself. Twelve triple-doubles in 36 games is a stunning number.

Tom Lorenzo: There are so many ways you can go here. You can get excited about watching the best player in the world, Kevin Durant. Or you can choose to watch the best playmaker in the world, James Harden. Or maybe two top young talents like Cam Thomas or Nic Claxton. Oh, also, you can choose to watch one of the 3-5 best shooters in the world, in Joe Harris. Lots to be excited about. But, I mean, hard not to pick getting to watch Kevin Durant all day, every day. He’s at the top of his game - top of THE game - and it feels like he’s in the right headspace to dominate this season.

Brian Fleurantin: I’m gonna go with Kevin Durant. KD can do everything humanly possible on a basketball court and with how close the Nets were last playoffs, he has even more motivation to chase a ring and dominate his foes. With Durant, there are so many ways the Nets can utilize him, from how he operates the offense, to the lineups around him, and him playing center every now and then. He can fit literally any role you ask of him and watching him for a full, non-COVID shortened season is going to be exciting as well.

Chris Milholen: I’m most excited to watch James Harden. We only got to see him in 36 games + some playoffs last season. Let alone less than a dozen games together as the ‘Big 3.’ Now that he’s entering the season healthy and has played progressively better throughout the preseason, I believe Harden will play 72 games and perform like an MVP favorite and smash Jason Kidd’s Nets triple-double record. We’ve seen and heard how focused he is on his goal of delivering a chip to Brooklyn and I think he’ll live up to those words.

Matt Brooks: Who am I most excited to watch? Hmmm, that’s a good one. Part of me wants to say Paul Millsap, just because my fragile ego can’t bear to watch takes like “he could be the biggest steal of free agency!” bleed out slowly. Yes, I am on record saying that. So that’s certainly something I’ll selfishly be watching for. As for my actual answer? Jevon Carter’s point-of-attack defense is a treat to watch. I think people know by now how much I love watching dudes just straight-up guard. DeAndre’ Bembry is a chaotic ball of energy, and for that reason, I love him. Nicolas Claxton might be my number one, though, just because this is such a big year for him. He changes games defensively when he steps out on the floor. I’m curious to see how his offense progresses with a full year next to James Harden. Yeah, just typing this out, I’m getting excited for what this year could represent in Clax’s career.

Mike Smeltz: Kevin Durant. Obvious answer but I am excited to see if he can maintain the level of play he reached in the playoffs. Durant played so well against the Bucks in the second round that I still have fond memories of the series - a series the Nets lost! Durant proved he is the apex predator in the NBA. I will fully enjoy watching him play a full season with fewer injury fears than last season.

Alec Sturm: This is a more-than-unorthodox answer, but I’m going to go with Nic Claxton, at least in the regular season. Claxton is such a fascinating player considering his size, position and skill set. He’s a center who thrives in switch coverage unlike any other I’ve ever seen, and I truly think the possibilities are endless for his potential. His offensive flaws should be diminished if he shares the court with James Harden, which will only unlock time for his defense talents to shine. When the playoffs roll around, however, I can’t wait to see James Harden — health provided. Harden has still yet to shed the label of playoff underperformed, and I am fully confident in his ability to do so.

Billy Reinhardt: Even without Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn boasts arguably the most talented roster in the NBA with a plethora of exciting options to choose from. The Nets trio of former All-Star big men – Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Paul Millsap – should bring nostalgia and savvy veteran play. Cam Thomas will surely provide some electrifying moments to ignite Nets fans’ hopes of developing a homegrown star. Joe Harris and Patty Mills will contribute some fun. That being said, the most exciting players are the best players and the Nets are fortunate enough to have two top five players in the league leading the team this season. Kevin Durant or James Harden, take your pick. I’ll go with Harden, the head of Brooklyn’s snake and a man on a mission to secure his first NBA title. After an unfortunate, injury plagued ending to his first season in Brooklyn, look for the former MVP to come back with vengeance this year and take on an even greater load with Irving not around.

2. Who is going to be Brooklyn’s “secret weapon” this season?

NI: I would say Patty Mills although a part of me thinks it could be Jevon Carter. Mills becomes more important with the Nets decision to ban Kyrie Irving. He’s a stabilizing force who has championship experience and an ability to articulate goals. Carter, on the other hand, has surprised none other than Steve Nash. (Carter also is one of the team’s youngest players — just turned 26 — with two years left on his deal.

TL: The secret’s out on Mr. Whammy, so I can’t pick him. So, I guess I’ll have to say Patty Mills. He’s maybe the best backup PG in the league, and literally no one is talking about him. Even in the era of Kyrie Irving, IF Kyrie doesn’t play this season then I would feel good about going into the season with James Harden and Patty Mills running the offense. Patty has that Spurs pedigree, he’s a winner, he can come in and calm things down as needed. On a star-studded team he can absolutely go under the radar, which is the perfect position for him to be in.

BF: I have half a mind to say Kyrie Irving here, but if he does return, he won’t be a secret. For the guys that we know are here, I’ll go with Cam Thomas. A rookie that can heat up at a moment’s notice and get buckets is always something to keep an eye out for and I think there will be nights where he catches opponents off guard.

CM: Clearly it’s a full-time Kyrie Irving here because there isn’t a single player that can replace his elite offensive production. Outside of Irving, I’d have to go with Patty Mills. The veteran guard was Brooklyn’s biggest offseason acquisition, in my opinion, and with Irving’s status pending, he’ll have a bigger role in the backcourt. The Nets can use Mills both on-ball and off-ball and we’ve seen Steve Nash put him in different lineups when experimenting in the preseason. Although he didn’t have the sharpest preseason, I think Mills will have a career year from three and his experience with culture and leadership will serve volumes for this Nets squad.

MB: Eric Adams.

(My actual answer is LaMarcus Aldridge, who can not only maintain spacing on offense with his three-point abilities but can also body dudes in the post as an alternative form of offense for the Nets when the going gets tough.)

MS: Science. If Kyrie Irving gets vaccinated and plays basketball, the Nets will be unstoppable.

AS: I’ll go with Jevon Carter, who sneakily exploded onto the scene in preseason. He’s one of many feisty defenders new to this roster, and is an underrated shooter from deep. Brooklyn’s starting lineup is wide open after Kyrie Irving’s indefinite absence, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carter make a push for the starting group at some point in the regular season.

BR: The Nets are the championship favorites, sporting a roster of All-Stars, former stars, and well-known veterans. However, there still are a few guys that could fly under the radar and surprise as Brooklyn’s ‘secret weapons’ this season. The three that stick out most to me are Jevon Carter, Cam Thomas, and James Johnson. None of the three are necessarily household names – yet – but should provide solid contributions as fringe rotation pieces this season. I’m as high on Thomas as anyone and I think he’ll be a very well-known name shortly, so I’m going to go with Jevon Carter for the Nets’ ‘secret weapon’ this season. Carter was a savvy pre-draft acquisition by Sean Marks and should bring much needed backcourt defense as a point of attack defender, secondary ball-handling, toughness, and floor spacing capabilities. If preseason is any indication, Carter might even be poised to take another step as a shooter. Carter’s the perfect ‘3&D’ guard to round out Brooklyn’s rotation.

3. What is your biggest concern with this Nets team?

NI: I don’t buy the health issue. We are all at our peak until injury or illness makes its claim. (I’m old. I know these things!) Nets were unfortunate last year — and the Bucks fortunate. I believe that will all work out. I am concerned about what happens with Kyrie Irving and whether his uncertain status hurts team chemistry.(assuming he doesn’t come back.) Will we see and hear constant rumors about whether he’s been seen near the arena or practice facility. I always worry about continuity and so, the loss of Irving will hurt there as well.

TL: Vaccine mandates. It’s not that I don’t think this team can win without Kyrie, but I just hope we don’t have to keep talking about it.

BF: I feel like my answer has been the same for the past five years, but it’s health. So many Nets seasons have been derailed by injuries and there’s always that fear somebody important will go down at the worst possible time. I think the team will be very judicious in managing everyone’s minutes in the regular season. Outside of injury, I’ll go with the frontcourt rotation. LaMarcus Aldridge is making his way back after a shortened season last year so I don’t expect much from him to begin the season. For as great as he was last year, I wonder if Blake Griffin will be able to replicate the success he had when he came over from Detroit. Nic Claxton hasn’t had the greatest of camps, and I’ve been wondering how he will be utilized throughout the season.

CM: While the status of Kyrie Irving is clearly the biggest factor — impacts chemistry, continuity, and a hovering distraction to a degree — you can overlook the value of health. With Irving out until he either gets the shot or the state mandate gets lifted, the Nets’ wiggle room for injuries in the backcourt also shrinks. You also can’t shy away from the huge concern that the Nets have had for a number of seasons now — a true big-body post defender. We saw Blake Griffin struggle against Joel Embiid in the preseason and it looks like LaMarcus Aldridge is the team’s best bet with Embiid — a player most teams struggle to defend — but it’s a worry. On the bright side, the defense as a team should improve by quite a margin compared to last season based on the offseason moves.

MB: Ball-handling. It feels weird to say this on a team with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and hypothetically Kyrie Irving, but if Kai remains a hypothetical instead of an actual basketball player, the minutes in which James Harden sits gets a liiiiiiittle dicey from a run-the-offense perspective. Granted, Kevin Durant is more than capable of taking on the load of “playing point” (see Nets-Bucks Game 5), but is that really the best utilization of KD during the regular season? Isn’t it better to preserve the all-time scorer off the ball? Forcing Durant to take on ball-handling reps on a near-regular basis just seems strenuous — and unnecessary. I wouldn’t be shocked if Brooklyn sniffed around the buyout market (John Wall?) and/or explored what its multiple TPEs could garner if Kyrie is indeed a no-go this year.

MS: Beyond vaccination status - the lack of a true post defender is still worrisome. This year’s Nets have a lot of good options but no perfect choices at center. Overall the team defense should be improved with Paul Millsap, DeAndre’ Bembry, James Johnson, Jevon Carter and a maturing Nic Claxton. But the lack of a clear Embiid-stopping big man causes some concern.

AS: Does the team find an identity? This may be a bit out of left field, but is a real big-picture concern of mine. Brooklyn’s offseason was praised for the various role players acquired, allowing the Nets to play multiple schemes and styles. My question is, amid the shuffling deck of players in the regular season, will they ever be able to discover when they are truly at their best? Last year, it was in small-ball lineups with Jeff Green and Kevin Durant in the front court. Will this year be more of the same, or something else entirely.

BR: The lingering Kyrie Irving situation and its trickle-down effect on the team now and going forward. The once presumed heavy championship favorite Brooklyn Nets’ margin has lessened considerably with the loss of Irving. Brooklyn can no longer afford an injury to Kevin Durant or James Harden. Durant and Harden are certainly capable of leading a healthy Nets team to the promise land without Irving, but there’s now a lot more pressure on them to stay healthy or we could see a repeat of last year’s early playoff exit. Even more concerning is how Irving’s situation has impacted Harden’s extension talks. In a media session the week before training camp, Sean Marks famously said that he expected extensions for Harden & Irving to be “signed, sealed, and delivered” before the season began. Marks is rarely that transparent and outwardly confident. Irving obviously hasn’t been extended because of his vaccination situation, but Harden not yet locking in for more years in Brooklyn makes you wonder how the uncertainty around Irving has affected his plans. To me, it’s simple – win and Harden is secured. But if the Nets flame out once again in the playoffs, it could be a ‘scary’ summer in Brooklyn.

4. What are your expectations for Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden?

NI: I expect big things from KD and James Harden, but Kyrie will be a question mark until he isn’t. Durant and Harden took a less talented, less experienced less deep OKC team to the NBA Finals when they were young.

TL: Kevin Durant wins the MVP. James Harden leads the league in assists. Kyrie Irving doesn’t play another game with the Nets.

BF: For KD, I envision him having an MVP caliber season and finishing top three in the balloting by the time the season ends. He’s coming off of such a dominant Olympic run and now that he’ll have a bit more of a green light to score, look or him to be amazing. For James Harden, I see an All Star nomination along with averaging a triple double this season. As for Kyrie, I think he winds up getting vaccinated against COVID, returning to the Nets, and all being forgiven and forgotten a few weeks after he’s back. Think of how we don’t talk much about Andrew Wiggins’ and his anti vax foolishness after he got vaccinated. I think the same thing will happen with Kyrie if he does what he needs to do. If/when he’s back on the court, it’s going to take some time for him to get acclimated so I think he’ll get off to a slow start if he plays.

CM: I expect Kevin Durant and James Harden to have BIG years this season. Durant will cement his name as the best player in the world and I expect both (Durant and Harden) to be in the MVP discussion. Harden, who I think will get back on track with his reliable durability, will be the stronger candidate considering the load he’ll have to carry with Kyrie Irving being out for an undetermined amount of time but overall, I believe Luka Doncic will take home the award. As for Irving, I believe if he does return to the court as a Net, (I believe he does) his elite offensive production is the cherry on top for a championship season, but it depends how late he returns.

MB: James Harden will be an MVP candidate. In fact, he may outright the award with the load he could have to shoulder in light of Kyrie Irving being out for the foreseeable future. Speaking of Kyrie, I do think he’s going to be out for a while, perhaps hoping that the results of a certain mayoral vote could skew his future. As for KD? I think he’ll have his first healthy season since his final year in Golden State, playing as many as 75 games. I could also see him leading the league in scoring.

MS: Kevin Durant will fully own the ‘best player in the league’ championship belt, putting together an ascendant offensive season. James Harden will continue his altered play from last season, where Harden fit much more into a team concept than he had in Houston. Durant and Harden will compete for the MVP trophy, ultimately splitting the vote letting Luka Doncic win it this season. And Kyrie? He could retire, be traded, sit out, or get vaccinated. I could see any of those four scenarios happening.

AS: I expect MVP-level seasons from both Kevin Durant and James Harden, though I don’t think either will win the award. Durant is a favorite pre-season, but I expect the Nets to rest him in a “load management” plan. Harden isn’t one to take games off, but will likely be penalized by votes for sharing the court with another superstar. As for Kyrie Irving, I mean, where to start? The only prediction worth making at this point is whether he will get vaccinated and play at all for Brooklyn. I have gone on record with this before, but I do expect him to soften his anti-mandate stance and get the jab at some point in the season. Do I say that with any confidence? Of course not.

BR: I fully expect Kevin Durant and James Harden to lead this team to great heights this season – with or without Kyrie Irving. Without Irving, Durant and Harden’s usage rates should explode and allow them to put up two of their best statistical seasons ever. In Irving’s case, it’s incredibly difficult to evaluate the situation. All the recent intel leads me to believe Irving will eventually be back with the Nets at some point this season as he said he has no plans of retiring. However, I’d be shocked if he’s back before February or March. Irving could be waiting out the winter to see if the city lifts the vaccine mandate.

5. Give a bold prediction on the Nets and/or a player on this team

NI: Kessler Edwards will be getting minutes by the season’s end. I liked him on Draft Night, liked what I saw in Summer League and what I’ve seen in preseason.

TL: LaMarcus Aldridge plays 70 games. And Blake Griffin plays 70 games. And Kyrie Irving plays zero games, non-injury related scratches. What a world, huh?

BF: Hmm, my bold prediction is Bruce Brown is in the starting lineup all season long. Brown is the perfect energy guy and I feel his presence will help prevent the Nets from starting games slowly.

CM: I got two. Nic Claxton will take a big step in his production on the court and his conditioning — currently an ongoing worry. While I see Claxton’s offensive game growing the most — at least to the public eye — his elite defense will also expand. He’ll hold a prominent role with Brooklyn and the question about an eligible extension will be the Nets' biggest decision. Jevon Carter will also play a big role for Brooklyn, especially with Kyrie Irving’s pending situation. Carter’s shot is looking very sharp early on and to add that to a player who poses such clinching defense is a perfect backcourt piece for Brooklyn’s arsenal.

MB: Jevon Carter will be a starter in two months. He is the perfect counterpart to James Harden — a total pest on defense that can make up for Harden’s, um, let’s call them less-than-ideal perimeter defense chops. He can also make threes at a high clip and keep the offense running smoothly as the perfect plug-and-play guy next to the stars. If the shooting is real (I think it is), he’s basically lineup proof.

Here’s another hot take: Carter’s prosperity will come at the expense of a Nets mainstay, Bruce Brown, who I could see falling out of the rotation by the end of the year. Brown is an awesome player, as we all know, but this Nets team is a lot different from an infrastructure perspective. That complicates what Bruce does best. The Nets have multiple bigs now, all of whom need pick-and-roll reps to stay engaged, which relegates Brown to the corner (meh). Not to mention, there are more “non-shooters” on the roster (DeAndre’ Bembry and James Johnson, for example) and that limits the number of lineups that Brown can fit into, provided the jumper stays where it’s at. He’s working in tighter confines this year.

MS: Nic Claxton continues to expand his game throughout the season, eventually reaching the level Jarrett Allen was at as a center before the Nets traded him for James Harden. And because of that - Claxton will become too expensive for the Nets to keep and they’ll deal him at the trade deadline.

AS: I expected the Nets to lean into an identity of long-range shooting even more this year, and that will force Bruce Brown to get with the program. Brown worked with Kyle Korver over the summer to hone his shot, and I expect him to come into the year a much improved long range sniper. Put him down for 36%+ from three.

BR: Kyrie Irving will be in the Nets starting lineup for Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs. Don’t ask me how it happens – I don’t know yet – but I don’t think Irving intends to drag this out into the playoffs. Per multiple reports, Irving currently has no plans to get vaccinated, but he also said he isn’t anti-vaccinations, he’s more so trying to make a social statement. My feeling is that Irving will wait out the winter to see if the city eventually lifts the vaccine mandate. If they don’t, I think Irving will then heavily consider getting vaccinated. Irving understands the opportunity that’s in front of him with this Nets team and as playoff time rolls around, I expect him to find a way to get back on the court and rejoin the team for an opportunity to return to the ‘main stage’ and raise a banner in Brooklyn.

6. Final record prediction and postseason outcome

NI: Considering that I am writing this hours after the Kyrie news, I’m very much uncertain. I’ve had good and bad luck on this question. I projected 62 wins in 2013 after the Boston trade and was in the mainstream. I projected 42 wins in 2018-19 and surprised even myself (and some Russians) when I turned out to be correct. So, I’m going to go with 57 wins, losing in the EC Finals in a Bucks rematch.

TL: Brooklyn wins 58 games this season AND goes on the win the title. The Brooklyn Nets, your 2022 NBA champs. It has a nice ring to it.

BF: Regular season record prediction: 61-21

Postseason outcome: NBA Champions.

CM: I came very close last season (guess was 49-20) and hopefully that luck carries over this season. I’m locking in 53-29 on the year and I believe the Nets will win it all and deliver the first NBA championship to the franchise — over the Lakers in the NBA Finals (4-3).

MB: I think this team wins close to 60 games. The roster is really, really freaking good even without Kyrie, and I could actually see this group rallying around the difficult Irving situation. Plus, James Harden doesn’t lose regular-season games. Playoff-wise, I do have the Nets as my championship favorites, though Giannis Antetokounmpo splashing pull-up jumpers and turnarounds from the mid-post certainly makes me think twice. Still, though, I’m not sure there is a better one-two punch in the league than James Harden and Kevin Durant, and for that reason, I think the Nets win it all this year.

And if Kyrie comes back? Goodness gracious. It’s over.

MS: 62-20. NBA Champions.

AS: I’ll go with 58-24 and an NBA Finals victory.

BR: With the loss of Irving, I’m going to knock the regular season win total down a few notches. Originally, I believed the Nets would secure the East’s number one seed and 60 wins. I’m now thinking Brooklyn finishes 55-27, 2nd in the East behind Milwaukee. However, the playoffs are all that really matters for this Nets team. Despite the standings, Brooklyn will once again enter the playoffs as the East’s favorite. I’m predicting Brooklyn gets its revenge over Milwaukee, knocking off the defending champions in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. From there, the Nets will face the Lakers in arguably the most highly anticipated NBA Finals of all-time. This is the series where the Nets need Kyrie Irving. With Irving, I have Brooklyn raising the trophy after just five games. Without Irving, it’s an absolute toss-up seven game series. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Nets season rides on its mercurial third star.

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Have at it, all, and let us know who you agree/disagree with. Cheers to a fun season ahead and thank you all for riding with us!