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The Nets experiment is an experiment in itself

Memphis Grizzlies v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In a season filled with hills and valleys, the Nets have had their hands tightly on the wheel for fear of things careening off that narrow championship path. From the challenge of remaining afloat during the COVID-19 Omicron variant outbreak to adding Kyrie Irving, but only as a part-timer, to a crazy series of back-to-backs. Out of all those tests has come experimentation, particularly in rotations. It’s not likely to end soon, but rather expand throughout the course of the regular season.

“Probably the whole year. It’s the way it is,” said Steve Nash on experimenting with the rotation. “We have so many guys that are the same. It’s really difficult to land on who we want to go with, so we’re probably going to experiment. Sometimes it’s an experiment and sometimes your hand is forced with guys being in and out of the lineup. We’ll see. It’s difficult because a lot of guys are very similar in their role, in their level and it’s impossible to play them all. We go through different interactions of the group and different experimentation.”

“Guys that are the same” doesn’t include the “Big Three” nor Joe Harris, of course. Those guys are who they are, but it is a roster that includes vets and kids with the same basketball m/o. How many 3&D players do the Nets have on the roster? Same with bigs. Sorting things out under the circumstances is to be expected (and to be fair, last year the Nets did have 38 different starting line-ups and 28 players under contract.)

The Nets had their hand forced when nearly the entire roster was hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. They entered the league’s health and safety protocols almost en masse. That phase resulted in the addition of four 10-day players but more importantly regular rotations filled with 20 somethings, untested rookies, and vets nearing the end of their career. Now, with all the players cleared and no 10-day players left on the roster, the team’s disappointing play and other woes have, surprisingly, gotten worse. So the pressure is on Nash.

For example, Brooklyn (25-14) suffered yet another loss to a team that was a shell of itself Monday night, a Trail Blazers’ team playing without Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. or Norman Powell. The defeat marked the teams’ fifth loss in their last seven and snapped a five-game road winning streak.

The loss, like most in this tough stretch, included a few bright spots. It was the second game for Irving, despite an ankle injury scare that sparked concern. plus solid performances by four rookies made thigs easier.

The rookies shared the floor with the Nets superstar duo of Durant and Irving while sharing minutes with other veterans on the roster as well. Sharpe (14 points (six-of-six shooting from the field), seven rebounds and three blocks) made the biggest impression Monday night, displaying toughness and fending his own on the glass and in the post against Portland’s bruising bigs, Jusuf Nurkic and Cody Zeller.

Brooklyn Nets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Fresh off a game winner, Thomas lit up the scoreboard with 21 points (8-of-12 shooting from the field and 4-of-7 from three) in 26 minutes off the bench. David Duke Jr., who started the last four contests, showed another burst of all-around energy while Kessler Edwards displayed his sharpshooting — an area of need for Brooklyn with Joe Harris (ankle surgery rehab) still weeks away from returning.

“Lots of good things. Lots of growth,” said Nash on the play of the rookies Monday night. “They make errors that are correctable that they need to make to grow. Lots of positive things from all the rookies. I just want to keep developing them, keep giving them opportunities and see if they can grow.”

But there’s the other side to experimentation, maybe more than one. Nash and the coaching staff evaluation of their new tools has come at a price for others, particularly the vets. Paul Millsap hasn’t played in the last seven games. DeAndre’ Bembry only played eight second-half minutes in Friday’s loss to Milwaukee. Jevon Carter has played only 16 garbage-time minutes in seven games and Blake Griffin hasn’t received much run in that span as well, playing only 11 minutes to Edwards 15 and Sharpe’s 24 vs Portland.

The balance has not been easy for Nash. He’s gotten heat from fans and some pundits for seemingly forgetting rotation players while experimenting. Two days ago, he told reporters that maybe he should have played Bembry more.

“We’ll see. I think we have so many options in that role and a guy has a good game and then not as good a game and you go down the line it happens to all of them. We want to try to get guys a little more of a look.” said Nash. “We’ve given David Duke Jr. an opportunity here and I don’t want to just pull that opportunity two games in.

The Nets head coach made it clear that while the team experiments, there will be ups and downs for players. But he wants the players that get the short end of the stick during the experimentation to remain positive, stay ready and support the guys getting opportunities on the hardwood.

“t’s really important for our guys to understand that. Understand it’s not simple, straightforward and not everyone is going to be happy all the time,” Nash said. “You have to be able to be here for something bigger than yourself to commit to the group and stay ready, like we always say, play hard when your number is called and when it’s not, support your teammates to stay in it mentally and emotionally.”

Don’t expect an end anytime soon. While Irving will be eligible to play in 13 of the next 18 games, he’ll be ineligible to play in 11 of the team’s last 15 games, including the last four when seeding could be at stake. Joe Harris return is still uncertain and so as Kristian Winfield wrote Tuesday, “You never know who might have to play minutes in the playoffs.”