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In season previews, Nets are the big question mark

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We have them right where we want them!

In season preview after preview, pundits say they simply don’t know what to expect from Brooklyn’s Nets. They are the team with the biggest asterisk going into the NBA season, the unknown quantity. And of course after last season’s disappointment and the summer’s chaos, that seems like a reasonable assessment. Can they stay healthy is just one question, one that applies to every team. There are questions about chemistry, about the bench, Steve Nash’s seat on the bench ... is it hot? Etc. etc. The two words that keep coming up are “but” and “if.”

The preseason helped clarify things a little bit with easy road wins over Milwaukee and Minnesota but they followed two games at Barclays Center where they looked bad.

The projections, when made, are all over the place. ESPN, out Monday, has the Nets at 40 wins, a losing record. The Athletic is at 49. FiveThirtyEight has them at 45 and as ESPN notes, Las Vegas has them at 50.5. (Our predictions will be out later in the week.)

The most negative assessment comes from ESPN. The worldwide leader wonders if the Nets penchant for drama (and yes, melodrama) will stymie their ambitions. Nick Friedell writes:

The organization has revolved around Durant since he signed with Brooklyn three years ago, but now it must find a way to reestablish itself with Durant after his trade request. Durant recently explained his decision, saying, in part, that he was disappointed in how he felt players weren’t being held accountable last season. Durant, Nash and Marks all seem confident that they can keep moving forward together — but the ultimate test will come whenever the Nets hit adversity this season.

The Nets’ biggest key to success this year is simple: Can Durant, Irving and Simmons all find a rhythm together? If they can, the Nets figure to be one of the better and most interesting teams in the league. If the three stars play well — and Nash can keep all the egos in check — Brooklyn might finally start to look like the type of strong team it has been hoping to see since Durant and Irving decided to sign over three years ago.

But 40 wins? Not all of ESPN, of course. There’s always an outlier and that, as usual, is Stephen A. Smith. He thinks Nets can win it all...

The New York Times doesn’t predict wins, but Sopan Deb is very much in tune with the theme.

With these Nets, there’s always a but. They’ve had great rosters the past two years only to fall apart through dysfunction, injuries or both. Simmons’s unwillingness to shoot could create spacing issues when Simmons is on the floor with center Nic Claxton. The talent is there to win a championship. But it was there last season, too, when they were embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs.

The Athletic’s take, from Zach Harper, has the Nets with a D+ for the off-season, taking all the chaos into account, but like everyone else, Harper isn’t sure what this team will look like.

I honestly have no idea. The Nets might end up being a cute or clever pick as a dark-horse candidate to compete for the title. I don’t even know if that’s legal when you consider a dark-horse candidate has Durant, Irving and Simmons on the roster with some really good role players sprinkled around them. On paper, this is a title-contending team. Forget the sweep at the hands of the Celtics. It happens. Look at Miami last season. They were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks the previous year, then were within a Jimmy Butler made 3-pointer and a defensive stop from getting back to the NBA Finals. The Nets can easily bounce back from being swept in the first round.

Robin Lundberg in Sports Illustrated writes about KD and Kyrie and the desire for legacy.

Since Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed in Brooklyn the team has only one playoff series win to show for it. While both KD and Kyrie are electric, for a variety of reasons they haven’t exactly always been available or reliable. Each has a reason to play with a chip on their shoulder this season, however, given Kyrie wasn’t able to secure a long-term contract and after Durant went as far as to ask for a trade. It’s on the mercurial duo to show their skills won’t be wasted on a disastrous tenure in BK.

He also notes that Nash’s coaching will be under the microscope:

Perhaps no one is under more pressure as the season tips than Steve Nash. With rumblings about Durant wanting him gone and the scrutiny the squad is under, it is absolutely imperative that Nash guides the Nets to a strong start because he is the easiest scapegoat for any potential problems.

CBS Sports’ Sam Quinn is skeptical that Nets will be able to get past their off-season if things go south early.

The Nets might have the most talented roster in the NBA. That might not matter because of how tenuous this newfound peace appears to be. If Durant’s faith in the Nets was somehow renewed this offseason, what happens if they’re .500 after 20 games? How does the team react if Irving gets involved in another off-court controversy? How comfortable is Simmons... playing basketball?

It makes predicting any sort of outcome for the Nets this season nearly impossible.

But Yaron Weitzmann of FOX Sports says puts the off-season chaos behind you. The talent will suffice.

We don’t need to rehash the drama, or all the questions surrounding this group. And yet, there’s so much talent here that I sort of expect this group to get off to, like, a 14-3 start that, for a stretch, puts some of the internal issues to bed. Kevin Durant is still a top-three player, the return of Joe Harris — one of the league’s top shooters and a big wing defender — is huge, Royce O’Neale is going to bolster the defense, there are shooters on the bench like Seth Curry and Patty Mills, and Ben Simmons doesn’t have to do anything other than play defense and push the ball up the court.

I’m buying this year’s version of the Nets and expect them to be competing for one of the East’s top seeds.

The single most positive (and lengthiest) take comes from David Thorpe at TrueHoop whose assessment is headlined, “Don’t sleep on the Brooklyn Nets!” Thorpe, who used to write for ESPN, puts a lot on his belief that Simmons can be a game-changer: “a confident Simmons is a bad motherf**ker“ and that’s what we’ve been seeing this preaseason.

Nash should challenge the team to race when Simmons is in to take advantage of his elite transition-basketball skills. He’s a freight train on the fast break and can seal little dudes for easy buckets, but he is also hyper-aware of the shooters surrounding him. The rule for playing with talents like Simmons is: “Just run: He will find you.” Simmons made the Sixers a powerful fast-break team. Brooklyn can be even better.

He also talks about Durant and leadership. Thorpe doesn’t think KD needs to be rah, rah, just lead by example and bring Simmons along.

He should be thinking: “If I can help Ben reach his immense potential, that’s a legacy-changer for me.” And it could return some amazing hardware, too: maybe even a second MVP, a third NBA championship, another Finals MVP.

Finally, there’s Marc Stein to sum things up nicely.

A Western Conference head coach, apprised of my desire to compile eight (almost) fearless predictions on the eve of Opening Night, suggested that I proclaim that the Nets will win the East. Yeah, right.

Durant and Irving are back together again, playing for a coach (Steve Nash) that KD reportedly wanted out as recently as August along with GM Sean Marks, with Ben Simmons joining the party (we think) after missing all of last season.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring in Brooklyn?

All in all, Brooklyn, along with the Lakers, are the biggest question mark in the NBA as the season nears. Can they come roaring out of the tunnel and if not dominate, survive those first, tough 20 to 25 games, then settle in for the long run. Even the most optimistic among the predictors, in our opinion, underestimate the possibilities while (rightfully) focusing on the ugly issues. When The Athletic does a story on the best defenders in the NBA and doesn’t mention Ben Simmons... When True Hoop diminishes the importance of Kyrie Irving... Really?

As the old cliche goes, only time will tell.