Life is a long and winding road. One day, everything is falling apart and you’re wondering if you’ll be able to make it through the storm. The next, you have hope for the future and can start seeing avenues of success.
The Brooklyn Nets walk in to the 2022-2023 season hoping to climb new heights. Their championship dreams went up in smoke last year, and they’re back with a lot to prove and a lot to figure out. The franchise is beginning their tenth season in Brooklyn and with that in mind, here are ten questions the team will need to answer throughout the year.
1. Can the Nets survive when Kevin Durant is on the bench?
It’s been a running theme throughout his entire tenure in Brooklyn, but everyone’s always trying to watch Kevin Durant’s minutes. He was asked about it last year and said:
Kevin Durant talks about logging more minutes this season— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) December 1, 2021
"I'm a basketball player. I enjoy to play. I want to play 48 minutes...I'm sure for the rest of the season, I'm going to try to sneak some of those 40+ minute games in 'cause s--t, I like being out there" pic.twitter.com/6919Tjizot
He got asked about it again a few days ago and said:
“Every coach that I played for wants to keep my minutes down but when the game is tight or we’re not playing well, I look over and say ‘well, I was going to keep his minutes down tonight but he’s just going to throw me in the game. We’re playing well, my minutes will be down. If we’re not, I got to play more.”
For all the concerns people had/have about KD’s minutes, he was magnificent in the second half of the regular season when he returned. In 19 games after he returned from the MCL sprain he suffered against the Pelicans in January, KD averaged around 31 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists on a .526/.500/.935 shooting split in almost 39 minutes a night. When he did sit, the team cratered. The team was almost six points per 100 possessions worse when he sat, and that doesn’t even include the season defining 11 game losing streak that doomed the Nets to play in status. My pal, Shane of the Nets Man Up Podcast, has the grim numbers below:
In Comparison with KD off the court Nets had a— Nets Man Up Podcast (@NetsManUp_) October 5, 2022
-6.0 Net (24th Percentile)
110.4 O Rating (35th Percentile)
-116.5 D Rating (20th Percentile)
-50.9 eFG% (19th Percentile)
With him off the floor they had the 26th best Net Rating in the league
The roster got some much needed reinforcements over the summer, which should allow the team to be functional while Durant gets some rest. As a wise man once said, it’s a wings league and the Nets have course corrected after they were deficient in that department last year. When TJ Warren is cleared for action, it’ll give the Nets another scoring option off of the bench and help keep the workload down for Durant. With the increased support, the Nets can feel more comfortable sneaking Durant rest and not have to rely on him to save the day when everything comes crashing down. If the Nets can maintain their play while their ace rests, it will serve them well throughout the regular season and make them even more dangerous when the playoffs come.
2. Can Kyrie Irving get to the rim more?
Of the many subplots last season related to Kyrie Irving, one that intrigued me was Irving’s lack of attempts at the basket. Per Basketball Reference, Irving shot a career best 70.2 percent on shots inside of three feet last season, but took a career worst 9.3 percent of his shots inside of three feet. A lot of that can be explained by Irving not having the regular rhythm of playing on a night to night basis thanks to... well, you know. The other was likely a result of the Nets offense. The Nets turned to isolation plays a lot and as a result, defenses were able to load up on Irving and make things more difficult on him and his teammates. Even with the greatest, most inventive scorers we’ve ever seen on the court, defenses will be able to gameplan for the same thing over and over again. Irving managed to average 27 points and almost six assists a night on .469/.418/.915 splits last season even with everything swirling around him on and off the court.
Steve Nash and the Nets coaching staff went back to the lab over the summer and have opened things up. Irving spoke about some of the difference between the preseason and last year and said:
“Ball movement. Ball movement. You look at some of our possessions last year, it was a lot of one-on-one. You guys talked about it often, and we were well aware of it, that that offense, when the ball sticks, it’s just not the greatest brand of basketball you can play.”
Irving is a masterful finisher at the rim and with the Nets playing with some more tempo this year than last year, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to make spellbinding layups at the rim. The expanded offensive repertoire will make things easier for Irving and his teammates throughout the year. The increase in ball x player movement will do wonders for Irving as it will create easier scoring opportunities for him, allow him to play off ball a bit more, and take some of the pressure off of him when it comes to initiating the offense.
Irving has been one of the team leaders in the preseason and is eager to shape the narrative around him and remind people why he’s beloved by fans and peers alike. Everything is in place for him to have one of the best seasons of his career. It’s up to him to put it all together and play at an All NBA level.
3. How good will Ben Simmons be?
The answer to this question may determine the fate of the franchise going forward. For all the flaws you can point out in his game, at worst Ben Simmons is an All-Defense, All-Star caliber player that can do a myriad of things incredibly well on a basketball court. Simmons solves the team’s size issues, helps immensely on the boards, and will have them out on the run in transition. He’s still working his way back to top form following his return to action, but he showed good flashes in preseason and has the full support of his teammates, the fans, and the organization.
Simmons has made himself at home in New York throughout 2022 and now that he’s back on the court, his game should flourish. Over at The Ringer, Michael Pina wrote about one fun way the Nets can deploy their do everything star:
Steve Nash also has the option of leveraging Simmons’s vision the same way Golden State has with Draymond Green. Let him initiate and then make plays out of a dribble handoff, diving into the paint, collapsing help defenders, and then finding the open man. Or how about he surveys the entire floor from the high post as teammates cut and screen their way into a discombobulating frenzy? There’s just too many priorities here for most defenses to handle.
Surround a great passer with elite shooting all over the court? Sounds like a blueprint for greatness.
4. Is this the year Nic Claxton takes the leap?
We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from Nicolas Claxton in his three seasons in the NBA, but there’s always been an ill timed injury or absence that ruined his momentum. Now that he’s entering his fourth professional season and packing some more muscle, all systems are a go. He’s got the starting center spot, doesn’t have to contend with former All Stars for minutes, and is fully healthy.
His ability to finish above the rim will be essential for a Nets team that will try to push the tempo a little bit more than they did last year.
5. How good will the defense be?
When the Nets initially picked up Royce O’Neale from the Utah Jazz, the news got drowned out by other pressing matters. However, he was excellent as a starter in the preseason and will take on a large role to start the year. As my colleague Matt Brooks recently noted, the Nets ran a lot of drop coverage in pick and roll situations last year, which made them susceptible to being exploited by teams like the Suns and Warriors. Prior to the series vs. the Boston Celtics last year, Matt said:
“Boston is the best Eastern Conference opponent outside of maybe Milwaukee at hunting mismatches on offense—finding those weak links that playoff defenses look to hide in the crevices of their creative defensive coverages.
I’ll keep it 100: This series will likely swing Boston’s way if they can successfully hunt Brooklyn’s smallest players with regularity. The Nets don’t just have one exploit like last season’s first-round (hello, Blake Griffin!); they now have three possible players that could get targeted repeatedly by Jayson Tatum, and to a lesser degree, Jaylen Brown: Kyrie Irving, Seth Curry, and Patty Mills (and if someone like LaMarcus Aldridge sees the floor, count him in as well).”
That turned out to be true, much to Nets’ fans horror.
The acquisition of O’Neale along with Yuta Wantanabe and Edmund Sumner beefed up the perimeter defense and makes them more capable of slowing down the elite teams across the league. The team’s roster this year gives them more freedom to successfully switch, but sometimes switching everything is counterproductive. Durant spoke about that recently and said:
“We’ve got to utilize it, but not in a lazy way. Point switching, or switching just to switch, stuff like that. We want to be locked in and focused on staying with our guys, but also know we can switch.”
Royce O'Neale-Kevin Durant-Ben Simmons-Nic Claxton is so insanely perfect for switching. I really think this is should be the starting lineup.— Matt Brooks (@MattBrooksNBA) October 15, 2022
Also, I dig how the Nets are refraining from switching unless they absolutely have to versus everything being automatic. pic.twitter.com/8nb3J3hkhI
If the Nets are able to be in the middle of the pack on defense, that will keep them afloat and help them get back to the top of the Eastern Conference. However, with the talent they currently have, they might be able to aim for higher than the middle on defense. At the very least, teams won’t be able to push them around this season.
6. What should we expect out of Joe Harris?
Of the many absences last season for the Nets, Harris’ was one that was particularly stinging. Since he joined the franchise in 2016, Harris has shot 44.2 percent from three point range and had been the picture of durability for much of his Nets tenure. Up until Harris’ injury against the New Orleans Pelicans on November 14, the Nets led the league in three point shooting at 39.3 percent. From November 15 onward, the team shot 35.4 percent from deep, good for 18th in the NBA.
Harris is out for Opening Night, but is hoping to be back soon and is taking a cautious approach as he continues to recover from ankle surgery. When Harris gets back, they’ll have even more size on the perimeter on defense, not to mention 40+ percent from deep. Harris will try not to put too much on his shoulders as he works his way back to full strength. The Nets can afford to and should take their time with Harris in his recovery.
7. Can Patty Mills return to form in a reduced role?
The numbers tell the tale. In the first half of the season, Mills had shooting splits of .425/.419/.856 in 31 minutes a game. Due to various absences, Mills had to start, be the team’s go to three point shooter, and most concerningly, the player who had to initiate and create on offense. We’ve seen Mills do it on a high level for the Australian Men’s National Team as he led them to a bronze medal in the 2020 Olympics.
After the intermission, his minutes dropped to 23 as the roster got some reinforcements, but his splits cratered to .333/.331/.636. It appeared as if all the heavy lifting from the first half of the season and the Olympics caught up to him at the worst possible time.
With Harris and Seth Curry both out for Opening Night against the Pelicans, the team will turn to Mills for ace three point shooting. Mills struggled with initiating the offense and creating shots for others, but the Nets have their stars available all year round so that won’t fall on his shoulders this time.
8. Which sophomore will make the biggest impact?
Seems like it’s Day’Ron Sharpe by default, right? The Nets are currently short on traditional centers, and Sharpe did show some flashes of excellent play on the Long Island Nets and with the big club last year. He and Markieff Morris will be the backup centers to Claxton, but Simmons will see his fair share of time at the five. This year could prove handy for Sharpe as he’s around the big team all year round and adding more tools to his toolbox.
Cam Thomas will look to put together a solid second year. With the stars on the roster, he won’t have to carry the offense or create that frequently for others. Thomas will need to become a better three point shooter and will have plenty of catch and shoot opportunities due to the attention Irving, Simmons, and Durant will draw. Thomas is a quick learner and someone that’s shown a propensity for making big plays in big moments. Don’t believe me?
9. Will this be the roster that is here at the end of the season?
Each of the past two years, the Nets have made a major trade during the year. When you’re trying to get to the top of the mountain, it’s understandable that you swing for the fences whenever you can. At the same time, having to always adapt to roster overhauls on the fly is incredibly difficult for players and the coaching staff alike. Should the Nets keep the majority of the roster together, it will give the player an opportunity to develop the continuity and sweat equity that will push them to title contention.
10. Can Steve Nash put all the pieces together?
The Nets have the talent and more than enough motivation necessary to get back to title contention. The big question now is can Steve Nash mix things just right to get the franchise to the top of the mountain? The coaching staff changed over the summer as the team hired Igor Kokoskov to help coordinate the offense. It’s paid dividends so far and Nash spoke about how Kokoskov has helped his coaching:
“In this league, I think most people have seen it all — most of us have seen everything — but he helped me in the summer really plan and organize how we want to disseminate our sets and our actions and implement them. He has been fantastic as far as helping me get clarity and organization and bounce ideas off him and start to build something.”
There have been questions about Nash’s in game strategies, lineup usage, etc. throughout his tenure as Nets coach. There’s a lot of pressure to win, and if things don’t start well for the Nets, even more pressure will be placed on his shoulders. It’s something he’s used to after all his time in and around the NBA, so he’ll have to make sure he puts his players in the best position possible to succeed.
It seemed impossible that we’d be at this point at the beginning of July, but life is funny sometimes. For Nash and the Nets, the road to a title begins now and all the summertime drama is a thing of the past.