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Title windows are more fluid and fleeting than ever, but the addition of two All-NBA players, neither of whom came at a steep opportunity or asset cost, lends itself to a certain inevitability: the assurance of at least some sort of championship timeline.
Irving’s latest brush with injury is yet another sobering reminder the Nets are not guaranteed the luxuries usually hitched to multi-star arrivals. Ahead of Brooklyn’s 112-104 overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night, general manager Sean Marks announced that his point guard, who has appeared in just 20 games this season, would miss the rest of the year to undergo right shoulder surgery.
The news, while not ideal, was hardly unexpected. This same shoulder caused Irving to miss 26 games earlier in the year. Surgery was on the table then, but he elected to treat the injury with a cortisone shot. From the moment he returned, he was operating on borrowed time:
Shutting him down is the right call. Even after Thursday’s loss, the Nets have a five-game hold on a playoff spot, so they’re not in imminent danger of dropping outside the Eastern Conference’s top eight. More importantly, this isn’t their season, and it was never supposed to be.
Brooklyn signed Durant knowing he would probably miss the entire year after suffering a torn right Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Many have wondered whether he might return for the stretch run, perhaps in time for the postseason, but he confirmed to Bleacher Report’s Taylor Rooks on Take It There with Taylor Rooks that he wouldn’t play before 2020-21.
The Nets never profiled as more than an irritant without Durant, and the East is even less up for grabs so long as the Milwaukee Bucks treat nearly every game as a 36-minute exhibition that needs no fourth quarter. Delaying entry into the championship discussion is what Brooklyn signed on for. Irving’s shoulder injury doesn’t distort their timeline. His absence parallels it.
That isn’t exactly comforting, if only because his murky health bill adds to the Nets’ already extensive list of unknowns and wrinkles—all of which, by the way, they also signed on for.
Irving’s availability would be at the forefront of Brooklyn’s concerns if not for Durant’s absence. When this season ends, he will have missed roughly 27 percent of his team’s regular-season games for his career. That’s…a lot.
No singular injury has left Irving a shell of himself, his right shoulder included. But the sheer breadth of his issues since entering the NBA is enough to make anyone cringe: right shoulder, right knee (multiple times), lower back, left thigh, left hip, right quad, right eye, left knee, left shoulder, facial fracture—and that’s just since the start of the 2017-18 campaign.
This is not to say the Nets made a mistake by signing Irving. That verdict is a matter of course, and they don’t land Durant without him. Also: He’s still pretty darn good.
Through his 20 appearances, Irving averaged 27.4 points and 6.4 assists while canning 52.2 percent of his twos and 39.4 percent of his threes. His free-throw-attempt rate was the highest it’s been since 2014-15, and he converted his looks around the rim at a career-high clip.
Twenty games aren’t much to go off, but it’s still telltale when Irving was business as usual. His handles are sorcery, and he remains one of the league’s best tough-shot makers. Among players attempting at least three pull-up triples per game, only Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum are hitting theirs at a better clip.
Though playing shorthanded has been their default, the Nets will miss their superstar outlet. Their overall net rating only marginally improves with him on the court, but they’ve struggled to score consistently in his absence. Their offensive rating plunges by 7.5 points per 100 possessions without him, and their effective field-goal percentage plummets by five points —one of the league’s seven biggest drop-offs.
Depending so much on one player to create offense always makes for a tenuous balance. And while the Nets aren’t necessarily faced with having an inferior Irving, they do need to worry about how often they’ll actually have him.
Durability may not be a skill, but it is essential. It gets easier to work around those prone to injury when another superstar is there to pick up the slack. The Nets cannot be sure they have that, either.
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Durant is better positioned to return from his Achilles injury than most. The minimalist version of him will still be wildly effective. He’ll probably forfeit explosion and some mobility, but his jumper should stand the test of recovery. He can get his shot off over anybody, hasn’t ranked lower than the 86th percentile in mid-range efficiency since 2010-11 and is a career 38.1 percent marksman from beyond the arc.
A toned-down Durant has a path to being one of the NBA’s 10 to 15 best players, if not a potential MVP candidate. But everyone coming off an Achilles injury is also subject to the worst-case scenario: severe decline.
Dominique Wilkins’ return to form is an exception. The same even goes for Rudy Gay. Durant will be 32 at the start of next season, still firmly in his prime but also closer to the back end of his career than its heyday. The variance in what he could be is, at the very least, more volatile.
Brooklyn’s outlook over the next few years will incur a serious hit if Durant or Irving isn’t available—or playing well—enough to crack the top-20 or top-25 discussion. That gut-punch becomes untreatable if both drop outside said tier.
Depth won’t be enough to get the Nets by if they’re paying max money for players who, in some form, are worse than they were upon arrival. They’d need at least one other possible top-25 player on the roster, and they don’t currently have him.
Spencer Dinwiddie is a fringe All-Star at his peak, but lineups with him as the primary ball-handler face stark limitations. Jarrett Allen’s ceiling tops out well short of what Brooklyn would need. Rim-running bigs aren’t fast-tracked for stardom unless they’re Rudy Gobert on defense, which he’s not.
Caris LeVert could be the third star up the Nets’ sleeve, but he’s struggled to stay healthy himself, and his offensive profile is all over the place. He can work with the ball in his hands and make plays without first-stepping his way past defenders every time, but his true shooting percentage has dropped over each of the past three seasons, bottoming out at its current sub-50 mark. (He is, however, nailing 42.9 percent of his pull-up triples.)
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Maybe Brooklyn ends up avoiding the big-picture pitfall. At least one of Durant and Irving should play well and often enough to live up to the hype. But even getting both back to form doesn’t safeguard the Nets against awkward questions.
Playing three or all four of Dinwiddie, Durant, Irving and LeVert at the same time projects as a chore. They can each shoot off the catch but are more accustomed to working on the ball. The fit between Dinwiddie, Irving and LeVert specifically isn’t the cleanest, as The Athletic’s Seth Partnow wrote:
“Even looking just at the offensive end, their skill sets are more overlapping than complementary. All three are somewhat ball dominant, with Dinwiddie and Irving both above the 90th percentile in time of possession percentage. Neither Dinwiddie nor LeVert are particularly effective off-ball players, and while Irving is reliable in terms of catch-and-shoot efficiency, he’s also the Nets’ most efficient creator in terms of getting looks for himself.
“So while these may be the three most talented players, it could easily be a too many cooks situation whereby lineup combinations are more effective with off-ball players like Joe Harris or Taurean Prince in the game instead of one of those top three.”
These concerns, as Partnow also noted, have not been laid bare this season. In the 138 possessions Dinwiddie, Irving and LeVert have played together, the Nets have a 115.9 offensive rating (90th percentile) and are a net plus overall.
What happens over a larger sample and with the integration of Durant remains to be seen. Maybe the Nets continue to overwhelm opponents by getting to the basket and hitting their threes at a blistering clip.
Carrying that same optimism to the defensive end is harder. Brooklyn has coughed up 113.7 points per 100 possessions (24th percentile) with its three guards working in tandem while surrendering a ton of looks at the rim. Subbing out Wilson Chandler, Joe Harris or Taurean Prince for Durant in these situations won’t change much about the defense.
Some sort of a shakeup feels unavoidable. Dinwiddie is a value add at his price point (two years, $23.7 million with a player option for 2021-22), and LeVert will open new salary-matching doors once his three-year, $52.5 million extension kicks in next season. Allen will likely be a more coveted asset before his second contract takes effect (extension-eligible this summer).
Building offers around some combination of them, picks and, if needed, salary-filler (Prince) should put the Nets in play for someone special. They can’t be sure who that will be. This summer’s trade market is unclear. But they’ll have the asset ammo to go after non-megastar names who become available.
Figuring out when—or if—it makes sense to go that route is Marks’ toughest task. Perhaps he does nothing. If the Nets can labor through the regular season, they technically only need their stars at full bore for the playoff crucible. That’s a warped way of looking at things, but it’s not irrelevant.
Fiddling with the roster before getting to see the core at full strength is loaded with risk anyway.
Consolidating assets prior to knowing what Durant looks like is particularly dangerous. It could take him a season to find his bearings, in which case it wouldn’t make as much sense to accelerate next year’s timeline. And yet, the Nets have already burned a year in wait-and-see mode. Conceding another one is a tall ask.
Others might argue for starker action. The question of whether Irving actually elevates his team isn’t going anywhere. It seems unfounded, but the Nets are 8-12 with him and 17-17 without him.
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This isn’t nothing, even if, for the time being, it means exactly that. Durant and Irving signed in Brooklyn to play together. Trying to trade one and keep the other is a recipe for unrest. And in the end, Irving isn’t Zach LaVine. His durability is worth questioning. His offensive impact is not.
Poring over what comes next for the Nets is a mental tug-of-war. It was always going to be. Irving’s season-ending shoulder injury has merely amplified the precarious position in which they find themselves: leveraged against a two-superstar core they absolutely should have assembled but with an outlook that, for now, is more complicated than certain.
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