Oct 7, 2021
Three key questions about the 2021-22 Brooklyn Nets
Will Irving play? How good are the Big Three, really? What's Steve Nash got up his sleeves?
The 2021- 2022 Brooklyn Nets are at the center of international, anticipatory conversations about where the most exciting, newsworthy and competitive basketball will be played this season. To be sure, as of March 2021, the team’s merchandise was the second best selling in the league. Last season, Nets games averaged around a million people per TV broadcast.
Yet, it is often unclear who the Nets fan is. The team’s Twitter account once passive-aggressively called out their own fan base for being a lackluster audience, tweeting from a playoff game in Toronto, “Nets fans take note, this is what a playoff crowd sounds like…” Barclays Center does not have the history, mystique or buzz of The Garden, and the team has yet to find its Spike Lee; that famous superfan and courtside fixture who drapes themselves in the team’s colors and whose mood rises and falls with each three pointer or turnover.
It is far less confusing what the Nets are playing for this season: A championship ring. The 2021-2022 Nets have a $4 million payroll, which is almost $3 million over the NBA’s current salary cap. In 2020, Nets owner Joe Tsai made his spending intentions very clear, saying, “We know the fans expect us to win a championship … if we pay luxury tax, so be it.” Last year’s Nets fell short of expectations. After a difficult season that saw many of its star players sitting out due to illness and injury, the team finished 48 and 24, and second in the NBA East after losing to the Bucks in a seven game semifinal run.
This year’s Nets have all the ingredients to deliver on Tsai’s promise to the borough. The Nets are the heavy pre-season favorites to win both the Eastern Conference title and the NBA championships. They beat the Lakers handily, 123-97, in their first preseason game last Sunday, with most of the expected starting lineup resting on the bench. The odds are reasonable that Brooklynites may find themselves wading through the celebratory chaos of a ticker tape parade down Atlantic Avenue come June. But odds are just evidence-based wishful thinking until they become a reality.
With all of that out of the way, here are three of the bigger questions about the 2021-2022 Brooklyn Nets.
What are the Big Three actually capable of?
Call it hyperbole, but the answer to that question might be … anything. Three of the best active offensive players in the NBA are all currently in Nets jerseys. For the uninitiated, the Brooklyn based Big Three are small forward Kevin Durant (or simply KD), shooting guard James Harden and point guard Kyrie Irving. The Nets signed KD and Irving in 2019 and Harden in early 2021, bringing international attention and championship hopes to Brooklyn along with these three marquee players.
KD, Harden and Irving have not spent much game time on the floor together as Nets. KD sat out much of the 2019-2020 season recovering after tearing his Achilles tendon during the 2019 NBA Finals. Harden and his beloved beard signed with the Nets in January 2021 as part of a complicated mid-season trade, and subsequently missed 18 games last spring with a hamstring injury. Irving missed 26 games of the abbreviated 2019-2020 season with a shoulder injury, and he exited the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals early after spraining his ankle on Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot. Due to these myriad setbacks, the Big Three have only played a total of eight games (or 332 minutes) together.
But, by God, have those 332 minutes been magical. According to pbstats.com, when Durant, Harden and Irving were on the court together, the Nets scored an NBA history record of 128.7 points per 100 possessions, outscoring their opponents by 98 points.
If this is what happened in just eight games together, a consistent Nets starting lineup that includes a healthy Harden, KD and Irving will be unstoppable on offense.
But will Irving even be eligible to play?
Irving’s current and future vaccination status has been a source of speculation and anxiety for fans, the NBA, sports journalists, and exhaustingly, Ted Cruz. As of this writing, Irving is not vaccinated. In August, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an ordinance that requires all professional athletes to be vaccinated in order to enter any New York City arena, either for a game or for practice. If Irving does not get vaccinated he will be ineligible to play in Nets home games or in games at Madison Square Garden, as well as in the NBA arenas in other cities where vaccination is required. The Nets held their first local preseason practice at Barclays on October 5. Irving did not attend.
Irving remains opaque about his intentions to get vaccinated. He joined the Brooklyn Nets Media Day on September 27 via Zoom. When media members pressed him on his vaccination status, he demurred, saying “I would love to just keep that private and handle that the right way with my team and go forward with a plan.”
Irving’s teammates, Coach Steve Nash and the Nets front office have publicly respected Irving’s request for privacy. At the Nets media day, KD cryptically (and perhaps unintentionally) sublimated a bit of hope to fans, saying: “That’s on Kyrie and that’s his personal decision, what he does … but we trust in Kyrie and I expect us to have our whole team at some point.”
The Nets will host the Charlotte Hornets for their first home game of the season on October 24. It seems like the answer to the question of whether Irving will get vaccinated will come in the form of his presence on the court in a Nets jersey, or his complete absence from the stadium.
So does Coach Nash have enough talent to work with?
The answer to that question is an unequivocal, yes. For sure. In fact, he might have too much.
Nets GM Sean Marks has brought in an impossibly talented, very deep bench of both veterans and rookies to choose from. Taken together, the Nets 2021-2022 roster boasts three NBA Championships, 34 all-star appearances, two MVPs, a three-point shootout champion, a rebounding leader, and a multi-time Slam Dunk Contest champion.
The spotlight is shining brightly on KD, Harden and Irving’s every move, but there are 15 other players (many of whom are in the twilights of very impressive careers) trying to find a visible place in its orbit. Fortunately, Nash seems to be well equipped to navigate a talented roster of big personalities.
Canadian multi-sport athlete and frequent hip hop muse, Nash signed on as the head coach of the Nets in September of 2020, after 18 seasons in the NBA. NBA junkies often compare Nash’s approach and his current team’s dynamic to that of Phil Jackson in his prime. If the comparison proves to be prophetic, Nash may be steering the Nets to an NBA championship in the near future.
Click here for more on four players to keep an eye on this season (who are not named Harden, KD or Kyrie).
The Nets play the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in their second preseason game on October 8. The Nets first home game of the season is on October 24 against the Charlotte Hornets.
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