The Nets have a whole lot of chips on their collective and individual shoulders this season. After an off-season filled with controversy, uncertainty and recriminations, Brooklyn has two things going for it: talent on paper and a need to remind everyone who they are.
Let’s start with the team itself. Disappointing would be the least offensive word one could assign to last season. After being the odds-on favorite to win it all, with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden forming a “Big Three” of future Hall of Famers. they won 44 games. One of the three, Harden, forced his way out; another refused get vaccinated during a national health crisis, limiting his games played to 29 and arguably the best player in the league once again lost a lot of games to injury.
The head coach, buffeted by change and questions about his ability to figure out x’s and o’s, seemed ready to quit at points and frustration marked the face of the general manager. Not to mention ownership’s decision to first put Kyrie on the sidelines, then bring him back on a part-time basis. Ay, yi, yi.
And that was just the regular season. There was the sweep at the hands of the Celtics, then Ben Simmons back surgery, the stalemate on Irving’s contract, KD’s request for a trade etc., etc. Even more ay, yi, yi
Now, it seems things are at the Kumbaya stage with KD and Kyrie. New faces have been added and most of the team is working hard at HSS Training Center. So before things get going, let’s look at what will be motivating the players, what chips are resting on each player’s shoulders.
It all starts here. Durant has been roundly criticized for his trade request with four years and $198 million left on his extension. He became the poster child for player empowerment gone wrong, his rep if not his legacy tarnished. KD has made light of those challenging that legacy but we all know who he is. He is Kevin Durant and knowing him, he will want to prove that over and over and over again. We suspect he will also remember which teams tried to low-ball the Nets in trade talks. We’re talking about you, Phoenix, and you, New Orleans and you… etc., etc. Perhaps his biggest challenge is durability, staying on the court. He’s played 90 games in three years. And he will be 34 the third day of training camp.
No player on the Nets roster faced as much criticism as Irving … Oh, wait. I’m told we haven’t discussed Ben Simmons yet! Irving famously refused to get vaccinated and his unavailability for all but 29 games was cited — and justifiably so — for the Nets poor season. Although his numbers were robust when he played during the regular season and in Game 1 of the Celtics series, he wasn’t around for 53 games and was a bust in Games 2 through 4 vs. Boston. Then, there were his contract negotiations. Sean Marks said at his end-of-season press conference that he wanted players who were available and committed. Irving said he wanted the full, nearly quarter-billion extension. Things got ugly and he wound up with an expiring deal. Trade rumors only ended shortly before KD returned to the fold. He also has an expiring deal on his signature shoe contract with Nike. NO player has as much to prove … Oh, sorry, I’m once again reminded that we have to discuss Ben Simmons.
Let’s start with the obvious. He hasn’t played since June 20, 2021, first holding out to get an exit package from the 76ers, then having recurring back problems (that go back to 2020) he had surgery. Last report from Shams Charania was that he was doing well but had yet to do 5-on-5 workouts in Brooklyn. Everyone says he will be ready to go when training camp rolls around on September 26. Simmons has been the subject of more vitriol than any player in recent memory. Period. He gets booed at the US Open, for God’s sake! There are the mental health questions, too, of course, but as Frank Isola has pointed out, in that famous post-game press conference after the 76ers lost to the Hawks, Simmons stayed on the podium until every question was answered. Despite the conventional wisdom, he has a reservoir of toughness. November 22 can’t come quickly enough. The less discussed issue is where he fits with the Nets, at the 1, at the 5? In the offence?
Now comes the injury body. Joe Harris missed a grand total of 16 games over four years going into last season. The very model of durability. After a severe ankle sprain on November 14, he underwent two surgeries, the first on November 29, then the second on March 3 after attempts at rehab failed. Two surgeries, two surgeons. He too is expected to be ready for training camp but there’s been no update. The Nets have been adamant, to use Alex Schiffer’s word, about not wanting to trade the 6’6” 31-year-old who is second only to his teammate Seth Curry among active players in 3-point shooting.
Warren turns 29 on Monday and is only a one-year, vets minimum deal. Over the past two years, he has played a grand total of four games after sustaining a severe foot injury. He played those four games in December 2020, then underwent surgery on January 5, 2021. It was not run-of-the-mill. The injury was a stress fracture in the navicular bone on his left foot. At the time, it was noted that the area of the injury — a boat-shaped bone in the middle of the foot — makes for a difficult recovery process. And difficult it was. He didn’t play at all last season. The injury was particularly cruel for Warren. It came after his spectacular performance in the “bubble” when he averaged 31 points over a six-game stretch, including a 53-point game that earned him the nickname, “Bubble Jordan.” He’s been working out at HSS, but again no word on where he is in his recovery.
Edmond Sumner is injury-prone. His freshman year at Xavier, he played just six games after chronic tendinitis in his knees forced him to withdraw from the team. In January of his junior year, Sumner tore the ACL in his left knee, ending his season in January. Then, after playing well for the Pacers in his third year in Indiana, starting 24 games, he ruptured his achilles tendon in preseason last year. Again, he was done. A hyper-athletic 6’6” guard who has played a lot of point, he was traded to the Nets as part of a salary dump in October and released. The Nets signed him to a partially guaranteed, two-year deal with Brooklyn this summer and again, he appears he is fully recovered and ready to go in camp.
Curry, who had been bothered by soreness in his left knee even before being traded to the Nets in early February, went under the knife on May 9 after missing some games in April. The Nets did not provide any details other than the surgery was arthroscopic, an indication that perhaps Dr. Martin O’Malley, the Nets foot/ankle specialist, was merely cleaning out loose bodies in his knee which can cause recurring pain. We have yet to see him at HSS Training Center.
Markieff Morris, whose signing has yet to be officially announced, was out from November through early March of last season after an altercation with Denver’s Nikola Jokic. Morris was fined $50,000 for the incident that Jokic initiated, but the big consequence was not the fine. Morris suffered whiplash and had to sit from November 8 through March 12, a total of 58 games. Then, he barely played for the Heat in last season’s playoffs, getting in one game out of 18 and only for three minutes in the East Semi-Finals. At age 33 and with a non-guaranteed deal, Morris knows he has a lot of prove.
This isn’t a contract year for Royce O’Neale, acquired in a June 30 trade for the lesser of the Nets and Sixers first rounders in 2022, but it could be. He is fully guaranteed at $9.2 million this season but only partially guaranteed ($2.5 million) next season. More than one pundit has cited O’Neale’s declining defense over the past two seasons although his 3-point shooting has improved.
Nic Claxton signed a nice contract in July, two years at a guaranteed $17.5 million, which with unlikely incentives could bring it to $20 million. After admittedly being in trade rumors at the deadline and after a three-year stint that saw him play only 94 out of a possible 226 games, a new deal for the 23-year-old was not necessarily a done deal. But after LaMarcus Aldridge went down, and he played well, particularly on defense, at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs (putting aside that 1-of-11 showing at the foul line), the Nets put their faith in the second round pick. Claxton seems more serious this off-season, that the Nets commitment to him means something.
No player fulfilled his obligations better than Patty Mills last season. At the advanced age of 33, he was durable, playing all but one game after starring for Australia at the Olympics in Tokyo. He came within seven 3-pointers of the Nets record for three’s in a single season, hitting more than even Joe Harris. His numbers across the board were career highs. He was a team leader, a force in the community. He may have tailed off late as his minutes rose higher and higher. Now, on what is likely his last NBA contract at $14 million over two years, both guaranteed, he’ll want to add another ring.
Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe, Kessler Edwards, David Duke Jr. (if he stays) and Alondes Williams aren’t coming off injury, but they are hungry, particularly the three picks from the 2021 NBA Draft who started 33 games and played 2,000 minutes among them due to injuries.
Then, of course, there’s Steve Nash, who came within a couple of shoe sizes of getting to the Eastern Conference Finals — and maybe more — in his rookie season, racking up the highest winning percentage of any Nets head coach ever and the highest offensive rating of any NBA team, also ever. Last year, as noted, was a disappointment, no on reconsideration, a disaster with injuries, illnesses and controversies, one superstar down for six weeks with an MCL sprain, another lollygagging to force a trade and a third refusing to get vaccinated. Then, after praising Nash repeatedly and effusively in April, Kevin Durant turned on Nash in August, demanding to Joe Tsai that he be fired. How much will that be an impediment to the Nets ultimate success, we don’t know. Amar’e Stoudemire, who was a player development assistant under Nash and teammate of his in Phoenix, thinks that Nash and Durant are “ego-less” enough to let bygones be bygones, but everyone in the media will be looking for telltale signs that it won’t work. Fans too. His rotations will be scrutinized more than ever, his timeouts, too. He will have new support on the bench this season in Igor Kokoskov, who may very well turn out to be the single most underrated move of the off-season. Kokoskov has been an NBA assistant for nine NBA teams, the head coach of the Suns as well as the national teams of Slovenia and his native Serbia.
Winning a championship, of course, is the biggest chip any player, any team can have going into the season. The Celtics, having lost in the Finals, certainly have a few. The Bucks, who want to get back to the Promised Land, the same. The Sixers think James Harden and Joel Embiid are the best superstar package in the East and even the Cavaliers with all those young (if untested) stars now believe they’re in it to win it. They gave up a ton to get Donovan Mitchell.
So, we will have to wait and see. Sean Marks chose to prioritize continuity in hopes of improving chemistry. The Nets, at the moment, have only six new faces, seven if you count Simmons. Last season, they had 10. Will it all work? Plenty of time yet to discuss that.