The Brooklyn Nets were supposed to self-destruct.
With Kevin Durant‘s questionable health following a ruptured Achilles, an injury that has effectively claimed the career of all players 30 and older to suffer it before him, the Nets were supposed to have a reliability problem that would drag them down the way Durant missing all of the 2020 season dragged them down in the bubble.
With Kyrie Irving and James Harden two of the biggest head cases in the league, they were supposed to be at each other’s throats in as much time as it took coach Steve Nash to try to figure out how to use them together in the same backcourt.
And with the entire young core that had dragged Brooklyn out of their half-decade-long nightmare and into relevance in the first place either traded away or, in the case of Spencer Dinwiddie, injured and out for the season, the whole edifice was supposed to be built on a foundation of sand that would crumble the minute Durant got hurt and Irving and Harden started missing games for “personal reasons” or for violating COVID protocols or, in Irving’s case, due to actual injury.
Just about all of the worst possible outcomes have happened. The Nets, far from sunk, are 25-13, a game out of first place, and oh by the way winners of 11 of their last 12 ballgames.
Yep. Harden has had a career renaissance, shooting 41 percent from long range in Brooklyn, by far the best clip of his career; the only time he shot anywhere close to this well was when he was the Sixth Man of the Year on the Finals runner-up 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder. His .589 eFG% also surpasses what had been his career-best mark of .582 in that 2012 season.
Irving and Durant have both missed time, but they’ve been so good when they’ve actually been able to stay on the floor—averaging 27.7 and 29.0 points per game respectively and posting .201 and .230 WS/48—that they too are playing some of the best basketball of their careers.
Joe Harris, who led the league in 3-point percentage at .474 in 2019, is now hitting a dead-even 50 percent of his shots—he’s 129-of-258—and leading the league again.
And despite having the fifth-worst defense in the league, that hardly matters when Brooklyn’s 119.2 Offensive Rating stands not only as the best such mark of all time, but sits fully 6.4 percent better than the league average.
The Nets are, quite simply, a team whose entire identity is built on scoring a ton of points and more or less daring you to try and match them despite playing absolutely horrific defense.
And, since they’re 11th in pace at 100.2, above the league average of 99.5 this year, they’re also a ton of fun to watch precisely because every Nets game has about as much defense as your average All-Star Game and the points come fast and furious.
But what do we make of all this? Winning streak aside, the Nets fly in the face of everything the league has taught us over the years about what makes a good team, y’know, actually good.
That is, unless it doesn’t. After all, any team that counts as one of its assistants the erstwhile Mike D’Antoni is going to have an offense that not only brings the points in volume but does so in a way that you’d absolutely expect a team to do just purely based on efficiency.
And Brooklyn’s .431 3PAR (8th), .255 FTR (11th), and .266 0-3 foot attempt rate (13th) adds up to a tidy .952 raw D’Antoni Index, or plus-.051 when you factor in the league averages this year.
But the Dallas Mavericks blew up the league last year with their powerhouse offense, leading the league in Offensive Rating as well.
Trouble was, Dallas had just the 18th-ranked defense, and they flamed out in six games to the Los Angeles Clippers once the playoffs came around.
Brooklyn isn’t likely to flame out in the playoffs, at least not in the first round, where they’ll get the dregs of the league to play with. If the season ended today, Charlotte would be seventh. They’re not scaring anybody.
But in the second round, that’s where things get interesting. The Milwaukee Bucks are the 3 seed, and based on things like Net Rating and raw point differential, their 23-14 record counts as underachieving by three games. Only the Utah Jazz have a better “expected record”, and that’s because the Jazz are a force of nature this year at 28-9 and holding the best record in the entire league in actual competition.
Unlike the relatively leisurely pace the Nets were able to enjoy in terms of avoiding back-to-backs and four-games-in-six-nights situations since December 22—they were relatively low in such situations in the first half of the season—the schedule ramps up considerably as the Nets play their last 34 games between now and May 16.
Dinwiddie is out for the season recovering from an ACL reconstruction. Durant’s hamstring—and we could argue for days about whether the mechanics of his Achilles had anything to do with that injury—has “no timetable for a return.”
And Irving, when he’s been absent, has seen his team lose by double digits to the Mavericks and the Philadelphia 76ers, two of Brooklyn’s three losses since February 6.
The Nets look like nothing so much as last year’s Mavericks. When they’re clicking and running teams off the floor, they look like a champion. When the offense isn’t firing or the other team is keeping pace by feasting on Brooklyn’s rotten defense, they look like so many other offensive powerhouses that fell short in the playoffs over the years.
Are they overrated? Are they underrated? Well, if you say of the Nets that they could make a run at the Finals out of a weak East where Milwaukee has trouble winning in the playoffs, the Sixers are a paper tiger, and Boston hasn’t been the same since Jayson Tatum got COVID, you wouldn’t be overrating them.
Likewise, if you say of the Nets that they’re a “2020 Mavs all over again” scenario and that they’ll lose in round two to Milwaukee or Philly or Boston (depending on how the top four shakes out), it’s hard to say that would be criminally underrating them.
So the Nets are neither overrated nor underrated. They’re the second or third-best team in the East. And they have the Finals as a ceiling and the second round as a floor.