The Nets’ championship dreams have gone up in smoke, torched by forced trades of Kyrie Irving and now Kevin Durant.
With James Harden dealt away a year ago this week, the Big 3 is dead. Some hot-take purveyors have opined that the Nets are in a worse place than when GM Sean Marks took over seven years ago next Saturday.
Others suggest they’re an updated version of the 2019 playoff squad that Durant and Irving walked into, before they swapped Brooklyn grit for Brooklyn glitz. So which is it? How do the post-Durant Nets compare with the pre-Durant ones?
Unlike the team Marks inherited that was a cellar-dweller with no draft picks, by 2019 he’d built them into a playoff squad. But ignoring the back of the bench and just comparing the cores of each, this Mikal Bridges-Nic Claxton unit has an edge.
“This is not a total retool; we have guys in that room that I’m extremely proud of. And they’re going to compete,” Marks said.
“We’re probably a little bit more talented than we were when they came,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, familiar with both eras after an earlier five-year stint in Brooklyn. “I don’t think you have any regrets, because you go all-in on a championship.
“So it’s different. But like I said, with where Mikal is at, probably just sub-All-Star level with Nic being at a Jarrett Allen-type of level, you could argue that we’re more talented than we were when they first came — outside of them, obviously. So yeah, I think it’s in a good spot. But [the franchise] gained picks, too, so I’m sure Sean is happy about that.”
Back in 2019, D’Angelo Russell was 22 and coming off his first All-Star berth after averaging 21.1 points and seven assists. A restricted free agent, he ended up packaged in a sign-and-trade for Durant.
Jarrett Allen (10.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks) was just 20 at the time but a future All-Star. He became a centerpiece in the deal that landed Harden. Caris LeVert (24), Dinwiddie (25) Joe Harris (27) — off his first All-Star Weekend 3-point crown — all were part of that core, with none of them earning even $10 million.
Today’s core is likely better, albeit a little older and pricier (still $6.9 million over the luxury tax).
“Anything would be better than starting up with literally no draft picks, trying to get creative with how you were bringing in young players,” Harris said. “I mean, it was great for people like me and Spencer, a couple of other guys, where it allowed us as young players an opportunity to come in and play. But yeah, now they obviously made the most out of a pretty tough situation.”
Dinwiddie is back, Harris never left, and both are four years older.
Claxton is averaging 13.2, points, 9.2 rebounds and a league-best 2.6 blocks. At 23, the center is more advanced than his counterpart Allen had been at the time, and is a viable candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Small forward Mikal Bridges — acquired for Durant — was runner-up for the award last season, while Ben Simmons finished second the year before that. While Claxton, Bridges and Cam Johnson — a restricted free agent who also arrived in the deal with Phoenix — are building blocks trending upward, the Nets have to figure out how to get the struggling Simmons righted.
The X-factor for the current core might be guard Cam Thomas, still just 21. He’s only averaging 10.6 points overall, but has shown tantalizing flashes of what he can be, including pouring in 134 points in a recent three-game stretch. When he’s logged at least 20 minutes, Thomas has averaged 22.4 points on .439 percent shooting from 3-point range and .869 from the free throw line.
Today’s Nets likely have a slight edge in upside. But if they can either develop Thomas or refurbish Simmons (averaging just 7.3 points and being benched late in games), the gap could become significant.
Allen was a fearless rim protector, and never saw a shot he wouldn’t challenge. And LeVert could be disruptive, when healthy. But defense was a struggle at times for the 2018-19 Nets, who were utterly reliant on Allen’s shot-blocking in Atkinson’s drop coverage style. The current unit, though has a number of gifted individual defenders, and versatile ones who can guard multiple positions. That gives them the edge.
As pointed out above, both Bridges and Simmons were Defensive Player of the Year runners-up the prior two seasons, and Claxton — who is leading the league in blocks — is making a compelling argument to win the award this season. That trio will give the Nets extreme switchability from one-through-five.
And even the older players who went from being win-now complements around Durant and Irving to non-core pieces are solid defenders.
Wing Royce O’Neale and power forward Dorian Finney-Smith — who arrived from Dallas with Dinwiddie in return for Irving — are both solid on that end of the floor.
“Defense wins championships,” Finney-Smith said. “And we [can] switch everything.
“[Bridges] can guard every position, he disrupts offense, as he’s been showing lately…It’s going to be fun playing with them guys. We all can guard our yard. That’s going to be a strength for us, making teams take tough 2-pointers.
“It makes me excited. I told Nic I can’t wait to get on the court with them because I know what he can do, how you can affect the game. Being in a game with Ben, it’s love because we can switch everything. So it’s going to be fun shutting guys down and making them work on defense.”
This has been a Nets problem for years. But what once was a weakness on that 2019 roster is a potentially-crippling Achilles heel on the current one.
And that’s despite investing a 2021 first-round pick on one of the most effective offensive rebounders in college basketball history. Edge: 2019 by default.
Prior to this week’s trades, the Nets were arguably the worst-rebounding team in the league, and that was with Durant and center Markieff Morris. The loss of both almost necessitates giving Finney-Smith significant playing time, because Johnson is more a stretch-four who barely rebounds and Simmons is struggling mightily.
Brooklyn was offered two first-rounders for Finney-Smith before the trade deadline, but held onto him for obvious reasons. But with a glut of wings, they have the means to trade for another big in the offseason — or get second-year bruiser Day’Ron Sharpe’s defensive positioning and fouls under control enough that he can earn the backup job behind Claxton.
The 2019 Nets returned to the playoffs and won Game 1 of their first-round series in Philadelphia. They proceeded to drop the next four straight and go out in a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of superstar Joel Embiid (and Simmons). It was a result that underscored the impact of MVP-level stars in the postseason, and why pursuing Durant and Irving that summer became such a no-brainer.
The ceiling for that 2019 roster was a first-round playoff exit (barring a one-off upset, followed by a second-round ouster). The ceiling for this current roster is most likely the same. That ignores the additions the 2019 team made (Durant, Irving) or the ones this squad will hope to.
Which brings us to….
The 2019 team used cap space to add Durant and Irving. Even after their departures, the Nets are still over the cap, so they might have to use draft capital to either select an impact player or trade for one.
“We’ll we go about building it a little bit different way, yeah, because the last time I took over I didn’t have anything,” Marks said. “So it definitely looks different.”
The Nets still don’t control their own picks for years (agreeing to potential pick swaps with the Rockets in 2023, ’25 and ’27), but moving Durant and Irving in the last week (and Harden a year ago) has replenished the cupboard that got stripped down in dealing for Harden in January 2021.
They already had their own first-round picks in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029, and Philadelphia’s first in 2027 (protected 1-8). Then Brooklyn added Dallas’ unprotected first in 2029 for Irving, and Phoenix’s unprotected firsts in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029, along with a swap in 2028 for Durant.
That gives the Nets a total of 11 first-rounders by 2029, and eight more seconds after getting two for Irving and another pair from Milwaukee for Jae Crowder. Throw in three trade exceptions (the biggest $18.1 million) and $5.7 million left on their taxpayer MLE.
“Yeah, I think now they obviously made the most out of a pretty tough situation,” said Harris, adding “But I’m not the front office, and I’m probably not going to be playing in 2029 when some of these picks are going to be made.”