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Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s Nets are still a big mystery

There’s an easy case to be made for Kevin Durant as the second-best basketball player of his generation. At his peak in Golden State, it felt like there was no one better. Durant is an unstoppable scorer with a tight handle, deft finishing touch, and unprecedented outside shooting ability for someone his size. He was also pretty damn good on defense, too.

Kyrie Irving forever solidified his reputation with the dagger three-pointer he hit in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to help carry the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship over the Warriors. Irving might be the best one-on-one shot creator in the world when he’s on. No one generates separation off the dribble like he can, and few have his ability to hit impossible shots as regularly as he does.

Durant and Irving are future Hall of Fame inductees who will each go down as defining players of this era in the NBA. Their legacies are already solidified. In choosing the Brooklyn Nets together over the summer, Durant and Irving decided to write their next chapter together. Unfortunately, we don’t know much more about the Nets today than we did on the day both players signed.

Irving’s first year in Brooklyn is now over after just 20 games following season-ending shoulder surgery. Durant was never going to play this season coming off a torn Achilles. While their presence alone puts the Nets in a better place than roughly three-quarters of the league, there is so much left to be learned about what Brooklyn can become.

The Nets’ first season with their two superstars is basically a wash

Even the best case scenario for the Nets this season was never going to be all that great without Durant. The hope for Brooklyn was to see how Irving paired with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie and to evaluate which young role-players could help them moving forward. It’s hard to say the Nets even accomplished that despite likely earning another playoff appearance by finishing with the No. 7 seed in East.

Irving, LeVert, and Dinwiddie end the season sharing the floor for only 67 total minutes across 15 games. Data from PBP Stats shows the trio was only on the court together three times all season when the final buzzer sounded. That simply isn’t enough to evaluate what the Nets have and what they need before Durant comes back.

Instead, this season mostly feels like a repeat of last year. A year ago, with Irving in Boston and Durant on the Warriors, the Nets finished 42-40, earned the No. 6 seed in the conference playoffs, and promptly lost the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round in five games. The thought was that Brooklyn could be at least a little better this season by upgrading from D’Angelo Russell to Irving and keeping most of the same core. If nothing else, maybe they would learn something about what their future with Durant joining the mix could look like.

It hasn’t happened. The team has famously been better without Irving on the court, going 8-12 in the games he played while currently sitting at 17-17 when he is out. That isn’t so much an indictment of Irving — of course, the Nets have a higher ceiling with him on the floor — as it is an indication that there’s still so much to figure out with this team. It can be hard to incorporate a ball-dominant superstar like Irving into a team system. Now the Nets will have to do it with two ball-dominant superstars after not learning much about the best ways to support them this season.

The top of the East has become formidable

When Durant and Irving return next season, they will find an Eastern Conference that is unquestionably tougher at the top than it was the last time both were full-time players in 2018-19. The current top-six of the East isn’t going anywhere.

The Bucks are the best regular-season team in basketball and will be entering their final year with Giannis Antetokounmpo under contract. Milwaukee has a championship-or-bust mentality for every year he’s around.

It’s hard to imagine the Toronto Raptors falling off. The franchise has a championship-level infrastructure led by Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse, a burgeoning star in Pascal Siakam, and a history of being able to develop winning role-players. The Philadelphia 76ers have been frustrating and underwhelming so far, but they’re still undeniably talented as long as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the roster. The Boston Celtics are stacked for the foreseeable future, with Jayson Tatum becoming a legitimate star and surrounded by very few weak spots in the lineup.

Then there’s a Miami Heat team that has been competitive in its first year with Jimmy Butler and will surely be aggressive trying to add talent to the roster. There’s also the Indiana Pacers which will have a fully healthy Victor Oladipo to add a strong supporting cast.

Where do the Nets fit in? It’s fair to say they can win the conference in their best case scenario. Durant and Irving are just that good. It’s also fair to be skeptical of a team that will truly feel like it’s starting from scratch at the beginning of next season. The reality is the weight of the franchise falls on the capable shoulders of Durant and Irving. The Nets will go as far as they lead them.

Durant and Irving are going to have a ton of pressure next year

What do we know for sure about the Nets? Here’s one: Even without their two superstars, Brooklyn currently has the No. 9 defense in the NBA. Credit head coach Kenny Atkinson for developing a scheme that coaxes opposing offenses into bad shots and credit the Nets’ front court for being able to consistently clean the glass. While it’s unclear if the defense can be this good with Irving (a notoriously poor defender) as a full-time part of it, there’s no doubt the Nets have something to build on with that side of the floor.

The offense is more up in the air, currently sitting at No. 22 in the league. Adding two of the best offensive players alive in Durant and Irving should fix that. If the Nets can be in the top 10 on both sides of the floor, this is a team that can do serious damage in the Eastern Conference. The question is where to set expectations.

It’s tricky. Durant is coming off arguably the toughest injury an athlete can have. Irving has experienced significant injury issues throughout his career and simply hasn’t been a dependable performer since he was in Cleveland. There is talent on the rest of the roster for the Nets, but it also comes with questions.

Dinwiddie was a borderline all-star this season, but he’s best with the ball in his hands and lacks the consistent outside shooting ability to stretch the floor while off the ball. LeVert puts up impressive scoring numbers but will need to slide into a more complementary role. Will the Nets re-sign Joe Harris in free agency? Will Jarrett Allen or DeAndre Jordan establish themselves as the closing center? Should the Nets cash in some younger pieces and look to make a trade for an established third star?

The Nets’ first season with Durant and Irving will go down as a rain check. We don’t know much more about the future of the team now than we did on July 1. Durant looks good in workout videos, but it’s a lot to ask him to be a top-three player alive in his first season back from an awfully difficult injury. Irving could use a vintage (and healthy) season to make people remember just how talented he is. If both happen, the Nets will be in serious business and should be a factor at the top of the East. For now, we can only wonder about how this will all go.

With so much possible variation, the Nets might be the league’s most fascinating team coming into next season. Ultimately, all the pressure falls on Durant and Irving.

This Article was first Published on sbnation.com

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