The 2021-22 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
Call it lip service if you want, but when the Brooklyn Nets announced Kyrie Irving was unwelcome to play or practice with his teammates until he receives a COVID-19 vaccine or New York City's mandate is lifted, they made clear in their statement, "Our championship goals have not changed," and they were right.
The Nets can and should win the title, with or without Irving. There is a reason Brooklyn's status as championship favorites went unchanged at BetMGM following news of Irving's relegation to his couch.
Irving is a transcendent talent, pound for pound arguably the league's most skilled player, and Brooklyn boasts two of the few players who can challenge their All-NBA teammate for that mantle. On paper, Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden should form the most devastating offensive trio in the history of the sport.
Except, Irving is also a transcendental distraction, pound for pound arguably the league's most mercurial figure, and Brooklyn's two other superstars do not need a third high-usage option who — as Nets general manager Sean Marks suggested in his statement — has thus far chosen not to "pull in the same direction."
It bears repeating: The Nets were a shoe size away from beating the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals without Irving and with Harden battling a bum hamstring. Whether or not Brooklyn would have gone on to win the title is up for debate. Durant was not so sure of the answer.
"We lost in the second round," he said on media day. "I had to play every minute for three straight games. I mean, if you think I was going to do that for the next two rounds and win the championship, I mean, s***."
The Nets absolutely would have beaten the Bucks if Harden had been 75% of his usual self. As it were, he suffered a Grade 2 right hamstring strain 43 seconds into the series, did not return until Game 5 and limped through his final three outings, shooting 30.6% from the field and faintly trying on defense. Healthy Harden would have given Brooklyn the two best players in the series against the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns.
Harden admittedly reported to Houston Rockets training camp last year out of shape. He is presumably more committed now to the Nets, who should do everything in their power to keep him healthy for the playoffs, as they did with Durant last season. If they learned anything from the 2020-21 campaign, it is that they do not need to overtax their stars. Durant, Harden and Irving played just 202 minutes together over eight games, and Brooklyn still managed to win two-thirds of its games and capture the East's No. 2 seed.
Even without Irving, the Nets have the NBA's deepest roster. Joe Harris has been the most accurate 3-point shooter in the league over the past three years, shooting 45.8% on 5.5 attempts per game. Patty Mills, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap and Bruce Brown — making a combined $18.55 million — are all among the best value signings in the league. Nic Claxton and Jevon Carter are solid on the fringes of Brooklyn's rotation, and Cam Thomas was one of the most promising rookie scorers of the preseason.
You can stack regular-season wins with that squad, even if Durant and Harden need some maintenance.
And you will enter the Eastern Conference playoffs knowing you have the two best players in every series but one. The Ben Simmons saga has dealt a body blow to Joel Embiid and a Philadelphia 76ers team that returns with the East's best record. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry are a lowercase big three on the Miami Heat. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have yet to tap their ceiling on the Boston Celtics.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only one who poses a serious threat in the East. If Milwaukee and Brooklyn do not meet in the conference finals, something has gone seriously wrong. Durant and Harden cannot let Antetokounmpo beat them in a seven-game set with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday as his secondary options if they want to secure their places on the pantheon ahead of a player Harden once called unskilled.
There is only one duo in the league that can match what Durant and Harden bring to the table, and that is LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The four of them are among the eight best players in the league.
Nets-Lakers is the league's dream scenario for the NBA Finals, and Los Angeles — with one of the oldest rosters in history — should be a longer shot to emerge from the Western Conference. If you thought Aldridge and Millsap were old, James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza were all drafted before them, and the Lakers are depending on those guys to be the core of a contender around Davis.
Besides, are Durant and Harden really going to let the latest Lakers star, Russell Westbrook, win the battle of Oklahoma City's old heads? Irving might even get vaccinated to join that Finals fun, and then the point is moot — the Nets are overwhelming championship favorites so long as everyone pulls in the same direction.
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