The Brooklyn Nets have been causing quite a ruckus so far this season. Any team with three superstars playing in New York is bound to be the subject of constant scrutiny. Add in the fact that those superstars are Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, perhaps the three most controversial players in the NBA, and you stir the pot even further. On top of that, they’ve dealt with the James Harden trade controversy that made people once again question how another Durant-led team may be adversely affecting parity in the league, and a regular dose of mysterious decision-making by Irving. Sprinkle in the Durant COVID-19 fiasco and the speculation about the politics behind Steve Nash being hired as the head coach for good measure, and it feels reasonable to say that the Nets have had a chaotic season to say the least.
Despite all the outside noise, they’ve managed to remain relatively imperturbable and are currently tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the first seed in the Eastern Conference with a 32-15 record. They’ve only gotten better as the season continues on, and are 18-3 in their last 21 games.
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) February 6, 2021
Durant went on a social media tirade against the league after he was pulled from a game for an inconclusive COVID-19 test.
Brooklyn’s recent success made them a desirable destination for trade candidates and players on the open market. As the contracts of their three superstars has left them relatively cash strapped, they do not have a lot of room in the budget for high quality role players. They were seemingly able to solve this problem in the buyout market however, and signed former All-NBA forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin. These two moves had NBA Twitter in an uproar, with many users upset that the Nets were able to sign two players for the veteran minimum who were days earlier making over $20 million a year. Regardless of the circumstances that allowed these moves to happen, it firmly supplanted them as the team to beat. They are now seen as the betting favorites to win the 2021 NBA Finals.
Nets NBA Championship odds: 3/1 🏆 https://t.co/5iADitZzSO
— FanDuel Sportsbook (@FDSportsbook) March 7, 2021
Despite their star-studded roster, their road to a championship is not as clear cut as the media is making it seem. They still have significant obstacles to overcome before they can hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy this July. Without further ado, here are three reasons why the Brooklyn Nets will not win the 2021 NBA Finals:
The Health of Kevin Durant
As most NBA fans know, this season has marked former league MVP Kevin Durant’s comeback from an Achilles injury that he suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors. Achilles injuries are nothing to be taken lightly, and have derailed the careers and sapped the athleticism of countless NBA superstars. In recent memory, this injury has befallen DeMarcus Cousins, Kobe Bryant, Rudy Gay and Wesley Matthews, all of whom were not the same upon their returns. Durant has seemingly overcome this injury and returned to form, but has struggled to stay on the court nonetheless. He has played in just 19 games so far this season while nursing a hamstring injury. Brooklyn is probably playing it cautious and not looking to rush him back given his previous history, but Durant has a checkered past of injuries and has played in over 70 games just twice in the past five years. He will assuredly miss that mark again in this pandemic-shortened regular season.
Other than his Achilles injury, he had major surgery on his foot earlier in 2015. While Durant is not a traditional big man, players of his tall stature are known for their propensity to injure their lower bodies. Durant will undoubtedly be working his way back slowly, it is obvious they are talented enough to land a high playoff seed without him, but history has shown us that his health and availability could quickly become a problem. Having the former two-time Finals MVP for their playoff run will be absolutely crucial for them winning a championship, but will it happen? It remains to be seen.
Less Than the Sum of Their Parts
As previously mentioned, the online NBA community was in hysterics following the Nets signing LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin off the buyout market, with many saying they felt like these moves were once again creating an unfair balance of power in the NBA similar to Durant’s time with the Golden State Warriors. While it might appear that way on the surface, there is more than what meets the eye to this situation.
Aldridge has had a terrific career in which he has been a seven time All-Star and five time member of the All-NBA team, but his play has sharply declined in recent years. Impact metrics like defensive rating and box plus-minus paint him as a definitive negative on the court this season. He has been particularly putrid on the defensive end with a -1.0 defensive BPM and a defensive rating of 112. His play was so poor this season that he was eventually relegated to the bench. Aldridge was never the most athletic guy on the court at any point in his career, and this problem has only been exacerbated with age. He can provide situational scoring and veteran leadership for the Nets, but his tree-trunkness on defense makes him very difficult to play for extended periods of time, especially on a team that already struggles defensively. In short, Aldridge’s days as a big contributor are over.
The Brooklyn Nets after signing Blake Griffin pic.twitter.com/BC5qvdgssR
— NBA Memes (@NBAMemes) March 7, 2021
Blake Griffin’s story follows a familiar tune. As a six time All-Star and five time All-NBA member, Griffin has had a very successful career. Dissimilar to Aldridge however, Griffin’s career was thrown off track by injuries that robbed him of his athleticism, not by age. Griffin has had surgery on his left knee multiple times over the past few seasons, and has looked like a shell of his former self on the court since those troubles began. He played just 18 games in the 2019-2020 season and saw his points per game go down by almost ten points. On top of that, he shot just 35% from the field and 24% on 3-pointers. It was obvious that he was limited physically, and Detroit eventually shut him down for the season. This season has been the same story in a different year, as Griffin was averaging just 11.5 points per game on 36.5% shooting from the field and 31.5% on 3-pointers. His signing with the Nets after being bought out was met with much scrutiny. When he dunked for the first time in two years in his first game with the Nets, some people suggested he had been playing hooky to get out of Detroit.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) March 22, 2021
It is good to see Griffin looking hale and hearty again, but it does not change the fact that he has not played decent basketball in two seasons. While him and Aldridge were solid signings, it does not turn the Nets into the unstoppable juggernaut that Twitter seems to think it does.
Defense Wins Championships
Since 2001, every single NBA champion has ranked at least 11th in defensive rating. There have been several teams to make it to the Finals with lower defensive ratings such as 2015, 2017 and 2019 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 2019 Golden State Warriors, but none of them were able to bring home a championship. All of this being said, the Nets would be a huge outlier should they win the Finals this year, as they currently rank 25th in the NBA in defensive rating. They would not just be an anomaly, they would be one of the biggest statistical outliers among NBA champions since the turn of the century.
The counter to this, of course, is that there has never been a team with three players as individually talented and accomplished as Harden, Irving and Durant are collectively. To this point, the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were able to win the NBA Finals despite ranking 21st in the NBA in defensive rating. They were able to accomplish this because they had two players who were arguably the best at their respective positions in the league at the time. If Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were enough to backpack a subpar defensive cast to a championship, the Nets trio certainly has a fighting chance. While this may be the case, it is hard to bet against history. If anybody can buck this trend, it is these Brooklyn Nets, but the odds are not in their favor.
While the Nets seem to be the favorite of oddsmakers and the everyday fan, they are still far from a championship lock. From defense, to insufficient depth to questions about the health of their star players, they still have an uphill climb to the ultimate prize. While they certainly possess the talent and experience necessary to bring a championship to Brooklyn, only time will tell if they can overcome these fundamental issues. Here’s to hoping their big three and head coach Steve Nash have what it takes to make it work.
All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball Reference, ESPN and Action Network