How realistic are the Brooklyn Nets’ championship aspirations?

“I thought about it for a couple of seconds to see how my life would look in all of those places,” is what one-time league MVP and two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant replied when asked about choosing the Nets over other suitors in the Warriors, Clippers and Knicks.

September 27, 2019 was Brooklyn’s official media day as the new stars in town, Durant and Kyrie Irving, had arrived and emerged on the ever-so-joyous scene. They were donning their black Nike Nets uniforms while the adoring crowd had a smile on their face even though everyone knew Durant was not expected back until the following season.

“But ultimately I wanted to be here (in Brooklyn).”

K.D. sounded more than sure of himself. He sounded like, despite the injury, Brooklyn would be an enticing next phase of his career and he was prepared to start the marathon even when not out on the floor with his new teammates, including Irving of course.

“I’m going to be the protector of that all throughout the year,” said Irving when asked about the team’s first-season expectations without Durant playing.

“And not going to allow anyone to infiltrate that circle of, ‘hey K, do you and get right. We’ll be fine.’ We have expectations for our team. We obviously know he’s an integral part but we’ll wait for that. I’m very patient. I’ll be over-patient (with Kevin).”

Fast forward to the present day where we are about three-quarters through the NBA season. Irving’s arthroscopic surgery is not a good look at first impression for this hungry Nets team and this isn’t the first major surgery he’s had either which means time is ticking for Irving to get right.

They still have prime-time performer Spencer Dinwiddie, solid perimeter weapons in Caris LeVert and Joe Harris, and some fluent big men in DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen. But I guess we’ll have to be patient with Irving as well.

Irving will have appeared in only 20 games in his first season with the Nets due to a re-aggravated shoulder tear. Everybody knows how supremely talented the nearly-28-year-old point guard is. There aren’t many voices around the league that would proclaim any player a better ball-handler than Irving, who is perhaps one of the greatest dribblers this league has ever seen.

Irving talks the talk and it’s fair to say he walks the walk as well. Anyone who makes a championship-clinching, contested, fade-away 3-pointer in the fashion he made it; anyone like that has to be taken seriously. Irving has long proved he is amongst the most clutch players of our generation.

Did he need LeBron James? Yes, of course he did. James, however, needed Irving and his timely shots and clutch antics as well. Since departing Cleveland, however, Irving has long desired leading his own team and he got that wish with Boston in the summer of 2017. Even in his own words though, he ultimately failed that group before turning the page to the current chapter with the Nets organization.

The Nets have come a long way since the historically bad, franchise-altering trade on 2013 draft day. Not only was that seen as one of the worst trades in the NBA at that time, but also one of the worst trades in history of all professional sports. But let’s just be thankful that’s all over with and general manager Sean Marks has dug them out of that hole and the recovery period is officially in the rear-view.

Without the services of their two gems, Durant and Irving, the Nets are not a lock to make the playoffs. They continue to inch closer and closer to teams, such as Washington and Chicago, that have no business being in the postseason. With significant injuries, however, that’s what the state of the middle-of-the-pack teams in the Eastern Conference has shaped up to be.

We are witnessing shoot-first point guard Dinwiddie in the midst of a breakout year, averaging north of 20 points per game while attempting a career-high 16 shots per game. The shakiness of Irving’s health has probably enabled Dinwiddie to elevate his game to new heights and even receive some All-Star consideration throughout much of the year.

We think back to how Irving’s stint in Boston ended while keeping our eyes glued to Dinwiddie unleashing a string of stellar performances. Then we think, “can Irving really lead this team, or is it just inevitable that he needs K.D. just as he needed James?”

However, we also recognize he scores 45 and 54 points subtly within two weeks of returning from a two-month absence. That’s where we have to draw a fine line between Irving being the solution and Irving just being a superstar talent that could use more direction under another player like Durant’s lead. Injuries happen, but Durant is certainly destined to be the number one guy in the bigger picture.

All of Durant, Irving, Jordan, LeVert and forward Taurean Prince are signed through the 2021-22 season. Durant and Irving both have player options for the following season. Back to Dinwiddie though, he has a player option for $12.3 million in the 2021-22 season. It’s much too early to say but it sure wouldn’t be a shocker to see him test the free agency market two summers from now.

In addition to that, Dinwiddie was recently quoted saying that he “probably won’t be there” if the Nets look to add a third star (outside of him) to the equation. That would go as far as deeming Dinwiddie incapable of being that third option. Based on what we’ve seen from him these past couple of years, it isn’t unjust to say that would be a foolish decision as Dinwiddie is more than capable of that.

The rest of the team outside of Durant and Irving hasn’t exactly had perfect health either. LeVert, the 25-year-old swingman, is a versatile ball-handler that can play three positions with basically the same effectiveness. That being said, LeVert is one who also carries some degree of concern in the injury department as he’s missed 67 games over the past two seasons.

LeVert’s three-year extension worth over $52 million does not kick in until the 2020-21 season. Just having Durant and Irving back won’t be enough as LeVert will be a crucial part of this team’s development and short-term outlook as well.

We factor in all of these relevant rotation players including the likes of Harris, Prince, Allen, and Jordan, and that makes for a heads-up conversation of the Nets joining the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference. However, we can’t just presume they’ll float their way to the top of the East with Milwaukee or Boston.

Sure, that might be the case. With a superstar with as much firepower as Durant, and with Irving complementing him should he get back to the player we know him to be, this Nets team actually could be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. Things happen though and we can never be 100 percent certain of the landscape of the conference. One more unplanned consequence and Brooklyn could end up right back where it’s at this year.

This Nets team currently holds opponents to the second-lowest shooting efficiency in the league. Will that be maintained though? Durant is arguably the best two-way player in the league when he’s healthy but there’s so much more that goes into it. He changes the entire structure of the game and that impacts everything from the tempo to how other players around him react to his sudden return.

Could the Nets perhaps find a way to add another piece to bolster its frontcourt rotation? Allen and Jordan are two centers known for their hefty contributions on the defensive end. However, sometimes as a front office you need to beware of how much you can rely on post-centric players like these. They can help a lot but they can also be exploited at times and that’s where Allen needs to continue working on his jump-shot.

There is one distinct disadvantage to all of this; that would be the championship window the Nets organization has built for itself. The NBA these days has a theme of ‘now or never’ and that goes for teams like the Lakers and Clippers as well. Saying Durant and Irving have to make it happen sooner than later would be an understatement, whereas the Nets would have been more patient with D’Angelo Russell being their franchise point guard.

In the eyes of executives and NBA observers, Russell was a 23-year-old budding star that ended his tenure in Brooklyn on a relatively high note. I think a lot of people around the league were even a little skeptical about the Nets moving on from Russell so quickly; but it’s just being the attractive free agent destination they are for players like Durant and Irving that made a little bit of sense of that decision.

Indeed, the Nets organization already seems superior in the state of New York. This isn’t just a battle for New York though. It’s much more than that as we patiently await the arrival of Batman and Robin.

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