Predictions for this Nets season are all over the map. The most optimistic see them as a 50-win, top-4 seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. On the other end of the spectrum, Fivethirtyeight.com forecasts 39 wins and a return to "Lottery Land".
The most likely scenario is somewhere in between, which nonetheless still leaves plenty of wiggle room for a team with lofty expectations given its offseason haul that included marquee free-agent signings Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Durant, unfortunately, is sidelined while rehabbing from his Achilles surgery. Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks announced that he is not expected to play at all this season. However, the additions of supporting pieces like DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince make this team, barring a glut of injuries, a good bet to surpass last season’s 42-40 mark.
Here are five other rock-solid predictions for the Nets this season, which commences on Wednesday versus Minnesota on the redesigned Barclays Center floor:
1) The Nets will beat the league-average 3-point rate
In head coach Kenny Atkinson’s three seasons, the Nets have finished fourth, second and fifth in the league in 3-point attempts per game. Respectively, they also ranked 26th, 20th, and 14th in 3-point percentage. Even last season, their 35.3% efficiency was a tad below the league average of 35.5%, per basketball-reference.com.
This will be the season where the Nets break the barrier. Joe Harris returns as the league’s 3-point champion (47.4%) in 2018-19, but only two other rotation members (D’Angelo Russell and Allen Crabbe) beat the league average, and both have been displaced in the team’s offseason makeover. However, the replacements--Irving over Russell, Prince over DeMarre Carroll, and even David Nwaba over bricklayers Treveon Graham and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson—will combine with the developmental progress of guys like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Rodions Kurucs to make the Nets offense more electric from deep this season.
2) The Nets will drop in the NBA’s defensive rankings
This is the area that has the most potential for holding Brooklyn back. I originally presumed that it was the Nets’ efficiency or inefficiency from 3-point land that most determined last season’s outcomes. It turned out that the team had slightly more success (25-19) in games where they shot better than the league average of 35.5%. However, the more telling metric turned out to be defensive efficiency. Brooklyn, which ranked smack in the middle (15th) of the league’s rankings with 109 points allowed per 100 possessions, went 29-9 in games where they bettered that rate.
This season will test Atkinson’s ability to evolve defensively. His philosophies (i.e. coaxing mid-range shots, even if uncontested) and the Nets’ perimeter defenders’ maddening propensity for dying on ball screens have led to a myriad of problems, like dreadful defensive rebounding percentage, frequent fouling, and low forced turnover rate. The Nets are often left at the mercy of their opponents’ shooting strokes, which is why only 8 of their 32 best defensive efforts were achieved against teams that finished over .500. Bad teams tend to shoot poorly.
Will anything change? The preseason is rarely revealing, but the Nets’ defense did not inspire confidence. Brooklyn may have been weary from their trip to China when they faced the Raptors in Friday’s preseason finale, but the defensive issues will carry over into the games that count.
4) No major trade deadline moves
The Nets’ roster could be tinkered with early this season to adjust to the 25-game PED suspension of forward Wilson Chandler and, if warranted, any consequences from Kurucs’ legal matters stemming from his offseason arrest for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. Forward Lance Thomas, who was waived on Friday, could return after the Nets’ fifth game in a 16th slot allowable for suspended players. However, Marks will stay relatively quiet in advance of the February 7 trade deadline. Could he swing a deal involving something like a second-round pick or a stash? Maybe. But there won’t be any blockbusters to acquire a “third star” in season.
5) Irving under 70 games played; Durant over 5 regular season games played (plus playoffs)
Irving’s relentless forays to the hoop and simple load management will curtail his on-court attendance this season. He’s hit the 70-game mark just three times in his eight-year NBA career due to injuries. Even though Irving can play through the facial fractures he suffered playing pickup before training camp and aggravated in China, it’s the knees that have caused him the most trouble in recent years. He’ll need multiple nights off.
If you read it over and over, you can be convinced that it was stated that way to make sure everyone knew that the Nets would be fine if KD took a sabbatical this season. No pressure whatsoever to return. No repeat of the Golden State nightmare from Game 5 of last season’s NBA Finals. I happen to believe Marks was sincere. However, who knows where everything will stand in five months? What if KD is cleared medically, practices without any pain, and feels comfortable taking the floor on, say, March 28 versus Cleveland at Barclays Center? Would the Nets really tell him, “No, I’m sorry. We’re standing by our statement from before training camp. We won’t let you play and help us win games”? That seems to stretch the realm of reality.
Regular season prediction: 44-38 (seventh seed)