The Nets enter the All-Star break 24-13, just a half-game from first place in the Eastern Conference, and with the third-best mark in their history.
But after completing a successful first half of the season, there are plenty of questions to be answered to have a better second half. After all, when GM Sean Marks added James Harden to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, he was pushing the chips into the middle of the table, with the pot an NBA title.
“I think we all know what our ultimate goal is here, and we’re not going to shy away from that,” Marks said on YES Network. “So it’s a great challenge and great opportunity.”
Their odds of getting there may rest on how they answer these questions:
How is KD?
Durant has sat out 18 games already, about half of the schedule. He missed the last nine with a hamstring injury, with another round of imaging slated around the time of their March 11 return vs. Boston.
Still, after an 18-month layoff for Achilles surgery, the Nets will cautiously play the long game.
“We can definitely improve,” coach Steve Nash said. “Kevin Durant is one of the all-time greats, so to add him to our team will make us better automatically.”
Get the Big Three together
Between Harden’s Jan. 16 arrival, Durant’s hamstring and two weeklong contact tracing quarantines, and Irving’s lengthy personal leave, that Big Three has somehow still only logged 186 minutes together.
Brooklyn’s 5-1 record with them starting — and a solid 16-3 mark with even two of them in the lineup — augurs well. But while Harden is an ironman, the Nets have to keep Durant and the oft-injured Irving fit.
“We just didn’t have a ton of time together early on,” Joe Harris said. “It wasn’t like James and a lot of the guys on the roster were here at the beginning of the season. There’s been a lot of shake-up over the course of the season. But we’re starting to get to a point where things are solidified, and you’re starting to see it on the court.”
Worries over their defense are still valid, especially with every scene of a blown switch or DeAndre Jordan being late to close out.
Even the season’s first half has to be divvied up into three parts. The first was before the Jan. 16 Harden trade, when Jarrett Allen anchored a serviceable defense. Then came the first 13 games after Harden’s arrival, when the Nets struggled at 7-6 with the league’s worst Defensive Rating (119.4).
But from a humbling Feb. 9 loss in Detroit on, the Nets closed the first half a league-best 10-1 run and 18th-ranked Defensive Rating.
“We know what we’re trying to accomplish, and we know our positioning on the court on both ends of the ball,” Harden said.
Added Harris: “We’re trying to learn on the fly in the games. But we’re really starting to jell now.”
Harden’s MVP candidacy
Bruce Brown stumped for Harden as MVP, and it’s neither farfetched nor surprising. The three-time scoring champ finished second, first, second and third in MVP voting the past four years, and has put himself back in the race.
Brooklyn is 17-6 when Harden has played and just 7-6 when he hasn’t. He’s averaging 25.5 points, 8.7 boards and a league-high 11.4 assists for the Nets, sacrificing shots for wins and taking a leadership role. But he claims his leadership hasn’t changed one iota.
“The same,” Harden said. “It’s just, I get credit now. Previously I wasn’t getting credit.”
What’s the roster endgame?
The 10-day deals for Andre Roberson, Tyler Cook and Iman Shumpert end over the break. Any could be brought back; or with the G-League ending, two-way player Reggie Perry could get elevated into any of their vacated spots.
But with so much roster flexibility, expect bigger moves by the March 25 trading deadline. Injured Spencer Dinwiddie is drawing interest, and the Nets will watch to see if Andre Drummond gets bought out. They’re also reportedly interested in Houston’s PJ Tucker, according to ESPN and The Athletic.