NEW YORK — Three months ago, the Brooklyn Nets were swept out of the Orlando bubble.
The long road from pretending to contending begins now.
The doors are ajar at the HSS Training Facility in Industry City, where the Nets have kicked off their socially distant 2020 training camp.
The Nets hope camp means camaraderie and continuity. Make no mistake — it unequivocally means competition.
There are 21 players vying for 20 training camp invitations, which will be whittled down to 17 total players for the 2020-21 season: 15 guaranteed contracts plus two additional players on two-way hybrid G-League deals, to be exact.
In Brooklyn, it boils down to the facts: There are not enough seats for everyone to ride — and Nets GM Sean Marks is unsure whether his pieces fit the NBA’s championship puzzle.
“We’re going to have to be fluid with our roster,” Marks told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. “I look forward to getting with the coaches and with our front office and really debating as we go through training camp and see where we need to make changes — whether it’s on the periphery of the roster, or we make some bigger moves.”
Welcome to Hard Knocks: Brooklyn — and the Nets have decisions to make.
Two (rehabbed) superstars, a rookie head coach, a risk-taking general manager, and a hodge-podge roster of ill-fitting, yet talented players. Oh, James Harden, where art thou?
Therein lies the question of the hour, the day, the season, the three-year championship window to build a contender around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
If The Beard isn’t euro-stepping through those open HSS doors, who is? The Nets can’t just add “a piece,” even if the need is glaring.
For Durant, basketball is pretty simple.
The NBA is a copycat league, and teams usually run similar sets with different names. That simplicity allowed Durant, who missed all of last season rehabbing his ruptured Achilles tendon, to imagine: How exactly can this team function once he and Irving finally take the court together?
“Being around the league for so long, you kind of see how things can work from the outside,” he told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. “But it’s different when you get on the floor and you see guys’ tendencies, and how they play when they’re tired, or see how they play with different ball handlers on the floor and they’ve gotta stay in the corner. So I think it’s a matter of us adjusting to each other and growing with each other on a day to day, but we have high IQ guys who know how to mesh well with anyone.”
Here is the only answer: The team will function the best way it can around its superstars’ gifts and talents.
Irving is the ankle bully, one of the greatest ball-handlers and finishers in NBA history who doubles as a crunch time shot taker and maker. Durant is one of the all-around greatest scorers of all time — a two-time NBA Finals MVP whose ascent atop the league’s totem pole was derailed by a debilitating Achilles rupture.
The offense will run primarily through them, which means a hefty dose of sacrifice for everyone else. Then, there’s the elephant in the room:
Championship rotations traditionally run eight or nine deep, max, as evidenced by the Lakers, who won last year’s NBA Finals on the back of a nine-man unit. The Nets currently have 16 players who can command legitimate playing time on any other team: two bona fide superstars, three fresh, emerging talents and a fleet of role players, both young and old.
It’s simple math: The Nets have 240 minutes to go around, and most nights Durant and Irving will account for 60.
That means 180 minutes left over — to feed 13 more players. Nine guards, six forwards and two big men who believe they can start.
One thing is clear: There aren’t nearly enough minutes to split. There must have been an oversight. Something didn’t go as planned.
Even if it fits, is it enough to overcome LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the reigning, re-tooled champion Los Angeles Lakers? Is it enough to supplant two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks, or overcome any other potential Eastern Conference roadblocks?
Or do the Nets have to move to consolidate assets, and turn their logjam into a third star?
Durant says it’s a lie. The media made it up. It never actually happened.
Harden may indeed want a trade to Brooklyn, but a deal does not appear imminent. Initial reports indicated Harden and Durant had conversations about teaming up while working out together in California. Durant denied that idea wholeheartedly.
“I don’t know where you’re making these stories up, that me and James talked about any of this at a workout,” Durant responded when asked about the reports. “I don’t know where that came from. James is a friend of mine, but I let the front office handle all of that stuff. I was just so focused on working out.
“I heard all the noise that James potentially wanted to come to the Nets, but anyone can make up stories, anyone can write a story and it gets some traction. Nothing’s ever set in stone until it’s set in stone. So I’ve never thought too much about it, just focused on myself, and my teammates probably did the same thing, and we just move forward.”
There are two issues with that statement: For one, Marks said upon acquiring his stars that he would lean on Durant and Irving for decisions made about the team’s roster. More importantly, Durant also worked out with both Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown in California at the former Mamba Sports Academy during the offseason.
The Nets’ first moves this offseason were acquiring Shamet and Brown in separate trades. Who else did Durant work out with in California, again?
Given those circumstances, and the bond he and his ex-Thunder teammate share, it’s hard to believe Durant had no communication with management with regard to a potential Harden trade. And given what the Nets would have to surrender to acquire a player of The Beard’s stature, a dark cloud of uncertainty hangs over the Brooklyn franchise.
Players who were once considered pillars — maybe even unmovable — could find themselves in a different jersey by the end of the day. After all, if the Nets are trading for Harden and keeping both Durant and Irving, negotiations begin with Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and draft picks to infinity — and reports out of Houston indicate that isn’t enough.
Marks says there’s an open-door policy in Brooklyn as it pertains to players and trade rumors. He’s had candid conversations with players, like he’s had candid conversations with Nash, Jacque Vaughn, Kenny Atkinson and D’Angelo Russell.
“It’s a strange business. It’s the tough part of the business where your names are constantly going to be floated out in the media and there’s no way around it really,” he said. “You just have to be honest with them and say, ‘Look, this is what’s happening, and this is what’s not happening. You’ll be the first to know if something ever does.’”
It’s Marks’ job to make the tough decisions, and with a ripe opportunity to snap New York sports’ near decade-long championship drought — a dearth that dates back to the ’70s for the Knicks’ last taste of sports glory — the risk-taker will roll the dice.
It costs to be the boss, and the Nets are attempting to boss up.
“We’re all professionals and just go about our days: come in, go to work, and go back home,” Durant said of trade rumors potentially impacting locker-room cohesion. “And whatever happens, guys will be prepared for anything.”
Anything is anything, and the only certainty is uncertainty. Brooklyn’s three-year championship window is already beginning to close, and Nets brass must make its pieces fit, or swap the ones that don’t for ones that do.
If it means acquiring a player of Harden’s, or Bradley Beal’s, or (insert star player’s here) stature, all chips could be on the table. Those chips, however, haven’t been enough to woo the Rockets into a Harden deal.
Welcome to Hard Knocks, Brooklyn: The pieces the Rockets aren’t jumping at? Neither are the Nets.
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