CHARLOTTE – On paper, the Nets created a four-year window for contention when they landed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In reality? The star duo’s injuries in Year 1 and contract opt-outs before Year 4 may cut that window in half. Nets general manager Sean Marks intimated as much.
This season should have afforded the Nets a chance to build some chemistry and lay some groundwork ahead of Durant’s expected return next season from Achilles surgery. But Irving’s upcoming season-ending shoulder surgery robbed them of that.
It will make it harder to accurately gauge this season, to build the roster in the offseason and to get out of the gate quickly next season.
“That’s the big thing,” Kenny Atkinson admitted. “You wanted some time to work things out, work on our continuity and obviously work on the chemistry of the team and how we’re going to use [Irving]. That’s the disappointing part. We’re not going to have that opportunity.
“We’ll have to start fresh next season and figure it out quickly. But that is the disappointing part.”
There were always health question marks. The Nets knew they would have to wait on Durant while he rehabbed a ruptured Achilles. But having Caris LeVert miss two months following thumb surgery and having Irving limited to just 20 games all season goes beyond what even the most pessimistic fan could’ve anticipated.
“I’d be lying if I said I wish all our guys weren’t healthy for the whole time. It’s been kind of a roller-coaster year,” Marks said. “We’ve had Caris out as well. So we’ve had multiple guys who’ve had these strange, unforeseen injuries.”
Unforeseen injuries are the story of Irving’s tantalizing career. By the time his homecoming campaign in Brooklyn is over, he will have missed 194 regular-season games in his nine-year NBA career, averaging slightly more than 60 of 82 games played per season. And in his lone collegiate season at Duke, he suffered a toe injury and missed 26 of 37 games.
Irving made waves by stating that even upon Durant’s anticipated return next season, the Nets are still a piece or two away from contention. But for the first time since Marks took over, this roster is built more for stability than flexibility.
Whatever evaluation Atkinson is doing during the season and whatever roster building Marks does after it have been made more difficult without a clear view of what exactly a full-strength Nets team would look like.
“We always evaluate everything, and for sure when you don’t have a massive sample size, that’s going to make things a little difficult,” Marks said. “Again, that’s what we’re here to do. That’s what analytics does, that’s what scouts do, that’s what our front office group does.
“Again, utmost confidence we’re right on schedule and on target to go and put a contender out there. That’s been the goal all along.”
Clearly the Nets never got to see their optimal lineup with Durant. But they also got just 109 minutes all season with a would-be starting lineup of Irving, LeVert, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen on the court together.
“It’s tough, because people were trying to establish their rhythm from the get-go,” Harris said. “Even though (Irving) started the season with us, he missed preseason, he missed a lot of practices.
“It wasn’t like everybody was together and we were able to have this cohesion. It wasn’t like everyone was together and we were able to have all this cohesion. We had a lot of people who were out and we were trying to piece people together. So it was tough from the start.”
That starting lineup’s 4-2 mark is tied for the Nets’ best mark, along with a quintet with Spencer Dinwiddie in place of Irving. That’s a pitifully small sample from which to try to draw any conclusions.
“I don’t know if there’s enough, especially when you throw Kevin into the mix,” Atkinson said. “It’s going to be a different structure, a different chemistry, different rotations.”