In the 2021-22 survey of NBA General Managers, 72% of them predicted that the Brooklyn Nets would win the Finals.
No surprises there, then, given that Brooklyn were Kevin Durant’s big toe away from knocking out the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. And that was with James Harden essentially playing off one leg and Kyrie Irving not playing at all.
Whether Irving takes to the court at all this season, let alone for the Nets, remains to be seen. Even so, a roster of Durant, Harden and the likes of Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, Nic Claxton, Bruce Brown and LaMarcus Aldridge is more than enough talent to get the job done.
Durant made his case for being the best basketball player alive time and time again last season, while Harden remains one of the greatest scorers and playmakers this league has ever seen, whatever you think of his Academy Award-winning foul-drawing.
He’s the only guy other than Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan to average 36 points per game across a season and the only player other than Oscar Robertson and Nate ‘Tiny’ Archibald to score 29 per game in a season along with dishing at least 11 assists. Simply put, the man plays like he’s from another era.
Irving or no Irving, the Nets are a problem for the rest of the league and rightly head into the new season as heavy favourites for the championship.
That being said, it was perhaps surprising to discover that only 17% of NBA GMs surveyed fancy the new and improved Los Angeles Lakers, who have acquired their own third superstar in the considerable form of Russell Westbrook who, like Harden, has been both a scoring champion and assist leader during the regular season.
There’s only five other players in history to have done the same and one of them, LeBron James, will be suiting up alongside Westbrook with revenge on his mind given the injuries that rocked the Lakers’ defense of their title last season.
Anthony Davis is the other head of the purple and gold Chimera built to play their Nets at their own 2K-style game, while former All-Stars Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo and younger talents Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn fill out a glittering roster in a similarly ostentatious fashion.
With those two ‘Big Threes’ assembled on each coast and menacingly lined up towards one another like a brand new missile crisis about to develop, what hope is there for the rest of the league?
The Bucks, who beat both the Nets and the Phoenix Suns – the team that bounced the Lakers – last season to claim only their second NBA title in franchise history, are a distant third favourite.
A reminder if you needed it: Giannis Antetokounmpo still exists. You know, the dude who put up 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks to clinch the title? He is still right there.
Which brings us neatly to the point: in this, the latest superteam era, less just might mean more. In other words, having the kind of top-level talent to make early noughties Real Madrid blush is all well and good but when it comes to the extended huff and puff of playoff basketball, it simply isn’t the straightforward route to success we are led to believe.
Milwaukee are proof of that, grinding their way to a championship behind the singular, otherworldly brilliance of Antetokounmpo and occasional game-winning performances by their two secondary stars Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. They have both been All-Stars but, with all due respect, neither are in the same stratosphere as the names mentioned above.
The Bucks had a ‘Big Three’ only in terms of salary but due to the make-up of their roster, which boasted great depth and line-up versatility around Giannis, they got it done as injuries wreaked havoc on squads throughout the league.
In fact, because $25m of Holiday’s reported four-year $160m contract is not guaranteed and reliant on bonuses being triggered, the Bucks aren’t one of the few teams in the league with three max players on their roster.
Unsurprisingly, the Nets and the Lakers are two of those teams. One of the others is the Golden State Warriors, who are (deservedly) paying Steph Curry the most money in the NBA and rewarded Klay Thompson with a five-year, $189 million max deal last December despite the player’s injuries.
The newly-vaccinated Andrew Wiggins is the other max player on the roster, for reasons only the Minnesota Timberwolves will be able to explain. The final team to boast a trio of max earners is the Denver Nuggets, who recently inked Michael Porter Jr. to a max rookie extension worth $172m across five seasons, and potentially more if conditions are met.
Denver, despite the virtuoso scoring, rebounding and playmaking of MVP Nikola Jokic, aren’t truly a contending team until Jamal Murray comes back from the torn ACL he sustained last April. Even so, without Murray, the Nuggets won 13 of their final 18 games of the season and improbably snagged the third seed in the West. With him healthy, they would surely have pushed the Phoenix Suns all the way in the Conference Semi-finals.
Phoenix, the other finalists, torched the West’s playoff bracket because – like Milwaukee – they had the most strength in depth around their pseudo-‘Big Three’ of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
All things considered, having players like Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cam Johnson, flexible wings who can shoot threes and defend multiple positions, may well be worth as much as an extra top-end superstar.
As we’ve seen time and time again, injuries can strike at any moment in this league and leave even the best-laid plans in ruins. It happened to both the Lakers and the Nets last season, yet they have simply doubled down on their approach, with Westbrook the ultimate kind of insurance against any ill-timed incapacity to either Davis or James.
Funnily enough, this is rumoured to be the same reason why Nets owner Joseph Tsai pursued Harden so relentlessly – he was viewed as the ultimate fail-safe against Irving’s more mercurial tendencies.
Beyond that, Brooklyn are even more stacked than they were last season, with Mills and Millsap in particular shrewd signings that plug a lot of the gaping holes in their rotation that inevitably come with having three superstar players.
The two squads look unbeatable but assembling the talent is only half the battle. How the pieces fit together on the court is every bit as important.
Take, for instance, the Atlanta Hawks, who reeled off a 27-11 record with Nate McMillan at the helm and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
They have no hint of a ‘Big Three’, but instead have one out-and-out star in Trae Young and seven quality role players who would start for most other teams in the league.
If there is trust, chemistry and camaraderie, a team can become far more than the sum of its parts, and McMillan had the Hawks believing they were every bit as good as any team in the East. In truth, they might be.
We don’t yet know how good Young might actually become after tormenting the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers in back-to-back rounds during his first-ever post-season. The likes of John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter are all 23 or under. Expect, at the very least, one or two of them to make a leap during the course of the next season.
On paper a fully healthy Brooklyn cruise through any series with Atlanta. In reality, I’m not so sure.
The Miami Heat, who were finalists in 2020, are back with Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris alongside Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. That’s a team absolutely nobody is going to want to face in a seven-game series.
Once the 76ers find a worthwhile trade for Ben Simmons, although that doesn’t appear likely until at least December now given his miraculous U-turn, they too will be in the mix with a team centred around Joel Embiid, a sure-fire MVP candidate and we still haven’t yet seen the best of despite averaging an eye-watering 29 points and 11 boards per game last season.
Subtract Simmons – a three-time All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up – and add a point guard that can both handle the ball and space the floor around Embiid, and the Sixers will likely become a much better team for it.
Towards the West, the story is very much the same. The Utah Jazz won a league-leading 52 games last season and look even stronger now. Phoenix, Denver and the Dallas Mavericks are all running it back in similar fashion, while the Warriors will be buoyed the moment Thompson steps foot back on the court.
This gives all those teams an immediate advantage on the Lakers: they already know how to play together. Sometimes familiarity pays off.
The Lakers and Nets are essentially playing catch up and hoping that through sheer force of will of their talent they can hurriedly overcome the long, slow grind that comes with building a championship contender through more organic means (the Steph Curry-era Warriors, pre-Durant, are perhaps the ultimate example of this).
When ‘The Heatles’ – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – arrived in Miami all the way back in the summer of 2010, James famously promised that they would win “Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” titles before being drowned out by the roar of the crowd, it was hard not to believe him, whatever hyperbole was work.
In the end, they won ‘only’ two, losing to Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and the Tim Duncan/Kawhi Leonard San Antonio Spurs in 2014. Both of those squads were full to the brim with seasoned role players who knew exactly what their job was on the court, and played hard every second they were out there.
They were no egos, no in-fighting, no complaints about minutes or touches; all that unwanted baggage that comes with playing on a team billed as the headline act whoever they’re up against.
Sometimes that’s all you need behind the star magic of one player, or the combined dominance of two. Sometimes a better team triumphs over better players. Coaching is ultimately what makes that happen, and few would truthfully call either Frank Vogel or Steve Nash two of the best in the NBA.
The Nets and Lakers might be heavy favourites entering the 2021-22 season, but this is a league where you can take absolutely nothing for granted.
Given the size of the targets on their backs, the age of their players, and the obvious concerns over the way all their oversized jigsaw pieces actually lock together, don’t be too surprised if, by June 19, six superstars are left disappointed at home watching another team lift the Larry O’Brien Championship, and wondering what might have been.