Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The Brooklyn Nets are the people's champion
Be honest with yourself. You don't actually want the Brooklyn Nets to win the title.
Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden are all awesome at basketball. Pantheon players. Individually, each has fans. There is a reason they have three of the seven biggest shoe deals in the NBA. I just want to know who actually wants Brooklyn to win a championship, and why are you not a New York Knicks fan?
Durant left an Oklahoma City Thunder team that came within a Klay Thompson flurry of reaching the 2016 Finals to join Thompson on a 73-win Golden State Warriors team that already won a ring. He breezed to two more, and then left, conceding for myriad reasons "nobody could [give] a full acceptance of me there ." Loyalty among Thunder and Warriors fans lies with Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry more than Durant.
He has been in Brooklyn for two seasons and played 33 games. Fans who followed the Nets from New Jersey and hipsters who adopted them over the past nine years have attended five of them. The Nets were just kind of there when Durant needed a shoulder to cry on. This year's playoffs are their shotgun wedding.
Loyalty should run deeper with Irving, who grew up a Nets fan in New Jersey, but it's hard to commit to someone who burned bridges in Cleveland and Boston before crossing one in Brooklyn. Upon his arrival, Irving declared, "We’re going to take over the whole entire city. " Obviously, the Knicks still own New York.
There is nothing sadder than reading this feature from a Washington Post reporter trying to find Nets fans outside Barclays Center on the day they signed Durant and Irving. He found one who conceded, “Honestly, I thought a lot more people were going to be here. I guess people haven’t really caught on or don’t care as much. And the Knicks have a bigger following. But next year there are going to be a lot more people.”
“Honestly,” he added, “I thought it would have been not just me.”
Joe Harris is the longest-tenured member of the Nets, signing in July 2016. When Durant and Irving joined three years later, Harris admitted , "When I first got here, we were just this transplant team that was picking up different fans here and there." In other words, the bandwagon had an awful lot of space very recently.
Then, there is Harden. The search would be even sadder for a diehard Nets fan who, when Harden was in Houston, said, "No, really, I enjoy watching James Harden play basketball." That person does not exist. And I can't imagine many Rockets fans are gung ho for Harden to get a ring after he quit on the franchise.
If you are a diehard Nets fan, you have maybe seen Durant, Irving and Harden play all of their 186 minutes together. You have invested more time in watching "The Irishman." You are a fan of the concept of the Nets.
If healthy, Durant, Irving and Harden might form the greatest offense in NBA history. They will respectively be sure to remind you, "I feel like I'm the best player in the world ," "I'm an actual genius when it comes to this game ," and, "Not to brag or anything, but I'm, like, really, really good at this game . ... I'm very unselfish."
You may find that attractive, however vapid, but what you are really saying is: "I love AAU basketball as an institution." Stanning superteams is bad enough. Stanning one that joined forces on an ephemeral franchise that is an afterthought in its own city is worse. Stanning the Nets is like stanning the Exxon Mobil merger.
The Boston Celtics are better off tanking
This is not the Celtics' season. After three trips to the Eastern Conference finals in the past four years, they could never never build enough momentum to establish themselves again as even a challenger to the Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. Their presumed playoff rotation never played a minute together.
The season began with Kemba Walker's knee injury keeping him sidelined through December, an issue that limited his impact all season. Jayson Tatum tested positive for coronavirus in January and now requires an inhaler as a result. A calf strain kept Marcus Smart out all of February. The Celtics acquired Evan Fournier at the trade deadline in March, only to lose him to COVID-19 health and safety protocols for 11 of his first 15 games with the team. He was still struggling with his depth perception at the start of this month. Robert Williams missed the second half of April with a sore knee. And Boston's season effectively ended Monday, when the team announced that Jaylen Brown would miss the remainder of the campaign with a wrist injury.
The result is a 35-35 record and a play-in tournament berth. The Celtics are playing out the season at this point. At best, Tatum can put a scare into Philadelphia or Brooklyn in a hard-fought first-round loss — the earliest exit of his promising career. But what if they don't play out the season? What if they throw in the towel?
Or what if they already have?
Brown initially injured his wrist in mid-April, per the Boston Herald's Mark Murphy . He first started nursing i t after a fall late in a win over the depleted Los Angeles Lakers on April 15 and appeared to re-aggravate it late in a brutal loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 27. He returned, only to suffer an ankle injury late in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on May 2. He missed the next three games, including a 22-point loss to the Chicago Bulls, at which point the Celtics surprisingly announced his season-ending wrist surgery.
Following news of Brown's surgery and consecutive losses to the Miami Heat that assured them of a play-in spot, the Celtics scratched Smart (calf) and Williams (toe) on Wednesday in addition to resting Walker on the second night of a back-to-back. They proceeded to lose handily to the 22-win Cleveland Cavaliers.
It would not be surprising if, somewhere along that line, the Celtics saw the writing on the wall and turned their focus to next year. In which case, losing out is the best outcome . This is not a team that needs playoff reps. They need players. Losing the final two games of the regular season and both play-in chances would assure them of the 13th lottery spot (5.7% odds at a top-four pick) — with an outside shot at 11th (9.4%).
Watch out for the Portland Trail Blazers
Quietly, the Blazers have positioned themselves as a playoff sleeper pick in the Western Conference.
They had won nine of 10 games entering Thursday's matchup with the second-seeded Phoenix Suns (a one-point road loss that could have gone either way on the second night of a back-to-back). Seven of the wins came against teams still battling for seeding position. In that span, Portland owned the NBA's top offensive rating (124 points per 100 possessions) and net rating (+14 per 100 possessions) by a fairly wide margin.
After a series of injury-riddled seasons, the Blazers are now (fingers crossed) among the healthier teams in the home stretch. Over that 10-game sample, their starting lineup of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Norm Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic played 159 minutes together — 21 more than any other five-man unit in the NBA and only 12 fewer than they had in the previous 32 games, when they were 14-18.
On that run, the Blazers shot a blistering 43.2% on 36.6 3-point attempts per game. Their four primary scorers — Lillard, McCollum, Powell and Carmelo Anthony — averaged a combined 83 points per game on 50/46/91 shooting splits. A hot streak? Sure, but what better time to be hot than entering the playoffs?
Sandwiched between a pair of first-round exits at the hands of Anthony Davis — first with the New Orleans Pelicans and then with the Lakers — Portland's run to the 2019 Western Conference finals is considered an anomaly in retrospect. But what if Davis, who averaged a 31-10-3 in those nine playoff games against the Blazers, was just an anomalous matchup for a team that had no answer for him on the defensive end?
Over the past five seasons, the Blazers have handled their business in the playoffs against teams that don't have Davis or aren't the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. The Blazers won the season series against both teams and may not have to face either. If they do, L.A. or Golden State may not be full strength this time.
Portland has more playoff experience than the Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns combined. Lillard can be the best player in either series. The L.A. Clippers could be Portland's kryptonite. The Clips swept their season series in resounding fashion. They are currently slotted to face each other in the first round — the result of Thursday's loss to the Suns and a potentially devastating development for the Blazers' underdog odds (+3000 to win the West at BetMGM ).
If over the final two games Portland can pull even with the Dallas Mavericks and climb back into the 4-5 matchup opposite the Jamal Murray-less Denver Nuggets — a team they beat with Murray in the 2019 conference semifinals — the Blazers should like their chances a whole lot better. And there is a chance.
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