NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the Board of Governors on Friday completed a two-hour conference call, but the league has not yet reached a decision on the format for a return to play that is projected for late July at Disney World in Orlando, where all games are expected to be played without fans. As discussion continues, the 30-34 Nets are solidly in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and rank 15th among the top 16 teams in playoff position for the entire league. The Nets have major decisions to make after a fractured season disrupted by injuries to free-agent stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the firing of coach Kenny Atkinson just two games before the season paused amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Assessing all the decisions that lie ahead, general manager Sean Marks must weigh short-term gains against the long-term interests of the franchise. Here is a look at the five most pressing issues facing Marks and the Nets:
1. Should Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play if healthy?
Durant originally was expected to miss the entire season while recovering from Achilles tendon surgery last June, and Irving played only 20 games before what was viewed as season-ending shoulder surgery in March. But a delay of four months prior to the resumption of play means both stars likely will be healthy enough to return if they choose, but it would come with the added risk of returning amid playoff intensity rather than with the benefit of training camp and a seasonlong buildup. The temptation will be great because of possible playoff matchups with the defending champion Raptors if the league maintains the conference playoff format or a matchup with the No. 2 overall Lakers, featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, if the league seeds playoff teams 1-16. Durant previously scrimmaged in three-on-three workouts and looks good, according to Marks, who maintains there will be no pressure to play from the organization.
2. Can interim coach Jacque Vaughn take control during uncertain times?
Following the sudden departure of Atkinson, Vaughn took over amid reports Durant and Irving were involved in the dismissal, and he tweaked the lineup by starting veteran center DeAndre Jordan ahead of Atkinson favorite Jarrett Allen. The result was two wins, including a road win over the Lakers in the final game before the stoppage. Since then, Vaughn and the rest of the organization have worked to maintain communication with players, but consolidating power and working on changes to the system has been impossible without formal practices. Vaughn has the players’ respect, but with the coaching situation up in the air, as well as the injury status of Durant and Irving, he faces a chaotic situation against tough opposition, especially if it includes trying to integrate Durant and Irving in what would amount to a do-over that would be a departure from everything the Nets did in the regular season.
3. How will playing roles be redefined if Durant and Irving return?
Because Jordan signed at the same time in free agency as part of a package deal with Durant and Irving, his move to the starting lineup under Vaughn was significant. Third-year center Allen is regarded as a future building block, but Jordan played better than Allen after the All-Star break. If Durant and Irving make themselves available, they would replace current starting power forward Taurean Prince and point guard Spencer Dinwiddie alongside Jordan, shooting guard Caris LeVert and small forward Joe Harris. Dinwiddie and Prince obviously would strengthen a second unit that also would include Allen, Wilson Chandler at power forward, Prince shifting to small forward and likely Garrett Temple at shooting guard. If Durant and Irving wait until next season to return, it will open more playing time for guards Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Chris Chiozza on the second unit and put the onus back on Dinwiddie and LeVert to lead the Nets.
4. What role will Durant and Irving have in the head coach search?
When Atkinson’s dismissal was announced, Marks said the coach he hired nearly four years earlier admitted he had lost his voice with the team. Undoubtedly, it would not have happened if he had the backing of Durant and Irving. Marks has said those two stars, as well as other players, will be consulted during the hiring process. Vaughn served as Atkinson’s top assistant, was Irving’s position coach and has a strong relationship with the point guard. But there are several other potential head coaches with ties to Irving and Durant, including former Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, who won an NBA title with Irving in 2016. Mark Jackson recently told Newsday he would like to return to the NBA coaching ranks, and he has a relationship with Durant and his business partner Rich Kleiman. Some have mentioned former Nets coach Jason Kidd as a possibility, but he seems a long shot.
5. Will Marks seek a third major star in the offseason or make smaller moves?
NBA commentators and Nets fans have speculated incessantly about what move Marks might make to obtain a third major star. Much of the talk has focused on Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who is averaging 30.5 points. That would be dramatic, but given his two-year deal worth $72 million, it also would eat up Nets cap space and likely cost them either LeVert or Dinwiddie plus Allen and two first-round picks, a very steep price indeed, especially if the Nets believe LeVert can approach third-star status after averaging 23 points, five rebounds and five assists over his final 17 games. A more sensible approach might be to chase a free-agent power forward, such as Serge Ibaka or Marcus Morris, who could add size and relieve pressure on Durant, allowing him to play small forward. The Hawks’ John Collins and the Magic’s Aaron Gordon are potential PF trade targets.