Nets forward DeAndre' Bembry and forward Kevin Durant slap five...

Nets forward DeAndre' Bembry and forward Kevin Durant slap five against the Bulls in the first half of an NBA game at Barclays Center on Saturday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

A champion-in-waiting.

That was the expectation for the Nets entering the 2021-22 season.

And what are they 23 games into arguably the most anticipated campaign in franchise history?

A group that has not fully jelled, but is in the process of doing so. Which, according to Steve Nash, should be both expected and embraced.

"There’s a bunch of different kinds of backgrounds and styles of play that we’re trying to mesh," Nash said during practice Monday at the Hospital for Special Surgery Training Center before embarking on a four-game road trip. "I think we’re going in the right direction. But like I keep saying, it’s the type of thing that takes a long time.

"We’ve got a lot of veteran guys who have played certain ways for a long time. To get those things to blend and be on the same page isn’t something that happens overnight and we shouldn’t feel the pressure of fixing it in a week or two. It’s [going to] take lots of time to form that identity collectively."

And though that identity hasn’t fully formed, at least one personality trait has begun to reveal itself: The Nets are a strong defensive team.

Entering Tuesday night’s game in Dallas against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, the Nets lead the league in three-point field goal against percentage (30.9), and rank second in the league in field goal against percentage (42.9), sixth in turnovers forced per game (12.5), and 10th in the league in points allowed per game (105.8).

It has been a stark evolution from 2020-21 when they finished the season allowing 114.1 points per game. What has accounted for the transformation? To hear DeAndre Bembry, the answer can be distilled into two fundamental concepts: intelligence and communication.

"We have a lot of high-IQ guys so being able to do that and mixing that in with our length, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able [to be an improved defensive team]," Bembry said. "I think over time we started building that trust in each other.

"That’s pretty much I think the biggest difference for us."

Bembry, who signed a one-year deal with the Nets, is among a handful of experienced veterans brought in during the offseason. But Nash stressed the signings were not a case of filling specific and perceived needs.

"I don’t think you want to go out and say we got to have defenders," Nash said. "Who is a good fit for our group? Who is available to us with the salary cap restrictions? "

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