Although the Nets rank as the consensus favorite to win the 2022 NBA title based on the leadership of their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, it’s important to recognize that only eight players return from the team that bowed out in Game 7 of the second round to the eventual champion Bucks.
When training camp opens Tuesday in San Diego after Monday’s Media Day activities in Brooklyn, the focus clearly must be on how best to incorporate the improved supporting cast assembled over the offseason by general manager Sean Marks.
The Nets lost key veteran free-agent forward Jeff Green, but Marks responded by signing veteran forwards Paul Millsap and James Johnson along with veteran point guard Patty Mills, who is coming off a bronze-medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics with Australia.
Marks also re-signed key forwards Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge along with versatile guard Bruce Brown and added hard-nosed forward DeAndre’ Bembry in a trade. In short, Marks addressed the need for improved rebounding and physicality on defense, and now, it’s a matter of blending them with the Big 3 and defining roles.
The return of Aldridge, who played five games last season before retiring with a heart condition, came as a pleasant surprise to coach Steve Nash because of the high-caliber experience he adds along with newcomers Millsap and Mills.
"I thought he added a lot to our room," Nash said of Aldridge. "Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of him on the floor, but he was an experienced, skilled, versatile big that knows how to play and was adding a lot to our collective IQ. So we’re excited to have him back.
"Patty obviously is a championship player with the Spurs. I think he’s an incredible lift to our culture, being the type of character he is, the personality he has and his ability to shoot and play with pace helps us immensely. Paul Millsap’s a tough, intelligent, skilled big who’s seen it all, so another guy that can play a few positions and stretch the floor or play inside, can pass and facilitate and understand and be able to fit into any defense."
When you add Griffin, Johnson and young center Nic Claxton to the frontcourt mix, it creates a logjam that might lead to an interesting conundrum for Nash in terms of starting lineup and player rotations. There has been considerable speculation Aldridge might start at center and Griffin at power forward, causing Durant to move to small forward, pushing Joe Harris to the second unit.
Although Harris led the NBA in three-point percentage two of the past three seasons, his poor shooting in the playoffs was a concern. Asked if he expects to make that change, Nash said, "I don’t worry about Joe. High, high character as an individual, he’s tough as nails. Unfortunately, he got cold at the end of the year, but he was outstanding all year. He took on a ton of responsibility almost every night, super-physical, can be counted on. I think he’ll grow from this in some ways.
"As far as the big men, will it be tricky at times to find playing time for everyone? Sure. Part of being a championship team is being part of something that’s bigger than yourself. We have guys that understand they all come here knowing that we’re trying to get across the line, and it’s not about the individual’s minutes or touches.
"I’m sure Kevin will play all over the place. There’s times he might play the 5, there’s times when he’ll play the 3. I think it’s also a little bit unnecessary to name positions the way we play the game nowadays. We’ve got options, and we’ve got a lot to sift through, before we recognize really clear patterns as to what we’re going to do."
However Nash uses his supporting cast, he’s confident he can lean on the leadership of the Big 3. "You know, we didn’t start the season with James Harden," Nash said, referring to the midseason trade to acquire him from the Rockets. "He’s an exceptional leader. Ky and Kevin lead at times, but they’re just exceptional examples of how to approach the game.
"When you put it all together, we have vocal leaders, we have guys that lead by example, and I think we have a mix of personalities that will bring the energy and the juice every day. Most importantly, our guys love the game and want to be here. That’s the ingredients to building a great environment."
Marks: Aldridge's 'conviction' key to return
The return of Aldridge after his abbreviated retirement for a heart condition was uplifting in terms of what the seven-time All-Star showed he can add on the court and his desire to accept a veteran’s minimum deal to pursue a title with the Nets.
Marks said he tried to talk the 36-year-old Aldridge out of returning. "I said, ‘Why? You don’t need this,’" Marks said. "I think it’s important to see the conviction. He had already gone above and beyond in terms of talking to specialists and being cleared…and then we further did our own testing.
"He was very comfortable, wanted to be back and stated that there was unfinished business here…He was fighting to come back, and I think that’s what you love to see in a player. He’s well aware of what’s at stake, which is to be the last team standing, and he wants to be a part of that."