June 4, 2021

Can Any Eastern Conference Team Knock Off the Brooklyn Nets?

Despite being the second seed in the Eastern Conference, the Nets enter the 2021 NBA playoffs as the clear betting favorite to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy by the end of the season. The trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving have set themselves apart from the pack when healthy, but will they be able to win a title in their first year together in Brooklyn?  

The Eastern Conference appears to be a three-team race, if you believe the sportsbooks, with the Nets getting odds as low as +105 to win the conference while just the 76ers and Bucks are below +1200.

Brooklyn's Big 3 and Beyond

The optimism around the Nets makes sense. After all, Brooklyn's offense produced an absurd 117.3 overall rating on the season even though each of their Big 3 missed multiple games. Lineups that featured Durant, Harden, and Irving blazed a 119.6 offensive rating and a respectable 112.5 defensive rating.

The Nets will, of course, heavily rely on their top trio when games are close and the stakes rise but don't sleep on Brooklyn's bench. While most top-heavy teams sacrifice depth for elite talent, Brooklyn boasts plenty of depth thanks to role players such as Blake Griffin, Jeff Green, Joe Harris and Bruce Brown. 

Obviously, the individual talent on the Nets' roster is incredibly impressive. We've seen stacked offensive units from the Warriors and Cavaliers within the last decade, but those teams had less of a perceived learning curve due to the stylistic nature of their stars. Many were questioning how the Nets' triumvirate would play together.

The answer has been producing a simply phenomenal offense. It's clear now this is the mature version of each of these superstars' careers. Irving and Harden endured through times as the primary creator without a real second star, and have developed the acumen and trust to not pound the rock all game long. Durant has long played this way but still defers at the right time.

There isn't a better offense to watch in terms of sheer firepower and stardom. Nets coach Steve Nash has embraced their dominant skill sets and identified a strong rotation to keep the Nets surviving when one or more stars are out. Seeing a first-year coach find that balance is rare but also reminiscent of the coaching job Tyronne Lue did with the Cavaliers in 2016.

The stats back up the Nets' dominance, too. They're fourth in wins, first in offense, seventh in net rating, 10th in assists, sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio, and fifth in assist ratio. It's fair to be worried about their 22nd-ranked defense, but it's clear that suffered from their best players being injured or resting.  

Brooklyn's Biggest Blocker?

If healthy, the Nets have no true parallel on offense in the East. The Bucks are the only other foe in the conference ranked in the top-eight in offensive rating. It's easy to be concerned Mike Budenholzer's squad will again fall short in the postseason because of the pressure on less qualified stars besides Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

The argument for the Bucks is they're a deeper and more varied offense with Jrue Holiday's reliability and the excellent shooting from their role players. It's true, too. Khris Middleton, Donte DiVencenzo, Holiday, and Bobby Portis highlight a great five-man corps. 

But if you're betting on a team coming from the East, the Nets still have higher-upside playmakers across the board. Joe Harris is a better fourth man than what the Bucks can offer, for example. The Bucks would need to play at peak form while the Nets would have to disappoint to be upset.

We might not have to wait long to find out, either. The Nets and Bucks could meet in the second round. Brooklyn will face either Boston or Washington in the first round, but neither squad has the ability to counter the Nets' well-roundedness and offensive upside. 

If the Bucks can overcome their demons and defeat the Heat, it'll set up a must-see matchup between the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference — Philadelphia and Brooklyn. 

The top-seeded Sixers represent a tougher matchup due to their defensive prowess but lack some of the offensive potential Milwaukee boasts. The 910 minutes shared between Seth Curry, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons have produced a 119.2 offensive rating and 101.7 defensive rating, but seems rather unlikely to be the golden formula in the playoffs. 

Shooters Curry, Danny Green, and Furkan Korkmaz will be under the bright postseason spotlight. They'll be the key to a series filled with players who have more at stake for their legacy. Make no mistake, the Sixers won't down the Nets or realize their championship potential without playing better offensively. 

Value bettors will want to take the chance that the Heat get hot again, or that the Sixers or Bucks put it all together to overcome the Nets. Or maybe an injury will derail the star-laden Nets. There's not an inevitability with this team but the deep array of talent and proven mettle on the Nets should give major pause to skeptics. 

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration