Whenever a new year rolls around, sporting publishers and pundits around the globe launch bold predictions for what lies ahead in the next 12 months.
Some prophecies are more brash than others, but at the present, this feels outright bonkers.
Going into 2023, Sports Illustrated’s Howard Beck believes things will fall apart at the Brooklyn Nets, forecasting Kyrie Irving to sign with the LA Lakers in free agency and Kevin Durant to reinitiate his trade demand.
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Yes, the same Nets who’ve been the form team if the NBA for well over a month, only on Thursday (all times AEDT) having their league-best 12-game winning streak snapped by the Chicago Bulls.
The same Nets who’ve gone 16-2 over their last 18 contests including 18-4 since Irving returned from his suspension and 13-2 since TJ Warren came back from injury.
The same Nets that currently sit a game behind Boston in the Eastern Conference’s first seed, have the equal second-best record in the entire NBA and are among the championship favourites.
Surely not!? Well, it’s perhaps not as wild as it seems.
Expanding on his bold calls on theThe Lowe Post podcast, Beck explained how he thinks the Nets playoff fortunes could make or break the current core.
“I believe this is a possibility. Yes, if the Nets fall short of a championship, the finals and maybe the conference finals, I don’t believe there’s’s any desire by leadership in Brooklyn to want to bring back Irving unless they really feel like they have to,” Beck said.
“Maybe they win a championship and feel like they can’t break up a championship team. But after all they’ve gone through with him, the idea they would keep him seems far-fetched to say the least.
“From there, it’s just the next step. If Kyrie’s not there and you can’t replace him because you’re way over the cap and tax … well now, who’s KD’s running mate? I don’t think it’s Ben Simmons.
“There’s no Irving replacement, if he goes, why wouldn’t Durant want to explore things yet again? He just did this several months ago with this exact team.
“I don’t know that anything has truly been solved other than they’re playing and everybody’s healthy and this might continue. But if it doesn’t and if they fall short and crash and burn, why wouldn’t the Durant trade request be back on the table?
“I did this at least somewhat playfully … it has to be realistic, and I think it is. Do I absolutely positively think this is the way it’s going to go? No, I would stop short of that.”
Of course, how quickly things changed in Brooklyn though.
Only a few short months ago, Irving was indefinitely stood down due to backlash over his promotion of an antisemitic film ahead of his free agency. At the time, you’d bet your house on him departing in the off-season, if not sooner, and it was largely a question of where the seven time All-Star would land and even talk he could retire from basketball altogether.
Furthermore, Steve Nash was fired and replaced by Jacque Vaughn after the team’s 2-5 start to the season, and a rusty Simmons was horrifically down on form compared to his former All-Star self after sitting out all of last season at Philadelphia.
It felt like a matter of when, not if, Brooklyn would self destruct.
It was unconceivable the Nets could get to the position they’re currently in, and while Vaughn deserves a ton of credit for helping turn things around, there’s a fair argument things could fall apart as quickly as they came together.
“A lot of wonky things have happened with them this season. We’ve seen Simmons be a shadow of himself, and then he looks like the old Simmons from the Philadelphia days, and now I’m not sure where he is,” Beck added.
“(But) they have been amazing, Kyrie has been fantastic and Durant has been absolutely unbelievable … their role players have been great.
“We saw them the same way before the season. Were they good enough on paper to win a championship? Yeah, absolutely never doubted it.
“I didn’t think it was possible because of all the volatility and the possibility and likelihood that Kyrie and/or Durant were going to miss long stretches of games.
“That could still happen and it tends to happen with both of them. In Durant’s case, because of injury, and in Kyrie’s case, because of injury and other various things that happen because he’s Kyrie.
“It’s hard to trust it.”
For ESPN’s Zach Lowe, there’s a scenario where Irving exits Brooklyn this off-season, but Durant still remains.
“When they were in the middle of the Irving morass and Simmons was a ghost, it felt unsalvageable,” Lowe said on the The Lowe Post podcast.
“They were under .500 … everyone in the world was assuming the other shoe was going to drop – whether at the trade deadline or in the summer – and that being Durant. Even people within the Nets were worried to say the last that this was going off the rails.
“Some were not, some steadfast: ‘We’ve been saying it for four years, but we just need our team.’
“I will say this though, without belabouring it too much, because it’s many months away.
“A lot of this will depend on the playoffs, as happens for all high level teams. Because the intensity and stakes are heightened and outcomes feel so massively important compared to the regular season.
“Let me be clear – I’m not reporting this or saying this will happen, nobody knows what will happen – I do think there is a world where Kyrie is on another team next year and Durant is happily on the Brooklyn Nets – I think that double scenario is possible.
“I don’t think it’s 100 per cent tethered at the hip. Maybe that’s a very minority scenario, like that’s not what anyone wants or envisions, but I don’t think that’s totally out of bounds.
“The Nets just need to keep this together and we’ll see what happens.”
As good as things are currently going in Brooklyn, it can’t be ignored that, firstly, it could easily be quickly undone, and secondly, there’s still inconsistencies in Simmons’ game despite the Aussie finding his way in recent weeks as the main playmaker driving the team’s offence, and on the defensive end, a key force.
Simmons has effectively been marginalised on offence to being a pure passer – he even suggested as much – which puts a cap on his ceiling and overall impact.
He’s averaging a career-low 7.9 points per game – nearly half his career scoring average of 15.2.
Crucially, his woes at the free throw line remain a big concern, and have in fact gotten worse this season.
Simmons is shooting a career-worst 41.3 per cent from the charity swipe, and on Thursday, made his first free throw since November 26. That’s 40 days spanning across 12 games without a free throw make including going 0-0 during that stretch.
“Crazy stat. In the annals of NBA history, has that ever happened before?” Beck posed, with the podcast coming out during Simmons’ free throw drought. “Especially with a player of that level.”
Plus on Thursday, he only converted 1-of-4 of his shots from the line in a game the Nets lost by nine points.
Put it all together and Simmons isn’t exactly playing up to his annual $35 million price tag, while injuries continue to hold him back.
This isn’t to single out or bash Simmons, but point out that if the Nets weren’t doing so well, he’d likely be facing more heat for still being well below his best form, in fact, a ways off.
But as they say, winning solves everything.
He’s a key piece to this Brooklyn puzzle that still has other question marks on it. Will Irving stay out of trouble? Can the big three stay healthy? And does this team have what it takes to succeed in the playoffs?
There’s still many different directions the Nets could go from here, after all, we’ve lived through both two extremes in recent months.
Only time will tell.