From Hottest Mess To Hottest Team, Are Nets A Title Contender?

kyrie irving kevin durant

With a record of 1-5, an alpha dog (Kevin Durant) who expressed his desire to be traded in the offseason, a second banana (Kyrie Irving) on the brink of a multi-game suspension for promoting an anti-Semitic film, a coach (Steve Nash) on the precipice of being fired, and a third banana (Ben Simmons) either unwilling or unable to suit up for actual games, the Brooklyn Nets were the NBA’s hottest mess ‘round about Halloween night.

Now they’re just the NBA’s hottest team, having won 12 games in a row and 16 of 17.

With a record of 25-12 heading into a Wednesday night tilt against the Bulls in Chicago, Brooklyn boasts the second-best record in the league, trailing the 26-12 Boston Celtics in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division. Under Nash’s replacement, Jacque Vaughn, the Nets are as healthy as they’ve been in years, boast one of the league’s best defenses, and have a pair of scorers in Durant and Irving who are among the most versatile, creative, and elusive that the league has ever seen.

When firing on all cylinders, the Nets “have the talent to beat any team,” said David Lieberman, Caesars Sportsbook’s head NBA trader.

Oddsmakers respect the Nets’ chances to march to an NBA title. With odds of +600, they’re Caesars’ second choice (level with the Milwaukee Bucks) to win it all, trailing only the Celtics (+360).

“Before the season started, [the Nets] were probably around where they are now” in terms of championship odds, said Lieberman. “They’ve always kind of been an enigma ever since they got Kyrie and Ben Simmons and how they finished the season last year getting swept in the playoffs. Early in the season, it was looking like it wasn’t going to quite work out. I definitely bumped their odds up quite a bit and that coincided with the Celtics playing really well. I can honestly say I didn’t believe in them turning it around even before the Kyrie situation.

“The Celtics are still a better team right now. They’re deeper. The Nets are playing well right now for sure, but if someone got hurt, I don’t think they could withstand it as well as the Celtics could. The Nets have taken advantage of an easier schedule. They have a tougher stretch coming up.”

Kyrie got ‘em UP!

— NBA (@NBA) January 3, 2023

Coach of the Year could hinge on Atlantic race

Who wins the Atlantic, where all five teams stand a decent chance of making the postseason, might well determine who wins Coach of the Year honors. Boston’s Joe Mazzula, who abruptly assumed the reins of the Celtics amidst Ime Udoka’s sexual harassment scandal, was Caesars’ favorite at +220 as of Tuesday afternoon, with Vaughn (3/1) nipping at his heels.

“Both of those coaches have an intriguing storyline behind their success, more so than anyone else,” observed Lieberman. “It really could just come down to who wins that division. At the same time, I’ve got to think Vaughn might have a little better case even if they don’t catch the Celtics because he’s dealt with more drama and adversity and has turned that team around from looking like they’re dead in the water to being second or third in the race.”

With averages of nearly 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game, Durant is once again proving himself to be more than just perhaps the most unstoppable one-on-one scorer in NBA history. Injuries and playing with Steph Curry probably explain why he’s only won one regular-season Most Valuable Player award, but voter sentiment that a player of his stature deserves an encore round of recognition could make him a nice play for sports bettors at odds of 8/1. (Durant is Caesars’ current fifth pick for MVP behind Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, and two-time winners Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic.)

“That [sentiment] could definitely come into play when it comes to voting awards like MVP, where it’s kind of subjective,” said Lieberman. “I think he’s still fighting an uphill battle for MVP just because of how mediocre [the Nets] were without Kyrie. He’s averaging pretty gaudy stats, but not to the level of Doncic, Tatum, [Joel] Embiid, or even Jokic.”

Claxton surging in DPOY race

Irving, who averages 26 points, 5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game, has been his usual self when active, and the Nets’ supporting cast has complemented the team’s two stars beautifully. 

Simmons leads Brooklyn in assists with 6 per game and has started to show flashes of the defensive menace that shut down players big and small in Philadelphia. Seth Curry, Joe Harris, Patty Mills, and a finally healthy T.J. Warren bring plenty of shooting and scoring off the bench, and offseason acquisition Royce O’Neale has proven to be the perfect replacement for Bruce Brown in the role of undersized, do-whatever-the-team-needs starting forward. 

The Nets lead all teams in blocks per game with 7, paced by center Nic Claxton (2.5 bpg), a long, switchable wombat who’s in the company of Mikal Bridges, Draymond Green, Jrue Holiday, and Marcus Smart at odds of 25/1 to be named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Ex-Net Brook Lopez, now with Milwaukee, has far shorter odds (+175) to win DPOY despite averaging just a tenth of a block more than Claxton per game. 

“It might have just been how Lopez started the season,” explained Lieberman. “He’s kind of tailed off a little bit, but got that hype going early. Claxton has been coming on strong lately. I could see him definitely moving up the list and closing the gap, considering how [the Nets have] played lately.”

Photo: Geoff Burke/USA TODAY

Author: Ryan Gonzales