Reggie Miller thought the Nets, with Kyrie Irving, were so far ahead of the rest of the league, a perfect 2021-22 postseason would’ve been possible.
Without the dynamic guard, their ceiling isn’t quite as ridiculously high. Think the sky instead of the stratosphere.
“Before this whole Kyrie situation, as Moses Malone said, God rest his soul, it was ‘four, four, four, four’ [in terms of sweeping the playoffs]. No question,” said Miller, the Hall of Fame player and Turner Sports analyst, Friday on a conference call previewing the upcoming season. “Hands down, they were the best team. It wasn’t even close. Let’s say Kyrie doesn’t play or plays half the games or whenever he comes back or gets traded, to me, they’re still the favorite. Maybe then there’s a [six-game series]. Possibly a seven-game series.”
This week, the Nets decided they would not accommodate Irving as a part-time player this season because of his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Unless Irving changes his mind — and he has shown no indication he will do so — or local mandates change, the Nets will have to play without the seven-time All-Star this year.
Both Miller and fellow Turner Sports analyst Stan Van Gundy, a former NBA head coach with the Magic, Pelicans and Pistons, agreed the Nets made the right choice by not allowing Irving to only play road games in order to remain part of the team. They also think the Nets not only can survive without Irving, but also they can thrive, based on an improved supporting cast.
While the Nets failed to advance past the eventual champion Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals last June, James Harden was a shell of himself due to a hamstring injury he suffered in the opening game of the series. And those Nets didn’t have offseason additions such as Patty Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge (who retired from the Nets midseason due to a discovered heart condition), Paul Millsap and impressive first-round pick Cam Thomas. On paper, this team is better than the one that fell just short to Milwaukee in seven games last season.
“They’re not giving these guys, these former All-Stars, enough credit,” Miller said. “Everything is about Kyrie, and rightfully so, Kevin Durant and James Harden. But you got to give Millsap, [Blake] Griffin, Aldridge [their respect]. Patty Mills was a huge, huge pickup for them coming off the bench — instant bucket.
“If everyone is healthy and no Kyrie, to me they’re still the clear-cut favorites.”
Without Irving, the Nets’ chances likely will come down to the health of Durant and Harden. If Harden had been healthy for the full series against the Bucks, the Nets likely would have gotten past Milwaukee and won it all. After they acquired Harden in February from the Rockets, the Nets were 29-7 in regular-season games in which he played. Durant was a dynamic playoff performer last year, averaging 34.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists while shooting 40.2 percent from 3-point range, but he just didn’t have enough help.
“Kyrie is a great player, don’t get me wrong, but he’s clearly the third-best player on that team,” Van Gundy said. “They didn’t lose one of their two best. The difference is they cannot survive injuries as well. Last year, they almost never had all of them [in the same game], but they’d have two of them, and you’re fine because all those guys are so good.
“Now, if you have a guy go down for an extended period or certainly in the playoffs it would change things. But with that said, with Kyrie out and with James Harden not [himself health-wise] they were two inches from beating the Bucks in the second round and going to the conference finals with not really having either of those guys, Kyrie or Harden. … They’re still the favorite in the East. Maybe not quite as overwhelming a favorite without Kyrie, but certainly still the favorite.”