Overlooked amid last season’s mayhem is that for six weeks last fall, the Eastern Conference was in full chase mode of the Brooklyn Nets, who stood atop the standings from mid-November until the end of December.
And then, in late January, there they stood again, first place in the East, until the Heat began to assert themselves.
Ultimately, there was no need to keep up with the Nets, whose implosion has been well chronicled, including the first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
Then came Kevin Durant’s trade directive.
It was as if it was Brooklyn’s run with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams all over again.
Nothing to see there.
But now, as the NBA resumes a personnel period already in progress after the defusing of Durant’s trade demand, we seemingly are back to where we had been at the start of the previous two seasons:
What about the Nets?
Yes, chemistry matters, and the next game Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons play together will be the first.
Yes, coaching matters, and just two weeks ago, Durant was doing nothing to distance himself from word that he wanted Steve Nash gone.
And, yes, roster composition matters, with Nic Claxton not only the best the Nets have at the moment to offer at center, but arguably the only thing.
But still, for all the Heat accomplished by finishing with the East’s best record last season, and for all the Celtics proved by advancing to the NBA Finals, an argument can be made that the Nets stand as the most talented team in the East.
In the backcourt there are the skills that make Irving arguably the league’s best backcourt point creator, as well as the return of Joe Harris and his 3-point shooting.
In the frontcourt, there is the undeniable greatness of Durant, even at 33, as well as Simmons positioned to do what he does best and perhaps only having to do what he does best: defend, create, rebound.
And there is quality depth, with General Manager Sean Marks smartly proceeding with a vision that still included Durant, retaining contributors Seth Curry and Patty Mills, as well as adding T.J. Warren and Royce O’Neale (which now might stand as the offseason’s most underrated trade).
Factor in the potential of Claxton and that’s quality nine deep.
Typically, rosters are retooled during the offseason to take down those who had gotten ahead. For some, that meant putting enough together to wrest the top seed the Heat held last season. To others, it meant counters to the quality depth Boston added in the offseason, Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari.
But now there again are the Nets to reconsider.
A year ago, the notion was to attempt to outscore a defenseless opponent, particularly when James Harden was the third prime component alongside Durant and Irving.
Now there is the undeniable defensive presence of Simmons (a two-time All-Defensive first-team selection), as well as the stabilizing arrival on that end in O’Neale.
A year ago, Irving wasn’t playing in any games due to his unvaccinated status, then only was playing in road games, and only late in the season playing in all games. Now, only games in Toronto appear to be off his plate.
Of course with Irving and Simmons, it often comes down to whether they are all there, in both body and spirit. And that still is where this could go south, as it did during the second half of last season, as Irving watched, Simmons waited and Durant wilted.
But as August turns to September, and with training camps just four weeks away, what’s old is new again.
The Brooklyn Nets stand as a legitimate Eastern Conference hurdle, be it for the Heat to repeat their regular-season success or the Celtics to repeat their playoff success.
It is a roster that yet could put the rest of the conference, including the Heat, in chase mode.
The talent is in place.
But, as seemingly always is the case with these Nets, are their heads in the right place?
If so, one of the Heat, Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers, unlike last season’s four-team race, may find themselves having to cede homecourt advantage in the first round.
IN THE LANE
WADE IN HOT WATER: Heat icon Dwyane Wade not only has found himself in hot water amid Southern California’s protracted drought, but could find himself soon limited in supply. The Los Angeles Times reported that Wade and wife Gabrielle Union were among 2,000 customers issued “notices of exceedance” by the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. According to the report, Wade’s residence “exceeded its allocated water budget in June by more than 1,400%, or 90,000 gallons. That was an improvement over May, when the property exceeded its budget by 489,000 gallons — more than any other customer.” Union explained in a statement that a pool leak contributed to the issue. Failure to upgrade compliance could result in the installation of a mandatory flow restrictor. Wade sold his Miami Beach home in June 2021, with the Los Angeles area his primary residence since his Heat retirement in 2019. Others who received such notices included Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, and Kim Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian.
NO, REALLY: From the department of you can’t make this up, former Heat forward Willie Burton, among the most mercurial presences on the team’s roster over its 35 seasons, was among those considered as a lieutenant-governor running mate for Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, the Detroit News reported, before Dixon turned elsewhere. Burton, 54, notes on his Linkedin page, “Mr. Burton is a former NBA athlete, an accomplished state, national, and international program turnaround specialist and a keynote speaker. He turns failing youth programs into nationally recognized programs.”
STILL GOING: The relentless pursuit of steady NBA work continues for Chris Silva, this time with the former Heat developmental forward signing a camp contract with the Atlanta Hawks. While the Exhibit 10 contract ultimately may lead to Silva again grinding in the G League, it is a testament to the perseverance of the 25-year-old forward who went undrafted out of South Carolina in 2019 and played his way to a Heat two-way contract and then a standard deal. Silva appeared in one game with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season and nine with the Heat, amid the team’s COVID outbreak. After 44 games with the Heat in 2019-20, the native of Gabon has appeared in 25 NBA games since. He recently was among those who joined Bam Adebayo at the Miami Pro League.
MORE EX-HEAT: And then there is former Heat forward Ricky Davis, who has gone from somewhat of an NBA wild child now to coach at Minneapolis North High School. Davis, who followed up his 12-season NBA career with time in the Big3 that included community outreaches at each stop of the 3-on-3 circuit, including in Miami, had coached AAU basketball in Texas. Davis, 42, steps in for retired Minnesota coaching legend Larry McKenzie, who won six state championships. Trent Witz, the school’s director of basketball operations, told the Star Tribune, “I like the hire. It’s different. I don’t think anyone expected that name to pop up as a head coach candidate.”
HE’S NO. 1: As part of his announcement last Sunday that he is returning for a 20th and final season with the Heat, Udonis Haslem gave an extended interview to Boardroom.TV. During that session, he called his former University of Florida roommate and fellow Heat champion Mike Miller his favorite teammate. “He went to Florida with me. He’s a Gator. It’s my dog,” said Haslem, who also cited former Miami prep rival and fellow Heat champion James Jones as a favorite teammate.
5. Heat players who have worn No. 40: Sylvester Gray, Kurt Thomas, Marty Conlon, Tim James and Haslem. Heat President Pat Riley announced this past week that No. 40 will be retired following Haslem closing out his final season in 2022-23.