The 2022-23 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant, arguably the greatest players of their NBA generation, lead two of the most combustible teams in the league, and both players bear considerable responsibility for that instability.
James' Los Angeles Lakers failed to qualify for the Western Conference's play-in tournament last season and did little in the offseason to rectify a misfit roster of LeBron's own making. Yet, Durant's Brooklyn Nets are an even likelier disappointment, naively entering this season as if his chaotic summer never occurred.
The arc of Durant's offseason was such a long and strange trip that we forget only two weeks passed between his reported ultimatum to Nets owner Joe Tsai — either grant his trade request or fire both head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks — and his concession to return to the organization.
Durant, Nash and Marks all downplayed the ripple effects of Durant's months-long desire to be traded.
"You saw what happened with our season," Durant told reporters on media day. "Guys in and out of the lineup, injuries, just a lot of uncertainty, which built some doubt in my mind about the next four years of my career. I'm getting older, and I want to be in a place that's stable and trying to build a championship culture, so I had some doubts about that. I voiced them to Joe, and we moved forward from there."
Generally, when injuries derail a contender's season, the roster's return to health rebuilds confidence in the team's ability to win a championship. That is not what Durant said there. Brooklyn's issues are systemic.
Even for Durant, whose career path is as puzzling as any superstar in NBA history, it is impossible to believe one meeting with the Brooklyn brass restored the faith he had lost in the organization. Nobody goes from wanting to completely uproot his life to investing fully in the status quo in a matter of weeks, especially not someone whose all-time legacy hangs in the balance of that decision. Our doubts are indeed traitors.
"Ever since we talked," added Nash, "it's been like nothing's changed."
Regardless of whether or not you want to trust that Nash and Marks are cool with Durant calling for their jobs, nothing has changed, and that is the problem. There are reasons to believe Nash is not equipped to manage the egos on his roster or implement schemes to maximize their talents. Likewise, Marks mortgaged Brooklyn's future to acquire James Harden, who forced the Nets to invest in Ben Simmons' stock instead.
Simmons has not played a game in earnest since June 2021, when he still could not score outside the paint, missed two-thirds of his free throws, refused to shoot at all in fourth quarters and passed up a game-tying layup opportunity in the waning moments of an embarrassing Eastern Conference semifinals loss.
In between, Simmons lost the respect of his former Philadelphia 76ers teammates, required back surgery, battled mental health concerns and reportedly lost some respectfrom his current Nets teammates. That is a mountain to climb, even before we consider his ability to impact winning once he reenters the NBA fold.
On paper, Simmons' playmaking and defensive versatility serve as ideal complements to a roster that boasts four all-world shooters. In practice, through two preseason games, Simmons has not attempted a shot outside the paint, missed both of his free throws and registered nearly as many turnovers (8) as assists (9), while the Sixers and Miami Heat outscored the Nets by a combined 28 points in his 44 minutes.
We have yet to mention Kyrie Irving, who also openly sought alternatives to the Nets over the summer. He ultimately returned to Brooklyn on a $36.5 million player option, which makes this a contract year for him. When last Irving was in this situation, he began the 2018-19 season by pledging allegiance to the Boston Celtics and ended it by subverting their championship hopes, plotting his next move in the meantime.
Since then, Irving has played 103 games in three seasons on the Nets. The reasons range from season-ending shoulder surgery in 2020 to an unexplained two-week sabbatical in 2021 and a personal protest against COVID-19 vaccines that limited him to 29 games last season. Even when healthy and presumably engaged, he disappeared over the final three games of a sweeping first-round playoff loss to the Celtics.
The Nets return Joe Harris and Seth Curry, statistically two of the four most accurate 3-point shooters in NBA history. Both entered training camp still questionable from ankle surgeries. They added veterans T.J. Warren, Royce O'Neale and Markieff Morris to a rotation that also includes Patty Mills. Warren's foot injury has kept him sidelined since December 2020. Morris played a total of three minutes on the Miami Heat's Eastern Conference finals run. Nic Claxton will start at center, backed by second-year big Day'Ron Sharpe.
Brooklyn is scarce on two-way players beyond Durant, and even his effectiveness on defense has waned in his mid-30s. The Nets leaned into a 10th-rated offense last season and fielded a bottom-10 defense. Teams need leadership to produce a sum greater than its parts, and Brooklyn is fractured at the top. Durant, Irving and Simmons are three of the most mercurial players in the NBA, and they are being coached by someone who at least one of them — if not two — wanted fired. No one on the roster can be sure anyone will see the season through in Brooklyn, and the first sign of adversity could set in motion the toppling dominoes.
Los Angeles Lakers
At least the Lakers altered course from the coach whose voice no longer reached his superstars.
The Lakers replaced Frank Vogel, who led them to the 2020 championship in the Orlando bubble, with Darvin Ham, a hard-nosed player turned hard-nosed coach who has assisted winning teams for more than a decade, include the 2021 champion Milwaukee Bucks. At the very least, he brings with him hope that what prevented the Lakers from reaching the playoffs last season can be corrected with a fresh approach.
He has the backing of LeBron James, who signed a two-year, $97 million contract extension with the Lakers when he could have opted to become a free agent next summer. That sends a message to the rest of the organization that he is committing the last years of his viability as an NBA legend to Los Angeles.
Anthony Davis seemingly has no issue tying his prime years to James. He, too, is signed through next season, and there is a real chance at 30 years old he can be the best player on either the Lakers or Nets. His 28 points in 21 minutes of a preseason game against the defending champion Golden State Warriors are at least an indication that he is committed to resurrecting his status as a top-five player in the league.
The Lakers' depth is paltry by comparison to Brooklyn. Russell Westbrook's best years are distant in the rearview mirror. The team spent the offseason trying to trade him, and he conceded as much on media day, when he said, "We all have jobs that sometimes people at our jobs don't like us or don't want us there."
While Westbrook's on-court contributions may be a detriment to the Lakers, we cannot question his professionalism and competitiveness. His presence in the face of reports that James "has no interest in going another year" with him could become a distraction, but the Lakers have one more card to play.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was right when he said, "You have one shot to make a trade with multiple picks, so if you make that trade it has to be the right one." They can package their 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks, along with Westbrook's $47 million expiring contract, for players who can improve their standing. The best reported deal for those assets now includes Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, who would undoubtedly improve the Lakers right now, but a better trade could present itself by the deadline.
The addition of Patrick Beverley gives the Lakers a 3-and-D option at point guard outside of Westbrook. He is a willing culture-setter. Kendrick Nunn's healthy return as a player developed in the Heat's everything-is-earned system is better than no Nunn at all. Bets on Damian Jones, Thomas Bryant, Troy Brown Jr. and Juan Toscano-Anderson are just that — a gamble on their youthful athleticism against the experience of aging veterans Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza and others.
No lineup featuring James and Davis played more than 104 possessions together last season, when the lot of them were outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions. A new coach and an influx of new role players allows for the possibility that the Lakers can revert to the lineups with James and Davis that outscored opponents by 14.1 points per 100 possessions in 2020-21 and 8.0 points per 100 possessions in 2019-20.
Remember, they won the title in 2020 with a 34-year-old Rajon Rondo as their third-best player. They are never too far from rediscovering that recipe for success, so long as Davis is healthy and James is fresh.
Improvement still may not be enough to propel the Lakers to contention, even if they turn Westbrook and their last remaining picks into playoff contributors. Still, there are four teams in the Western Conference that will be trying to lose games in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. That means the Lakers are vying with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings for a play-in tournament berth, at worst, and then rolling with James, Davis and whoever else wants to rage against two years of playoff embarrassment with them.
Finishing worse than the Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks would signal failure for the Nets in the East. They will make the playoffs but for abject disaster. Once there, do you trust Irving to put the team above his impending free agency, Simmons not to fold under playoff pressure and Durant not to blend into the shadow of that uncertainty?
The Lakers and Nets should be long shots. This is not a bet on either to win the title. It is one on James, who carried lesser teams on two of his 10 trips to the Finals and does not want to go out like this, over Durant, who just wanted out and has arguably never been the spiritual leader of an overachieving team.
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