After the Brooklyn Nets acquired James Harden to add to an already strong roster than included Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the oddsmakers vaulted the Nets to favorites to win the Eastern Conference. However, things have not gone as plan so far, going just 7-6 since the trade.
The road through the Eastern Conference won’t be a bed of roses for the Nets. The Milwaukee Bucks, who finished with the best record on the NBA each of the past two seasons, are an NBA Finals team waiting to happen. Milwaukee still has Gianni Antetokounmpo, the two-time reigning league MVP, to go along with Khris Middleton. In addition, veteran Jrue Holiday was added to the mix, albeit at the expense of some depth.
The Bucks are first in the league offensively, but have dropped out of the top 10 defensively and their second unit is a concern. Another problem is Antetokounmpo’s failure at the free throw line. He’s hitting only 63 percent, and free throw shooting is crucial in the post season where many games are tight.
Back to the Nets, another issue is the lack of defense. It’s tremendous that they can put points on the board in bunches, but in the playoffs, you can’t simply try to outscore and the ability to make defensive stops will be a key to winning and losing. The loss of Jarrett Allen keeps the Nets vulnerable in the middle, which could be a big issue against the likes of Joel Embiid and the 76ers.
Despite the defensive weaknesses, perhaps the Nets offensive firepower will be too much for other teams to keep up with for 48 minutes each and every game. There is one team that matches up well, however, and that is the Boston Celtics, whose big three of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are formidable, and the Celtics have a better defensive unit.
The single biggest threat could be the 76ers, who are currently on top in the Eastern Conference. The improvement of Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, the additions of Danny Green and Seth Curry, and the MVP-level play of Joel Embiid make Doc Rivers’ team a serious threat. For Philadelphia, the issue would be who steps up in the playoffs is opposing teams slow down play and force Embiid to create or dish out for someone else to hit the big shot.
In any event, the path for the Nets isn’t going to be a cakewalk with three legitimate threat in the Bucks, Celtics and 76ers looking to take them down. Time will tell before we know if the Nets three-headed monster approach has what it takes to go to the NBA Finals.