We're nearing the end of one of the most perplexing NBA seasons in memory.
A rash of injuries, a routinely shape-shifting MVP picture, a condensed offseason and shortened regular season, the peculiarities of a COVID world, two crowded conferences and a newly-minted postseason format -- it's all brewed up as nebulous an NBA picture as you could hope for as we approach the playoffs.
Yet nothing beats the Brooklyn Nets for the league's most interesting -- and important -- uncertainty: How, exactly, will that star-studded team perform when the postseason rolls around and a season of expectation meets the pressure and promise of playoff basketball?
It's not as simple as the roster, even if it gets healthy, might indicate. The Nets, buoyed by the dazzling trio of talent that is Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden -- and bolstered in the buyout market by LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin -- still seem to many as capable of utter implosion as total dominance. (Sadly, one of those midseason additions announced his sudden retirement on Thursday as Aldridge said he's leaving the game due to dealing with an irregular heartbeat.)
On the side of believing in the Nets, look not just at their overwhelming talent but that talent's achievements this season. Irving is on the cusp of a 50-40-90 season, rarefied air even for some of the best all-time players. Harden, when he plays, is playing, at least statistically, at an MVP level: 25/8/11, with an infusion of skill and value for a Nets team he has at times carried. And Durant is, well, Durant -- perhaps the most talented scorer the game has ever seen, and maybe when healthy the game's best player.
Yet injuries, and Irving's absences for personal reasons, have created as many question marks about what they would be together as whether or not we can really count on all three to be healthy for a deep postseason run.
So far, the Nets' Big Three has played just seven games together, at just 26.6 minutes per game together over that span, for an impressive plus/minus of plus-5.6. As duos, Durant and Irving have played 16 games together for a plus-8.1 mark. Durant and Harden have logged nine games together, at plus-7.4. And Harden and Irving have 26 games together, but at just +2.8.
So, yeah, some breaking news here: The Nets are really good in the regular season when these guys play together in some form.
And yet … there's a lot of "and yets" to factor into the mix.
Durant has shown himself to be almost as sensitive as he is talented, so looming large over all of this is the notion that his insecurities over sharing stardom (and the ball) with Stephen Curry while at Golden State doesn't exactly bode well for the stress of the playoffs with Harden and Irving. That's a point he'd likely dispute, but one many around the NBA take as gospel.
Irving, for his part, hasn't exactly been the model teammate when it comes to sticking around through the hard stuff (Cleveland), sharing the limelight (LeBron James), fitting into an already promising and talented locker room (Boston), having teammates' backs (too many to name) or avoiding unnecessary drama such as insulting his rookie head coach (Steve Nash) or his former co-stars (LeBron again).
And then there's Harden, an otherworldly talent who often seems to forget how to shoot 3-pointers during the playoffs.
Which is rather putting it kindly.
None of which stopped Durant from being a two-time Finals MVP, Irving from outdueling Curry to close out Game 7 of the NBA Finals for that Cleveland title and Harden from notching an MVP while rewriting how offenses can thrive.
Ben Simmons, speaking before his team's Wednesday night 123-117 win over a Brooklyn Nets team that was missing Durant, Harden, Aldridge and Griffin, gave voice to those in the NBA who see the Nets with more suspicion than certainty.
"We're going for the past champs, the Lakers," he told reporters. "They were the ones who won a championship, so you got to give the respect to them. Obviously Brooklyn has a lot of talent. But at the end of the day, there's only one ball and you gotta play defense, too."
So instead of pontificating here, CBS Sports reached out to general managers, executives, scouts, former players and other NBA sources to canvas views on what, exactly, we should expect from the Brooklyn Nets this season -- and what the Nets should do if the worst-case scenario plays out. (Note: These answers were all given prior to Aldridge's sudden retirement.)
Here's a sampling of views that reflect what we heard:
General Manager No. 1
This GM points to possible chemistry issues, a lack of playing time together, a leaky defense and very real and lingering injuries as all the reasons to slow down on the Nets-as-NBA's-best talk.
"There's no decisive team you can point to and say, 'How do you get past this team?' You don't know how [the Nets] are going to mesh until you do. It's not so simple as put together three great players. We'll have to see when the moment of truth comes. Because they can't be good. They have to be champions. And we'll see how they handle that."
What Brooklyn should do if things implode: "Look to Houston. When they got Russell [Westbrook] last year, they didn't see that as a one-year run. Then everything happened: season shut down, Russ gets COVID, they get annihilated by the eventual champions. And the front office said, 'Let's run it back.' And then those guys wanted out. Trust me. The Nets didn't sign up for a one-year run. But things can change when things go bad."
General Manager No. 2
His view: They, along with the Sixers, are in a class to themselves in the Eastern Conference.
"They're so dangerous. Any time you've got those level of players, they're going to be really hard to defend. I think what will be interesting is James [Harden] has never had the ultimate success in the playoffs. But they'll be dangerous. I've seen what Kevin [Durant] can do in the playoffs. I think they're over Milwaukee. Philly might have a better chance but Joel [Embiid] has to play great. But they're one of those two teams head and shoulders above the rest."
What Brooklyn should do if things implode: "Brooklyn will be committed as long as those guys are committed to them. That's the question."
Former Star Player
His view: We just don't know yet.
"Here's the challenge. We've seen this before when a team of stars has gotten together. LeBron, [Dwyane] D-Wade, [Chris] Bosh got to the Finals and lost to a much less talented team. But that Dallas team had developed continuity over the years. Miami's was more choppy. But in Boston, when K.G. [Kevin Garnett] and Ray [Allen] and Paul [Pierce] got together it worked right away. In Brooklyn, no question, they're the most talented team in the league. If things go right, they're going to be really tough to beat in a seven-game series.
"The question is: Do they have enough scars from not really going through a season together having to deal with some adversity that the playoffs bring? They don't have that yet. So how do you deal with something that's unknown? When things get tough, in a series, what do you tap into together as a group? That's my biggest question. I'm not as into the defense as a worry. I believe they'll figure that out enough. It's the continuity part that's the question mark. To really beat Brooklyn, I think the best shot is Philly. My whole thing is continuity with Brooklyn. When things go left with them, how will they handle it. I don't know. They could implode. Are they a team? They're three outstanding individuals. But are they that as a team? We don't know. Not yet."
What Brooklyn should do if things implode: "Oh yeah, yeah. No question they roll it back."
Top Eastern Conference Executive
His view: They're pretty damn good, but in a weird year weird things can happen.
"Brooklyn's stinking good. They have three of the best one-on-one players in our game today. It's hard to stop that. But the playoffs are so crazy, we've watched teams get hot at the right moment. Take the Mavericks the year they won a championship. We've seen this story. The Miami Heat last year. Get hot at the right moment. But short of that, it's probably Brooklyn."
What Brooklyn should do if things implode: "Try it again."
Advisor with a Title Contender
His view: They're (almost certainly) winning it all.
"If you had to ask me who is the favorite to win the whole thing, their offensive talent is so overwhelming that I predict they are going to win the Finals. Especially with the uncertainty of the health surrounding the Lakers. And I don't trust the Clippers or Philly in the playoffs.
"I agree they have a huge -- the largest -- range of outcomes. Two things do give me pause. I would tell you I think they'll lose in the first round, but I do not think that's actually possible. I do think they can lose in spectacular fashion in the second round. Because they don't guard anybody. And because I'm not sure they can guard anybody. Kevin Durant is probably their only plus-defender, when he wants to be. The personality thing is another thing. If they get pushed at all they don't have that institutional knowledge to fall back on. They've only played seven games together.
"But their offensive firepower is so overwhelming, I'm not sure any of that will matter."
What Brooklyn should do if things implode: "Run it back. There's no real alternative. Run it back. Kyrie would be the guy who could go, but I don't think he has much trade value around the league."