The Brooklyn Nets rolled into last season as one of the favorites to win it all with a team built around superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and bolstered their lineup throughout the season by acquiring James Harden and Blake Griffin. They appeared to be a lock to at least be in the Finals, and when LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champions Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated after being decimated by injuries, there didn’t seem to be any team that could possibly stop them from lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy. But the Nets themselves were decimated by injuries, and despite some historic performances by Kevin Durant, they could not outlast the eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks.
This offseason, they added some shooting in Patty Mills and added some veteran big man depth in Paul Millsap. They also brought back the retired LaMarcus Aldridge. With teams like the Nuggets and Clippers missing one of their big stars, and people being unsure of how the Lakers roster will fit, the Nets seem to be the outright favorites to win it all yet again.
But the Knicks will have their shot at taking down their cross-town rival this season after going 0-3 against them last season. The one thing that kept the Nets from winning it all last season, injuries, could be the thing that gives the Knicks a better chance at putting up a W. I would never wish injuries on anyone but with Durant, Irving, and Harden having had their share of maladies over the last couple years. They will surely take games off, and the Knicks may get a shot at playing them while not at full strength.
Now, it still won’t be easy as the Nets have enough firepower and depth to beat any team without their full squad. They were never fully healthy in any of the three games they won against New York last season. But the Knicks improved their roster as well, and taking into account the fact that the Knicks lost those three games by a combined 14 points, things could get interesting.
There are definitely things that Knicks can look to attack. RJ Barrett scored more than 20 points in each game against the Nets and he, along with the Knicks’ new backcourt of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, should look to be aggressive against a team that struggled defensively last year.
Stopping offensively-gifted players like Harden and Irving is no easy task, but making them work on defense and attacking their weak perimeter defensive efforts can be a huge key to keeping the games close. Julius Randle, who scored more than 30 points in two games, will be counted on to attack an interior defense that struggled against dominant big men last year. While the Nets did add some more frontcourt help, they still lack a menacing shot blocker, and Randle could have another big year against the Nets and their older, slower frontcourt.
Newcomer Evan Fournier may play a huge role in the games against the Nets as he will be tasked with guarding James Harden. His shooting will be key in keeping up with a high-octane offense like the Brooklyn Nets. Fournier was tasked with guarding Harden in the playoffs last season and it wasn’t always pretty.
Reggie Bullock averaged more than 20 points in the two games he played against Brooklyn last season, mostly off kick-outs from teammates. Fournier, who is an elite shooter on the move, is capable of doing the same.
Mitchell Robinson’s return should also be key, as his rim protection should help against both Harden and Irving, who both like to get to the rim. His minutes may be restricted, though, if the Nets go small or continue to hunt out Robinson on switches through the screen-and-roll. The specter of Robinson as a lob threat should also help out guys like Fournier. As you can see below, the new Knicks wing has the ability to get the lane off of his shot fake, as defenders often try to take away his 3 point shot. But he does struggle to finish around the rim consistently. But with a guy like Robinson, defenders will have to choose between giving up an easy dunk to the big man or giving Fournier more space.
Overall, the Nets have by far the better team, but in a a league where any team can be beat on any given night, an upgraded Knicks roster looking to make a statement against one of the league’s elite teams should have solid chance to end their losing streak against the Nets.