Nets’ starless roster in NBA playoffs with no Durant, Irving

NEW YORK (AP) – When the Brooklyn Nets traded Kyrie Irving and then Kevin Durant, the drama that had engulfed the team went with them – along with any realistic title hopes for this season.

Not that all hope is lost.

Yes, teams that win rings almost always have superstars, and the Nets no longer do. Not after dealing Irving to Dallas, then days later sending Durant to the Suns.

But with the duo, Brooklyn didn’t win even one playoff game last season, so maybe the Nets can do better without them when they face the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.

“Well, they say you have to have stars to win a championship. They don’t say you have to have stars to win a series,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “There’s a big difference.”

The No. 3-seeded 76ers have all the star power in this series. Joel Embiid led the league in scoring for the second straight season and could win his first MVP award sometime this spring. James Harden won three scoring titles and an MVP award in Houston and topped the league in assists this season.

Nobody on the Nets is near that level, the biggest reason why their odds to reach the NBA Finals are even worse than three of the four teams who were behind them in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

“You look at teams 7, 8, 9, 10, they have an All-Star, or multiple All-Stars on their team,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said, “and this sixth seed, the Brooklyn Nets, we did it in a very competitive and collective way as a group, as a team.”

They wasn’t the way the Nets set out to do it.

They were all-in on the superstar route, with Durant and Irving coming in the summer of 2019 and Harden joining them for a brief 13-month stint in early 2021. They got plenty of headlines – though often negative ones – but never got close to a title.

With the Big Three-ring circus gone, Durant and Irving weren’t missed much in the regular season. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, who came in the deal for Durant, and Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith, acquired from Dallas, stepped into the starting lineup and helped the Nets to 45 wins and the No. 6 seed. Both of those are better than Brooklyn managed last season with its high-scoring headliners before being swept by Boston in the first round.

Bridges had three 40-point games and averaged 27.2 points in 26 games – scoring stats that even rival Durant – after joining the Nets before playing just four scoreless seconds in the finale, appearing only to extend his consecutive games played streak to 392.

But the playoffs are different, a time when the best players have to make the biggest plays. Irving hit one of the most significant shots in NBA history with his 3-pointer that was the winning basket for Cleveland in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Durant was the MVP of the next two NBA Finals while playing for Golden State.

The Nets are aware of what they’re missing going into the postseason. Players like Durant and Irving would get a benefit of the doubt from officials that Embiid and Harden probably will but the Nets might not.

“I’m not going to lie to you. Reputation does matter,” Dinwiddie said. “I’ve spoken about this a lot, right? That last six-minute stretch, things on the margin like bang-bang calls, things like that, we’re not going to get them.

“But at the same time, reputations are typically made in the playoffs, right? So if Mikal keeps playing at the level he is, he’ll be considered a star at the end of this thing, especially if we can advance or do anything special.”

Rivers mentioned the 2004 Detroit Pistons, a team that was considered superstar-less but easily toppled the Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals.

These Nets probably can’t match those Pistons. But perhaps they can surpass the Nets of 2022.

“The playoffs is what makes you a star and so there probably will be three or four guys – when this whole season of playoffs are over, there’s going to be some new stars that we don’t even know yet,” Rivers said. “Let’s hope we don’t create any.”


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