Talent-wise, the Nets are better than the Knicks, but it doesn’t mean New York can’t challenge Brooklyn with size and depth.

Last season, the Brooklyn Nets were supposed to run the Eastern Conference. The trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, together, were supposed to run the league and take Brooklyn to the NBA Finals after an errant Kevin Durant foot on the line was the difference between them and the Milwaukee Bucks the previous postseason. The 2021-22 season was supposed to be the signature moment in a near decade-long remodel after the failed Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade. Only, that never happened.

Kevin Durant played well, but also missed time, all while Kyrie Irving went back and forth with COVID protocols; he only played road games in the regular season. The biggest addition was also their biggest loss, James Harden demanded a trade from the organization, which was ultimately granted as Harden was sent to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, and draft picks. Brooklyn was swept by Boston in the first round and that was it. 

Now, with Durant back after demanding a trade, Simmons prepared for basketball for the first time in a year, and Irving back to normal basketball activities, the Nets feel like the biggest wildcard in basketball.

Glancing at Brooklyn’s ancillary pieces: Seth Curry is an elite shooter, the same for Patty Mills and Joe Harris. Royce O’Neale, acquired in a trade with the Utah Jazz, is a solid 3-and-D player, while Kessler Edwards flashed two-way potential. Nicolas Claxton gets one more chance to claim the starting center job. TJ Warren is a perfect flier after a down season. Even second-year guard Cam Thomas can offer a spark off the bench. Ultimately, around the likes of Durant, Irving, and Simmons, the shooting is ample and could sway games. 

There are going to be nights when everything is clicking and this group helps Brooklyn’s big three put up 140 points. 

The problem? This defense is near non-existent. The trio of Curry, Mills, and Irving are all undersized. All under 6-foot-3 for wing defense and terrible at the point of attack. Harris is coming off a back injury, while Warren has never been a good defender. The combination of Edwards and O’Neale is fine, but not good enough to be lead defenders. Brooklyn’s hope for defensive success relies on Simmons playing at his pre-2022 levels while Durant remains a solid defender. Can Simmons, Durant, and O’Neale be good enough to navigate a single good defensive lineup? We shall see.

This team could use a trade. Washington’s Kyle Kuzma has been mentioned and he feels like an excellent fit as a larger defender who can do the little things. Brooklyn could use another center, just someone to muck it up with the likes of Joel Embiid, but that’s a smaller, minor need. Adding some more wing defense into the rotation could be key to helping Brooklyn reach their goals. 

How do the Knicks match up with the Brooklyn Nets?

The Nets are better than the Knicks, strictly because of the talent at the top. It’ll be a long day at the office for whoever has to defend Durant or Irving. However, New York’s depth comes into play here. The versatility of New York’s offensive attack could break down and quickly threaten Brooklyn’s lack of size. Mitchell Robinson, Isaiah Hartenstein, and even Jericho Sims could be big on the glass, both ending and extending possessions for the Knicks. 

Jalen Brunson could give Brooklyn guards fits with his herky-jerky style, but the surprise factor could be R.J. Barrett, who can slash and get to the basket. Nic Claxton is an effective center, but more who thrives more as a switch defender, capable of keeping bigger wings in front of him. Without a dominant center who can alter and deter shots at the rim, that puts pressure on the likes of Simmons and Durant to close out shots at the rim and that could result in some timely Barrett free throws that can pressure the defense and force Nets head coach Steve Nash’s hand with his rotation.

After playing the Toronto Raptors all within a two-week stretch, the Knicks play the Nets once in 2022 before playing three times after the turn of the year, including an ABC game. That gives both teams time to recalibrate their rosters. Will Brooklyn make an upgrade to their defense? Could Obi Toppin overtake Julius Randle in the starting lineup? Who will start as shooting guard for the Knicks? All could be answered differently between the first and second matchup between the two teams. 

For now, the Brooklyn Nets settle as a second-tier team in the Eastern Conference, perhaps even lagging behind the likes of Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Miami. The Nets have one of the best players in the league, one of the best scorers, and a top-five defensive player when all is clicking. But if last season showed us anything, it’s that you never truly know with the Brooklyn Nets. 

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