Sports

Nets’ top priority in championship chase is clear

For many of the Nets, winning an NBA title isn’t just their stated goal, but an expectation.

When they open training camp, the collective health of their Big 3 — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — is going to be not only the single biggest concern, but the second and third priorities as well.

“Our goal is to be the last team standing,” general manager Sean Marks said. “There’s probably, six, eight, 10 teams that have that same similar goal, and a realistic one.

“For us it’s about owning that and not shying away from it and doing everything we possibly can … to try and accomplish that. We’ve also got to take into account that it’s a long season. Anything can happen, as we’ve seen over the course of last year.”

Anything that could’ve happened health-wise last season did happen to the Nets. Their optimal lineup didn’t play a second together all regular-season, and two-thirds of their Big 3 — Durant and Irving — got injured during the second-round loss to Milwaukee.

The Nets are convinced better health would’ve resulted in them, not the Bucks, hoisting the trophy as NBA champions. But they also know injuries can’t be alibis this season, and that going through the 2020-21 experience has to serve as motivation.

The Nets’ Big 3
Charles Wenzelberg/Gist Vile

“I hope so,” head coach Steve Nash said. “All of us are competitors. All of us look at last year with disappointment. It’s important for us to worry about what we could have controlled and done better last year, not make excuses for the guys that got hurt. So that’s important to be able to look critically at yourself, individually, collectively, what can I do in case we’re in a similar situation to help this group move forward.

“Like Sean says, we own that we’re out to win a championship. We own that. But it’s a process. We have to try to win that process to be there at the end.”

The Nets must keep improving their defense, and get Joe Harris back shooting 3s like he can. But Durant’s thigh and hamstring injuries, Irving’s several absences and Harden’s hamstring injury limited the trio to playing just 202 minutes together over eight regular-season games. They were plus-64 in 130 minutes over six playoff games.

Thanks to injuries, they never got to play alongside Harris and center Blake Griffin until the postseason, when that quintet was plus-49 in 64 minutes. That is, until Harden’s right hamstring strain and Irving’s sprained right ankle led to a tough Game 7 overtime loss.

Both are now healthy — and presumably soon to follow Durant in signing long-term extensions.

“It will be a work in progress as to how we proceed,” Marks said. “We’ve talked about it ad nauseam, that it’s a grind. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. But we’re obviously always trying to save those guys from themselves half the time. They feel good, they look great, so that’s a positive thing.”

Durant’s summer — inking an extension while dominating at the Tokyo Olympics en route to a gold medal for the United States — was a positive, as was center LaMarcus Aldridge getting cleared to return from an irregular heartbeat. Now, in addition to improved health, the next positive the Nets will look for is locking up Harden and Irving.

“It always helps to do these things in person,” Marks said. “We’re looking forward to sitting down with them over the course of the next week, two weeks, and furthering those discussions.

“Those guys know exactly how we feel, and they’ve been vocal about wanting to be part of this and build this together. We’ve got an opportunity to hopefully build something special here for the foreseeable future. … They want to collaborate, they want to come here together, they want to build this together.”

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