The Long Two: Do the Nets need Kyrie and how good is the Raptors youth?

Brooklyn Nets, NBA, Toronto Raptors

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This week, The Long Two breaks down how much the Brooklyn Nets will miss Kyrie Irving on the court and how good the Raptors’ young core has looked.

If Kyrie Irving were as intelligent as he fancies himself, he might have avoided getting into this mess altogether. Instead, he has chosen to put both his team’s championship hopes and the nation’s public health at risk by refusing to get vaccinated against a virus that has killed over 4.5 million people in the last 19 months.

Irving has been one of the NBA’s most vocal COVID-19 vaccine holdouts, though when asked why he wouldn’t get vaccinated earlier this month, Irving chose not to address it, and instead dodged the question. “I would love to just keep that private and handle it the right way with my team and go forward with a plan,” he said.

His team, in turn, handled the situation the right way and went forward with a plan. The Nets announced on Monday that Irving “will not play or practice until he is eligible to be a full participant” and that it “will not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability.” On Tuesday, The Athletic provided Irving’s side of the story:

“Multiple sources with direct knowledge of Irving’s decision have told The Athletic that Irving is not anti-vaccine and that his stance is that he is upset that people are losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates. It’s a stance that Irving has explained to close teammates. To him, this is about a grander fight than the one on the court and Irving is challenging a perceived control of society and people’s livelihood, according to sources with knowledge of Irving’s mindset. It is a decision that he believes he is capable to make given his current life dynamics. ‘Kyrie wants to be a voice for the voiceless,’ one source said.”

That rationale is specious at best, and it’s not difficult to spot the irony of Irving, through an anonymous source, claiming to be “a voice for the voiceless” after refusing for so long to justify his own viewpoint. When he finally spoke on his own behalf on Wednesday night, Irving mostly recycled misguided talking points and expressed his opposition to rational thinking. That all tracks with his history of logical inconsistency, and the Nets have clearly decided he isn’t worth the trouble he’s caused.

Can the Nets still win it all without Kyrie Irving?

Having a key player drop in and out of the lineup all year was never going to be a tenable approach for the Nets this season, and Irving is now making a conscious decision to jeopardize Brooklyn’s chances of winning a championship (as well as the health and safety of those with whom he comes into contact). Perhaps he’ll have a change of heart, or the city of New York will lift the ordinance that requires him to be vaccinated in order to play in home games. But until one or the other happens, Irving won’t play for the Nets this season, which raises the question of whether the Nets actually need him in the lineup.

There’s no question that Irving, Harden and Durant can play effectively together and accentuate one another’s games; their collective shooting ability renders any There’s Only One Ball concerns irrelevant, and all three were lethal when they shared the court. But the presence of generational offensive stars like Durant and Harden makes a ball-dominant third wheel — even an elite one like Irving — slightly expendable. The Nets scored 116 points per 100 possessions with Irving off the floor last season, outscoring opponents by over four points per 100. In the limited time Durant and Harden played without him, that margin swelled to nearly 129 points per 100 possessions with a plus-19.8 margin.

That comically efficient production likely can’t sustain through an entire season, but it does support the idea that Irving’s graceful offensive wizardry becomes redundant when he shares the floor with two superior creators. The more efficient an offense becomes, the harder it is to make it even more efficient, and a star conglomerate like Brooklyn’s may provide diminishing returns when played together. Having Irving is obviously better than having nothing in his place, but the biggest downside of his absence may not be the offensive hit, but the inability to replace him with a more useful (and less headache-inducing) player.

Can the Raptors youth put them back in the playoffs?

The Toronto Raptors have little choice but to experiment this season. With Pascal Siakam set to miss the start of the season and Kyle Lowry in Miami, Toronto has a practical mandate to throw young players into new situations, ask them to handle new responsibilities and, at times, push them into uncomfortable territory. That discomfort, however, is often necessary for growth, and while entrusting key roles to players who haven’t been there before typically comes with growing pains, the Raptors are well-positioned to develop their younger players without enduring too much short-term pain.

Already, in just four preseason games, the team has signaled its intention to try funky lineup combinations, throw rookie Scottie Barnes into the fire and hand OG Anunoby all the opportunity he can handle. Anunoby in particular stands as one of the season’s most intriguing breakout candidates. After establishing himself as a reliable, 3-and-D wing in his first three seasons, he began to round out the rest of his game last year, shooting a shade under 40 percent from deep on over six attempts per game while improving as both a ball-handler and distributor. Lowry’s departure should shift even more creative responsibility to Anunoby, who showed no hesitance taking the offense into his own hands during the preseason. Toronto made a concerted effort to use him in pick-and-roll, on the block or in isolation, and he looked the part of a reliable — if still nascent — shot-creator:

Anunoby may not be the undeniable on-ball weapon Kawhi Leonard was in 2019, but simply becoming a consistent off-the-dribble threat would give Siakam and Fred Van Vleet a much-needed third creator with whom to share the offense. Gary Trent Jr. will also help carry some of that weight, and Toronto’s three-year, $54 million investment in him this offseason suggests they believe Trent can eventually blossom into a dependable on-ball option. Barnes, though limited by inexperience and a busted jumper, showed exciting flashes as a passer in the preseason and could, at the very least, help connect an offense that may often lack flow.

Where that all leaves the Raptors in an improved Eastern Conference remains unclear. A reasonable projection might put them in the East’s play-in range — though not as a decided favorite within that group. If Toronto exceeds those expectations, it will likely be due to an iron-clad defense rather than a world-beating offense. As currently constructed, this team may not have a realistic path to a top-10 offense — even if Anunoby takes a step forward and the team recaptures its democratic read-and-react magic from two seasons ago. But the roster has the makings of a menacing and versatile defense, which could keep the team above water and squarely in playoff contention.

This has long been one of the best helping defenses in basketball, able to rotate and recover on the fly and scramble around the floor to take away easy looks. The Raptors ranked just 19th in defensive efficiency last season, largely due to opponents hitting 38.5 percent of their 3s, and while Toronto has lost some of the institutional knowledge that allowed it to seamlessly improvise coverages, it still has the active, rangy defenders required to execute that scrambling defense. Nick Nurse rolled out several wing-heavy lineups in the preseason, and sliding Siakam to center in those units once he gets healthy could give Toronto the ability to switch across all five positions and apply constant pressure on the ball. Anunoby may be the best isolation stopper in basketball, while Van Vleet can pester guards both on and off the ball. Barnes figures to step into the league as at least a capable defender, and his effectiveness as an on-ball irritant against elite wings will be a key determinant of Toronto’s defensive upside.

Where this defense may struggle is away from the ball, where the Raptors have neither an ace rim protector nor a dynamic off-ball playmaker. Despite slowing down laterally, Lowry’s recognition, positioning and communication were central to Toronto’s past defensive success. Losing those qualities could widen some of the cracks that began to form last season, and unless Precious Achiuwa, Khem Birch or Chris Boucher makes substantial progress, there isn’t a proven defensive anchor to wipe away mistakes at the rim. Still, a team this rangy and versatile won’t be easy to manufacture offense against, and a versatile perimeter defense should prevent breakdowns, cut down on surrendered corner 3s and pressure opponents into empty possessions.

Forcing turnovers or bad shots and pushing the ball the other way should help create easy buckets on offense. Barring a massive offensive leap from Anunoby, Siakam or some unforeseen candidate, it’s hard to see last year’s lackluster halfcourt offense improving without Lowry’s heady, connective playmaking. Creating easy points in transition stands as a potential workaround to that problem, so long as Toronto can get enough stops to consistently create chances in the open court. Despite a sluggish halfcourt attack, the Raptors scraped out a league-average offense last season by running one of the NBA’s best transition offenses. This year’s team figures to do more of the same, which, if paired with an improved defense, could put Toronto back in the playoff picture and on track for another era of prolonged success.

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