The Nets start arguably the most highly anticipated — and clearly the strangest — training camp in their history Tuesday.
With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the mix, championship aspirations in mind, and the specter of COVID-19 staring them in the face, the Nets will return to HSS Training Center to begin preparing for the Dec. 22 season opener.
The returns of Durant and Irving from injury — Durant’s torn Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals, and Irving’s season-ending shoulder surgery — are expected to make the Nets a contender for the NBA Finals. Putting aside any potential to trade for James Harden, the Nets are bringing a solid roster to camp Tuesday.
“When you’re the part of some rumors out there, you take heed and just look how far the Nets organization has come,” said GM Sean Marks, who inherited the NBA’s worst team four seasons ago and is handing rookie coach Steve Nash a legitimate contender.
“We’re obviously excited to get the team that we have, to be honest, out on the floor, and I think not only with Kevin and Ky and Caris [LeVert] and Jarrett Allen, you work your way through the roster. For those guys having the opportunity to get out there and wear the black-and-white, that’s the most important thing.”
Irving hasn’t worn the black-and-white since Feb. 1, his Nets debut campaign cut short after just 20 games. Durant hasn’t played a second for Brooklyn, or at all since rupturing his Achilles on June 10, 2019.
It’ll be 540 days since Durant last played a competitive game; but he and about half the roster congregated in LA for pickup games this month. Now, after working out in Bergen County, they’re finally set to re-enter HSS en masse for individual workouts starting Tuesday, and full team workouts Sunday.
“They’ve been back in our gym now for a couple days. And being around, the feedback from our performance team and how they’ve looked, their preparing has been terrific,” Marks said. “They’re hungry. It goes back to what these guys set out to accomplish a year ago when they said ‘I want to come to Brooklyn. I want to be a part of this. I want to build something sustainable and do something special.’
“They’re putting themselves in a great place to succeed. … It’s been nothing short of remarkable to watch Kevin’s development and the way he’s attacked his rehabilitation over the course of the last year. We’re all champing at the bit and very excited to see him out here, see the entire group out there.”
The group includes stalwarts such as LeVert, Allen, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, the latter of whom has been linked in trade rumors for Harden. It also includes newcomers Landry Shamet, Bruce Brown, Tyler Johnson and Elie Okobo, who filled out the camp roster Monday.
“How does the fit work?” Marks asked rhetorically. “That’s where Steve comes into play.”
Nash — with the help of former mentor Mike D’Antoni, now his assistant — will have to figure out how to blend them all together under the pressure of great expectations.
They’ll also be laboring under the shadow of COVID-19, literally as well as figuratively.
It’s unclear when or if fans will return to Barclays Center for games this season, or how many of the Nets’ road games will be played before crowds. But the starkest reminder of the pandemic will come as the players, coaches and staff regroup at HSS Training Center, right across 39th Street in the form of a mobile morgue.
With coronavirus having killed more than 34,000 in the city, about 650 of them are still being stored in white refrigeration trucks in the parking lot across the street from HSS Training Center, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Nets can see it not only entering the glass-fronted building, but from the court as they practice — a reminder of how different this year has been and this season will be.