It is not a likely scenario, but it is a realistic one.
You don’t have to squint too hard into the future to envision the potentially dominant Nets — whose three-headed monster has been pulled apart by injuries and vaccine status — limping to the regular-season finish line.
After spending much of the early part of the season atop the Eastern Conference, the Nets will enter their matchup against the Warriors on Saturday tied for fourth while riding a three-game losing streak. If the skid lengthens a bit, they could fall below the Hornets, who entered play Friday as the seventh seed and just 2 ¹/₂ games removed from the Nets.
Kevin Durant (sprained MCL) likely will not be back for another month or so. Kyrie Irving (unvaccinated) is only playing road games. James Harden (hamstring) is set to return to the lineup, but hamstring injuries can linger, as Harden knows from last season’s postseason.
Could one of the most talented teams ever assembled, with three of the very best players in the game, have to fight its way into the postseason through the backdoor?
“I don’t think anyone wants to be playing the play-in. Unless you’re on the outside of the play-in trying to get in, but we don’t want to be there,” coach Steve Nash said after practice Friday. “But if we’re there, we’re there.”
Nash, who still is experimenting with lineup combinations, is rarely urgent and believes his team’s talent will win out. The Nets, he believes, will improve as they get accustomed to Irving playing in half the games, and wins could come in chunks when Durant and Joe Harris (ankle surgery) return, likely after the All-Star break.
But nearly 60 percent of the schedule is behind them, and seemingly each star’s return is met with another’s absence. Durant, Irving and Harden have played in just two games together through the Nets’ 29-19 start. They are in position to avoid the play-in, which will feature the seventh through 10th teams in each conference, but not comfortably.
Adding to the potential playoff wrinkles for the Nets is a strange injustice to their situation: The worse they play, the more likely they would have Irving available for an extra game in each postseason series, presuming the point guard is still relegated to part-time duties.
They won’t tank, though — at least not intentionally.
“I think that you definitely want to be the top seed,” said big man Nic Claxton, whose Nets fell at Barclays Center in the Eastern semifinals last season. “Just going off last year, being able to have those games at home — especially like a Game 7 last year, when we lost to Milwaukee … being at [home] in those big moments, it’s good to have your fans behind you.”
Rising up the conference ladder would be especially difficult in the next week. The Nets should have Irving for all five games of the upcoming road trip, but after they face the juggernaut Warriors in San Francisco, they will play at the NBA’s best team, the Suns. A matchup with the Kings should be a relief, but trips to Utah and Denver will not be.
Will the Nets be a top-six team when they return to Brooklyn?
They care — but not overly so. Durant will not be rushed back, and Harden won’t be vaccinating Irving when the point guard looks the other way. They believe in patience, even if it costs them a top spot in the postseason.
They just hope it won’t mean a first-round series against the Heat or the Bucks — or a play-in just to reach that first round.
“We’ll play the best basketball we can when the time comes,” Nash said. “And hopefully we’ll have health, but the sooner we have health, the more I think our record will improve.
“And in the meantime, we’re going to find ways to win some games, but most importantly improve, learn about ourselves.”