No team in the NBA has looked as self-assured and solidified through one week of the regular season as the Brooklyn Nets despite the fact that they entered the year with major health concerns, a new head coach, and two superstars who’d never taken the court together. The symphony thus far has been orchestrated beautifully by first-time head coach Steve Nash and their depth has shown to be a unique advantage already, but the biggest factor in the Nets’ promising start to the season is the promising return of Kevin Durant.
Since Durant went out with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, it became an immediate debate among hoops fans whether and how effectively Durant could return. Sure, his game has never been overly dependent on bursts of athleticism, and medical developments seem to have lessened the challenges of recovery from what used to be seen as a career-ending injury. But at the same time, Durant is on the wrong side of 30 and uses his left foot more than most righties, a blessing considering he tore his right Achilles. The Nets also paid him and built a team around him as if he was among the elite class of players capable of leading a team to a title.
Through four games, those debates over the past 18-plus months have been answered with little fanfare. Durant looks, well, like Durant, except seemingly even more polished and patient than when we last saw him. The two-time NBA champion is averaging over 28 points per game on 52 percent shooting from the field, leading the Nets to the seventh-best offense in the NBA.
Never overly reliant on explosive dunks or a lightning first step, Durant has always had a way of gliding across the court. Nobody occupies space on a basketball court like Durant, and that’s still there when you watch him now at age 32 and coming off the injury.
Yet there are also flashes that show you that it’s not just an old man outthinking the youths. When Durant accelerates or sees an opening developing in the defense, he can still get there. The unguardable hang dribble, the smooth crossover, the occasional spin move, and the skyscraping release didn’t go anywhere. The scoring champion inside him is still there, it just roars less often than it used to.
Durant is also following a trend early this season in which he’s involved in the offense more as a jump shooter and passer than as an attacker. After peaking with 42 percent of his shots coming at the rim for the historically great 2016-17 Warriors, Durant has taken fewer than a quarter of his shots inside over his past three healthy seasons. The main difference in how Durant has functioned in Nash’s offense is that Brooklyn is playing faster than the Warriors did.
Nearly one-fifth of the Nets’ possessions already have come in transition, and finishing possessions in the third-fewest seconds in the NBA. When Durant is out and running, it becomes rather simple — with the amount of shooting Brooklyn can put out in just about every lineup — for Durant to create for his teammates.
On this fast break dish, all Durant has to do is jog the ball toward the teeth of the defense to force an overreaction from the young, defensively challenged Hawks.
Nash is also smartly not afraid to put the ball in Durant’s hands in the halfcourt as a play-maker. With this skill as well as his unparalleled scoring ability, watching Durant heading into 2021 is like watching some sort of medieval adventurer who’s collected trinkets and tools over years trekking with different partners and challenges. Playing without much spacing in Oklahoma City, Durant learned how to get his shot off against punishing NBA defenses. With the Warriors, he grew as a passer and decision-maker. This version of him feels and operates more like LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, guys who have seen every coverage and are content to wait out the defense before dissecting it. While Kyrie Irving — who, it must be said, has been magnificent this season — effectively closed a high-scoring win over Atlanta out, the Nets rotate around Durant as their axis.
After seeing Breanna Stewart blitz the WNBA this season and earn her second Finals MVP trophy after her own Achilles injury last spring, maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to see Durant dominate right away. They’re similar players in that they’re both jumbo guards blessed with skill that is breathtaking for players of their size, and the two discussed how they’d been in contact during their respective recoveries.
Durant could be in for a more sound return to the court than even Stewart due to his game relying even less on jumping to gain separation, as Mike Prada broke down nicely in his newsletter. However, Stewart being younger theoretically could have helped her regain her full mobility and athleticism, while Durant doesn’t yet look like himself on defense.
Nash has helped in this area by often playing Durant at center alongside another versatile big in Jeff Green or Jarrett Allen, but Durant is either saving energy early on or may not have the same ability to move his feet or help at the rim as he did before his injury. There have been several times this season when more athletic players have blown by Durant or he’s simply avoided rotating to help at the rim.
The Nets have dozens of games to figure that out though, and they’ve already demonstrated they will take things pragmatically with both Irving and Durant this year to keep them healthy. Brooklyn entered the season as a fringe championship contender in large part because of questions about how good Durant could be, so this early-season success is already exceeding expectations.
If Durant can get even more comfortable and the Nets keep finding ways to maximize him in all areas of the game, they will be a nightmare to deal with come postseason time.