During the reporting of a recent story on John Wall, another player repeatedly worked his way into conversations: Kevin Durant. Over the last few months, as Wall continued his recovery from an Achilles injury, he went on something of a pickup game tour, bouncing from Miami—where he played with current teammate James Harden—to Los Angeles, where he joined a run headlined by Durant, himself 18 months removed from an Achilles tear. And Durant, observers said, did not appear to have missed a beat.
“He didn’t look like Kevin Durant after an Achilles injury,” said one witness. “He looked like Kevin Durant. He was all the way back.”
There is perhaps no more interesting team in the NBA than Brooklyn, and Durant is a big reason why. The ex-MVP is in year two of a four-year, $164 million contract, collecting $37 million last season to rehab the injury he suffered with Golden State in the 2019 Finals. At 32, Durant appears to have regained all of his mobility, to the point where some of Nets coach Steve Nash’s early focus has been on finding unique ways to deploy him.
“As far as schemes, offense and defense, coach is going to use me in a variety of ways,” Durant said. “A small ball five, a four sometimes, bringing the ball up. I’ve just got to be ready for anything.”
Ready for anything. That could be a slogan for Brooklyn in ’20-21. On paper, the Nets are arguably the best team in the NBA. Durant and Kyrie Irving are reinforced by a glittery collection of young stars, from Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, a pair of guards with All-Star potential, to sharpshooter Joe Harris to rim protector Jarrett Allen. A team practice could be more competitive than some of Brooklyn’s games.
“You have such a talented group,” Durant said. “It brings the best out of everybody.”
Championships, of course, are not won on paper, and while the Nets may have more talent than any team in the league, they also have more variance. That begins with Nash, the first year head coach. Nash has already navigated his first controversy, when Irving, in a podcast appearance with Durant, suggested the Nets didn’t have a head coach. His next challenge will be designing a system that plays to the strengths of Durant and Irving while getting a supporting cast familiar with scoring enough touches to keep them happy.
“I’m not in a position—nor do I want to be in a position—where I come in and say ‘this is how we’re doing everything.’ I come in hat in hand in many respects,” Nash said on an ESPN podcast recently. “How have you done it in the past? What do you think works? I’m wide open to the reality that I don’t have any head coaching experience. I do have lots of experience, but not in that seat. I have improving and growing and learning to do.”
And what about that on-court dynamic? Let’s assume that Durant and Irving, close friends who were eager to team up, are happy. But what about everyone else? There are similarities between the Nets and the ’18-19 Celtics. That Boston team entered the season with young but established stars in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart who were forced to adjust to a returning Irving and Gordon Hayward. It didn’t go so well. Friction divided the locker room and the season ended in the second round. Irving was out the door soon after.
Boston’s young talent struggled to adjust to secondary roles.
Will Brooklyn’s be different?
“There will be a lot of opportunities for myself along with other guys to be aggressive with so much attention on Kevin and Ky,” said LeVert. “I think everybody’s on the same page as far as role is concerned. Just do what I do best. Be someone very versatile who can do a lot of things really well. Just depending on who I’m out there on the court with, whether it be playing off the ball or playing on the ball. Just being ready for every situation. I think that’s what I’ve kind of been preparing myself for with this long offseason we’ve had.”
There’s another line connecting the Nets and Celtics: Trade chatter. In ’18-19, Boston was consumed in the pursuit of Anthony Davis. Everyone knew the Celtics hoped to pair Davis with Irving. Everyone also knew the cost—most of Boston’s young talent—that went with it. That talk poisoned the locker room, leaving players wondering if they were part of the future of the team or just trade chips.
The Nets have not reached a Davis-level fervor, but it could get there. Brooklyn’s interest in James Harden is well known, and as Harden’s consternation with Houston grows, the Nets will become more connected to him. Nash has referred to the Harden talk as “the elephant” in practice. LeVert was asked about Harden. Durant, too. “I don’t think about James Harden at all,” Durant said. “He doesn’t play on our team.” Nash has gone out of his way to praise the younger players but a constant churn of Harden-to-Brooklyn rumors could bleed into the locker room.
“I love our guys and hopefully they all feel really valued and wanted and respected,” Nash said. “We have so many guys that bring so much to the table. When I’m in the gym with them every day I feel fortunate. So hopefully they feel that, and they don’t feel that we’re looking out the window at greener pastures, because we love what we have here.”
Indeed. The Nets have the talent to bring a championship to Brooklyn. They have playoff proven firepower and depth that is the envy of the league. They have assembled a basketball juggernaut. Now we see how it comes together.