When Kevin Durant sprained his MCL last season, the Nets folded without him.
This time, Brooklyn can do better. No, make that must do better.
There is no replicating Durant or even replacing him, but the Nets have to figure a way to survive his absence.
“With K we know what we’re up against with him not being in lineup,” Kyrie Irving said. “We can say it every single day, but we don’t have time for any excuses. We’ve just got to keep moving forward and stay mature about it.”
The Nets didn’t handle Durant’s last MCL sprain maturely a year ago, going 5-16 without him.
Irving’s full-time brilliance and a better supporting cast — including Ben Simmons and T.J. Warren — are two of the reasons they feel better suited to survive Durant’s absence than they’ve been in the past. Unfortunately, it’s prove it time, with the Nets scheduled to play Boston on Thursday, and Phoenix, Utah and Golden State all on the slate before Durant gets reevaluated in two weeks.
“It’s hard to foreshadow exactly what’s going to happen. … So it’s a lot of hypotheticals,” Joe Harris said. “But what we do know is that we do have a lot of depth. So that’s positive for us.”
Brooklyn is 85-44 with Durant in the lineup since his June 2019 arrival, a solid 54-win pace. But they’re just 69-68 without him, essentially a mediocre .500 team. And they were far worse than that last season.
After falling from second in the Eastern Conference to eighth during Durant’s MCL absence — including an 11-game skid — the Nets proved incapable of weathering their star’s absence. It prompted Durant to ask for an offseason trade, and spurred general manager Sean Marks to build out the bench.
It’s important to note this is a very different Nets team than the one that crumbled in the wake of Durant’s injury. After he went down on Jan. 15 last season, the very next game they started Irving, James Harden and Patty Mills in a three-guard lineup with Kessler Edwards and Day’Ron Sharpe in the frontcourt.
The unvaccinated Irving was still a part-time road-only player, Harden was mentally checking out and soon to ask for a trade. Mills is essentially out of the rotation, while Sharpe and Edwards have spent most of the season in the G-League. These Nets are better constructed.
Irving has already been as good as any guard in the East, but they need a more assertive Simmons. The All-Star who used to drive 10 times a game in Philadelphia has been averaging about three for Brooklyn. The Nets need him to attack and create open looks for spot-shooters like Harris and Yuta Watanabe.
Royce O’Neale is a steady running mate for Irving, and they logged every second of the fourth quarter Sunday after Durant went down. Watanabe — whose 52.7 percent shooting from deep is one 3 away from qualifying as the league leader — logged the next-most playing time at 9:40, followed by Seth Curry to help take some of the playmaking load off Irving.
“It was a combination of what group was going to be out there to help us at that time,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “So [the Heat] were really being aggressive with Ky so we needed another ball-handler in the game. That’s how Seth came into play.
“Then because they were trapping, [we] put Yuta in the corner. Hopefully he gets an open 3 and stretches the floor for us. He was pretty solid defensively, so that was my rationale in finishing with that group.”
Watanabe (6-foot-9, 215 pounds) and Warren (6-8, 220) will likely see their minutes increase exponentially. Warren could step into a starting role.
Though Vaughn has been determined to manage Warren’s playing time after two years away from the game, the veteran’s 19.9 minutes will surely skyrocket. He’s been kept under 20 minutes in half of his games so far, but averaged 13.25 points on 56.6 percent shooting in the other half with extended playing time.
Until Durant returns, Warren’s playing time won’t just be extended, but vital.