Kevin Durant has been balling out this season. His averages of 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists have him at the top of the league in scoring, and his PER of 26.1 is good for sixth in the league.
Unfortunately, the Nets will be without his services for an extended period of time, thanks to an injury suffered after an accidental collision with teammate Bruce Brown.
The official word from the Nets is that an MRI showed a sprained MCL on his left knee, and that there is no definitive timetable on his return. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, there’s hope that the rehab period will be within 4-6 weeks.
That’s a long time for Durant to be on the sidelines, especially considering how competitive the Eastern Conference is this year. As of this writing, the records for the Eastern Conference’s top six teams are as follows:
- Chicago Bulls: 27-15
- Miami Heat: 28-16
- Brooklyn Nets: 27-16
- Cleveland Cavaliers: 27-18
- Milwaukee Bucks: 27-19
- Philadelphia 76ers: 25-18
That’s an insanely tight margin for the guaranteed playoff spots, and the Nets have already had some struggles here and there when both James Harden and Kevin Durant have been available. The loss of their leading scorer has huge ramifications for the Nets, who are essentially in championship or bust mode this season. They were in the same boat last year, but fell short due to injuries to both Harden and Kyrie Irving in the playoffs.
The problem for Brooklyn is that the loss of Durant is going to shine a light on the other internal issues that the Nets are already having.
Kyrie Irving is still a part-time player
Irving has shown that he can have a positive effect on games since his return as a part-time player. Unfortunately for the Nets, that means he’s only available for away games. He has made his decision on vaccination, and it’s highly doubtful that he’s going to change course.
That means Harden will have to shoulder the bulk of the load for half of the games that Durant misses, which could put a big toll on his health heading into the playoffs. It already took Harden a while to get back into the swing of things this season, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the Nets manage his minutes.
Interestingly enough, tanking for a lower seed could actually be beneficial for the Nets, because that means they’d have Irving available for Game 7 situations. That’s gorilla logic from me, of course, and it’s outlandish to think that a team would choose to give up a home court advantage, but the Nets are in a unique situation.
The James Harden exit rumors
Speaking of Harden, there are rumors (which to be fair are quite far-fetched for now) that he is becoming more open to making a summer exit from the Nets. There’s a lot of things that could influence his decision, from frustration about the Irving situation, to how Durant heals up, and how far they go in the playoffs this season.
Harden has a player option for the 2022-23 season, where he’s due to make $47.36 million. That’s a ton of money to give up, but he might use that leverage to force a sign and trade to another team if he becomes unhappy in Brooklyn. The one thing that the Nets can’t afford is to let him walk away for nothing, and Harden already showed a willingness to turn down money when he said no to a two-year, $100 million extension with the Houston Rockets before he forced his way to Brooklyn.
Harden will be 33 next season, and he knows his career may start to wind down soon after that. There aren’t a lot of places that will give him a better shot at a title than the Nets, assuming that Durant comes back healthy, so this is a wildly different situation than he found himself in at the end of his run with the Rockets. Still, the NBA is a weird place, and anything can happen.
Call me crazy, but I think the biggest motivator for Harden moving out of town may be the Nets winning a championship this season. He can walk away with a ring and get away from the constant controversy surrounding Irving if he gets tired of it.
The Nets’ schedule for the next 6 weeks is far from easy
If we look at the Nets’ schedule from today, January 18 (Manila Time), here’s the schedule that the Nets are facing for the next 6 weeks. Let’s err on the side of caution and assume Durant comes back around March 4.
- Washington Wizards (thrice) X
- San Antonio Spurs
- Minnesota Timberwolves X
- LA Lakers X
- Denver Nuggets (twice) *
- Golden State Warriors *
- Phoenix Suns *
- Sacramento Kings (twice)
- Utah Jazz *
- Boston Celtics (twice) X
- Miami Heat (twice) *
- New York Knicks
- Toronto Raptors (twice) X
An asterisk notes a team that is in the top six of their conference, and an X notes teams that are currently in play-in spots.
That is not an easy schedule, because they’re all going to be facing teams that are either already among their conference’s top teams, or have something to play for. Even the Spurs, Knicks and Kings aren’t that far from finding themselves in the play-ins, and could pull out a surprising result.
Kyrie Irving will only be available for roughly half of those games, assuming he stays healthy, which isn’t guaranteed. A bad run of games, or further injuries or covid outbreaks on the team could put the Nets in a real rough spot.
Of course, this is all speculation for now, but it’s going to be interesting to see how things play out for the Nets in the next few weeks.