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The Brooklyn Nets were one of the hottest teams in the league before Kevin Durant went down with injury. How can they survive without him?
The Brooklyn Nets are coming off of an incredible stretch of play, winning 18 out of their 20 games. During their most recent game against the Miami Heat, Kevin Durant’s night ended early. It has since come out that he suffered an MCL sprain in his right knee and will be re-evaluated in two weeks, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Durant missed six weeks with the same injury in his left knee last season. If we are to take a similar timeline for this injury, then he is set to miss up until the All-Star break, which would see the Nets playing 18 games without their superstar. It was unlikely that they would have maintained a 0.900 win rate in this stretch even with KD, but how will they keep things rolling without him?
The Nets will have to rely on their system to keep winning without Kevin Durant
Since Jacque Vaughn took over as head coach, the team has stuck to a few key principles. They play together, they’re connected defensively and they play for the team. Their stars have been stars and their role players have starred in their roles. In the past 20 games, Durant has played in 19, averaging 30-7-5 on insane 59/43/96 shooting splits. Kyrie has 18 appearances in this span, with 27-5-5 on 50/40/89 splits. As a whole, the Nets are shooting 53/41/81 splits with individual players benefitting from a cohesive system and an effective system benefitting from selfless individuals.
Role players have played off of Irving and Durant effectively, with a few key philosophies in mind; being structured and disciplined in their spacing, improvising with off-ball screens and movement and keeping pressure on help defenders with cuts. If KD or Kyrie have the ball, that’s already devastating enough for most NBA defences, but with off-ball players causing their own chaos it has been too much for their opposition to handle.
Durant had been averaging 19 field goal attempts, three trips to the line and three-and-a-half turnovers, coming out to 25-and-a-half possessions per game. This gives the Nets an opportunity to be stronger for Durant’s return, with these possessions being spread throughout the role players. The best long-term prospect for Brooklyn would be for their role players to build another offensive weapon in KD’s absence.
Shooters like Yuta Watanabe, Joe Harris, Seth Curry and Patty Mills should look to get to the rim or free-throw line a couple of times a game. Cameron Thomas and Edmond Sumner should look play-make, playing off of their ability to score and slash. T.J. Warren and Nicolas Claxton should clear out one side of the court and get a few isolation post touches every game. If each role player can add a skill over the next 18 games in regular-season games against NBA defences, this will make Brooklyn more versatile and stronger for Durant’s return.
Through the diversification of skillsets for the Nets roster they should also be able to paper up a chunk of the 30 points and 5 assists that KD won’t be providing.
Any time a transcendent player misses a considerable amount of time it will need to be addressed by committee. If your team has Kevin Durant on it then a championship run hinges on him being healthy. The Nets shouldn’t look to plan for a life without Durant, but rather, strengthen the pieces around him so they may be formidable on their run into and throughout the playoffs.
Royce O’Neale’s play this season cannot go without mention. He was traded for the least favourable of the Brooklyn/Houston first-round pick swap and Philadelphia’s first-round pick that was previously acquired by Brooklyn. That pick is looking like it’s going to be in the 20s, a value far below O’Neale’s play this season. Aside from career high’s in points, assists, blocks and 3-point percentage, his reliability and steadiness have been a foundational piece of Brooklyn’s success through 40 games.
He has been making up for his teammate’s mistakes, all while making very few of his own. His value can’t be defined by the stat sheet, yet he has been consistent there as well. O’Neale allows his teammates to play with freedom, as their blemishes are made almost invisible due to his competitive nature and second efforts. Many of the highs the Nets are experiencing this season would not be possible without the play of Royce O’Neale.
Keeping things rolling in Durant’s absence should see them go above .500 over the next 18 games, playing with selflessness and energy that has been bouncing around the team since Jacque Vaughn took over. If they can retain this part of their identity all while developing the subsidiary pieces then they should be even stronger after the All-Star break.
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