It’s déjà vu in Brooklyn.
For the second time in as many Januarys, Kevin Durant was officially diagnosed with an MCL sprain and will be re-evaluated in two weeks, according to the Nets. Durant has missed just one game all season. A year ago, Durant sprained his left MCL in a collision with Bruce Brown. This time, his right one was injured in a collision Sunday with Jimmy Butler.
The parallels between Durant’s injury in 2022 and 2023 go beyond the injury, timing and nature of how it happened.
Now, it’s on the Nets to avoid having history repeat itself.
When Durant got hurt a year ago, the Nets had just reunited their big three of Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving by allowing the unvaccinated Irving to return as a part-time player eligible for road games. The trio played just twice, in Indiana and Chicago, before Durant went down. The Nets season was never the same.
Last January, Durant’s injury left the team to Harden, who, shortly after, began to check out more and more by the day, and Irving, who was only around so much because of his status. Like this year, the Nets were second in the Eastern Conference at the time of Durant’s injury at 27-15. This time, they’re 27-13. When Durant returned on March 3, 2022, the Nets were eighth at 32-32 after winning just five of the 21 games he missed. He later said that stretch made him lose faith in the organization and ask for a trade this past summer. “We know we’re in some deep s—.” Durant said while injured last February.
Can the Nets avoid stepping in it again? The argument can go both ways. For one, the Nets are down from three stars to two as Ben Simmons hasn’t played like the All-Star he was in Philadelphia despite showing flashes throughout the season. All eyes will be on him to see if he can take his play to another level to aid the burden on Irving, who is full time this year and has been playing some of the best basketball of his career since returning from an eight-game suspension in November. He’s been all in and has missed just two games since mid-November, one for rest and the other for calf tightness. Irving’s play and attendance have been impressive, but they’ve also come with Durant. Can he sustain it without him?
On Sunday, the Nets trailed by as many as nine in the fourth quarter against the Heat after Durant left the game toward the end of the third. Irving helped rally the Nets and kept the poise as they erased the deficit and won on a last second put-back by Royce O’Neale.
Irving’s stock this season has been a game of Chutes and Ladders. He’s currently on a ladder. Keeping the Nets afloat with Durant could put him on an even longer one. Durant returned from his first MCL sprain as a Net in early March 2022 and went on to average 31.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game in his final 19 games on 50/40/90 splits. He was later named second team All-NBA. The Nets went 36-19 with Durant last season. Irving’s health is now paramount.
After Sunday’s game, Irving was asked what changes without Durant.
“It’s pretty clear that KD and me are predominantly most of the offense,” Irving said. “But we have incredible shooters and incredible talented basketball players around us, and now I think it shapes into all-around offense and guys being ready to play. I think one of the greatest qualities of our team is the bench and the way we support each other despite whose in the lineup. And now, it’s time to exemplify that until we figure out the timeline of K and when he can be available again.”
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The supporting cast in Brooklyn will be under its own microscope with the trade deadline approaching. Internally, the organization seems to have optimism that Durant’s absence won’t be as long as it was last year. There’s always optimism. But science and health don’t make their plans around feelings. Does this change their approach at the Feb. 9 trade deadline?
There’s a likelihood Durant isn’t back by then and possibly until after the All-Star break to give him extended rest. Players such as Joe Harris and free-agent-to-be Seth Curry were looked at as redundant assets who could possibly yield a player who can help the team elsewhere. Could they play the Nets into a different thought process? They don’t beat the Heat without Curry, who had 14 points off the bench in Sunday’s win, nine of which came in the fourth quarter.
Harris was already injured a year ago when Durant sprained his MCL, and his spacing was greatly missed as Steve Nash deployed multiple non-shooter heavy lineups during the team’s 11-game losing streak, which started shortly after Durant went down. This year the Nets have a trio of Harris, Curry and Patty Mills to maintain the spacing without Durant and give Irving and Simmons room to operate. Cam Thomas can provide some scoring if he can get off the bench.
The Nets went into Sunday’s game as healthy as they’ve been since 2019 with three straight clean injury reports, a first in the Durant and Irving era. Keeping the supporting cast healthy becomes important too. Nic Claxton has shown his importance when he can avoid the injury bug, as has Yuta Watanabe.
“It’d be a massive blow for us, but obviously at the same time, it presents opportunity for everybody else, and we have a lot of depth for reasons like this,” Harris said Sunday on a potential stretch without Durant. “For everybody to try and collectively fill that void.”
Maybe the biggest asset in life without Durant is T.J. Warren, who has been averaging 10 points per game on 54 percent shooting while serving as the team’s sixth man. At his best, Warren is a 20 points per game scorer and 40 percent 3-point shooter, but the team has slowly incorporated him after two years away from foot injuries. “Rip the Band-Aid off” is a phrase that doesn’t exist in Brooklyn, where the extra cautious medical staff goes through multiple steps to bring back injured players. It’s been a career-low year for the phrase “ramp-up” in Sunset Park. Now those two words are likely to see an uptick in usage rate.
Left to figure this all out is Jacque Vaughn, whose honeymoon with a healthy team came to an abrupt end Sunday. Whereas Nash didn’t seem to be the best communicator in the locker room, Vaughn has been an orator throughout his short tenure. He’s pushed all the right buttons, and the result has been a franchise-best 18 wins in 20 games.
The Nets have been here before just a year ago. There’s overlap in personnel, and Vaughn was seated right next to Nash for it all. He’s seen a Durant-less stretch go as bad as it could. Now he and the Nets’ season could be defined by how they do without their franchise player this time around.
(Photo of Kevin Durant: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)