At some point this year, the Brooklyn Nets will finally have a chance to unleash Kevin Durant. Whether it’s during a late-summer postseason or the beginning of the 2020-21 season, the veteran forward’s debut will be much-anticipated for the Nets and the league at large.
Given Durant’s Achilles tendon injury, uncertainty surrounds his durability, explosiveness and overall effectiveness. We don’t know whether Brooklyn’s getting the full-strength version of prime Durant, or a less-reliable, 85 percent version.
At a minimum, however, the Nets can count on his elite combination of size and skill opening up their offense to new options.
Throwing KD into the fray won’t be as simple as some might think. There will be a new head coach, new superstar chemistry to build between Durant and Kyrie Irving, plus a myriad of lineup options to juggle. While a healthy KD pushes any team a couple of rungs higher, expecting immediate title contention is presumptuous.
How should the Nets’ approach Durant’s return to game action, and how can they utilize him most effectively?
WHAT THE NETS NEED
Despite a feel-good breakout campaign in 2018-19, the Nets’ offense took a step backward last season. Roster turnover and injuries changed the complexion of the team, and they never really got a chance to build on 2019’s fifth-seed finish.
Much of their offense relied on Irving, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie to make tough plays off the dribble. They needed better ball movement and more efficient shot selection.
Fortunately, those are two areas that Durant can remedy with his scoring finesse and basketball IQ.
Brooklyn must find ways to relieve Irving of the scoring and playmaking burden. This means creating ways to get scorers like Durant open so Irving has accessible outlets off the dribble. It also means sprinkling in Durant as the initiator and turning Irving into a receiver.
PRIORITIZE CATCH-AND-FIRE ATTEMPTS
Just because Durant can help with ball-handling doesn’t mean he should be tasked with an abundance of shot-creating duties. There’s an important balance to achieve.
Last year’s playoffs aside, Durant has generally been a significantly better catch-and-shoot threat from deep than he is off the bounce. During his last three seasons, he averaged 14.1 percent better on catch-and-shoot treys than pull-ups.
It doesn’t take a Basketball PhD to know players are generally more efficient earlier in the shot clock than later. Durant is a perfect example. His highest field-goal conversion rate is within the first six seconds of the shot clock.
The Nets must get him space and time to convert favorable, in-rhythm attempts rather than relying on him to put on a superhero cape in isolation.
This sequence that Golden State ran in last year’s playoffs illustrates how Brooklyn can unlock KD in a timely way.
It starts with Durant on the weak side during a sideline pick-and-roll. The roll man (Shaun Livingston) catches and finds a secondary diver (Draymond Green), who then turns and flips the rock to Durant on the weak side wing. Their collective rim-diving gravity pulls the defense inward long enough to give KD a gorgeous three-point opportunity:
That probably wasn’t even a designed play from Steve Kerr, but it’s just as impactful. The Nets should incorporate some similar quick actions into their playing style to get KD open.
GET HIM THE ROCK ON THE MOVE
The next best thing to catch-and-shoot attempts is getting Durant the ball on the move with good position to drive or pull up quickly.
Sets with multiple screeners, handoffs or misdirection actions often give scorers the time and space to create jumpers in rhythm. Not all pull-up shots are created equal, and Brooklyn should work to give Durant the higher-quality variety.
The following baseline-out-of-bounds look from the 2019 playoffs exemplifies a terrific off-the-bounce attempt. Golden State did a great job making it difficult for the Clippers’ defense on this one, as Andrew Bogut’s fake handoff and wheel-cut dropoff leads KD right into a short-corner screen from Draymond Green:
Let’s examine another play Brooklyn could implement to get KD some room and send the defense scrambling.
Joe Harris comes up from the corner, feints toward a ball-screen for Dinwiddie, and then flares off Jarrett Allen:
Harris had the opportunity to shoot or drive in that situation, and it’s easy to envision Durant thriving on plays like that (even against a better defense than the Hawks).
Although Brooklyn will have a new coaching staff in town, they should continue to run those types of sets for both Durant and Harris.
The Nets will never be quite like the Warriors. But they have a few pieces that can replicate much of what Kerr’s group did with KD.
Brooklyn should tap into Durant’s talent as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
During his last couple of seasons in Golden State, he was on the PnR ball-handler efficiency leaderboard, including third in the league in points produced per possession (1.05) during 2017-18:
The Dubs’ pick-and-roll offense was particularly devastating when Durant was the ball-handler and Curry was the screener. Brooklyn should try a similar tactic, with Irving setting ball screens for KD and forcing tough matchups for opponents. An east-coast version of this sequence could be potent.
With Joe Harris stretching the floor in the Klay Thompson role, and Irving creating more space as a pop man, defenses will have some tough choices.
They’ll either have to:
- (A) pull a third defender over to contain the pick-and-roll, thereby leaving a weak-side Net open and starting a chain reaction of rotations
- (B) play drop coverage that risks Durant finding good pull-up rhythm
- (C) unwisely help off a good shooter to stop Durant’s drives.
Will Irving buy into this role? Nobody knows. But if the Nets want to keep foes off balance, they should at least try persuading him to intermittently execute these sets.
Brooklyn doesn’t have many tall forwards, so Durant might fits best at the 4 spot. The Nets could add a power forward or two in free agency, but for now, they need KD to fill that position and share the frontcourt with Jarrett Allen.
Here are a few interesting lineups Brooklyn could trot out with Durant:
Sharpshooters: Irving, LeVert, Harris, Durant, and Allen: Give me all the scoring.
Jumbo: Dinwiddie, Harris, Prince, Durant, Jordan: Could be a decent group to neutralize the towering lineups that Philadelphia and Milwaukee often deploy.
Small Ball: Irving, LeVert, Harris, Prince, Durant: This group could space the floor, drive-and-kick, and outrun almost any other lineup from end to end.
WORKLOAD, production and PLAYOFF EXPECTATIONS
The Nets will obviously be cautious with a star like Durant coming off Achilles rehab. No matter when basketball resumes, they’ll monitor his minutes, especially early in the season. They’ll also strategically give him days off throughout the year.
I’d expect him to get around 25 minutes per game initially, and no more than 30-35 minutes per game once he’s acclimated.
If Durant gets roughly 30 minutes per game and reasonable touches, he’ll put up robust stats even if he’s lost a step. A conservatively optimistic projection would be 14-16 field-goal attempts, 24-26 points and 3-5 assists.
That production is below his career average, but it would still be enough to dramatically enhance Brooklyn’s offense.
Will his return translate to championship success?
In the short term, I doubt it, but it’s not really his fault. The Nets don’t have the depth, chemistry or coaching stability right now to tangle with the East’s best in the 2020 playoffs. It would be extremely challenging to match up with Milwaukee, Toronto or Boston in a best-of-seven scenario.
However, Durant is dynamic enough to lift Irving and Co. past the first round, and perhaps even flirt with a second-round victory.
Fast forward to the spring/summer of 2021, and it’s a different story. It’s certainly feasible for Durant and a reinforced roster to make a deep run to the finals.
Brooklyn has a good foundation of star power, complementary scorers and rim protection. Once they pad their depth a bit and build their chemistry, they will be every bit a legitimate contender.
Dan is a TBW staff writer. After playing college ball at Franciscan University, he covered the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report for four years and the FRS Network for three years. He now co-hosts the Unlimited Range podcast and continues to campaign for Doris Burke’s promotion to lead analyst at ESPN. Follow him on Twitter: @DanO_Bball