During his marathon rehabilitation, Durant left the Warriors for the Brooklyn Nets, celebrating his 31st and 32nd birthday, and for the most part remained unremarkable. He made a television documentary about his hometown in Maryland, started a podcast, and got on a couple of Twitter tiffs for the sake of the old days. Choosing not to rush back to play in the NBA bubble, he didn’t join the nets to Disney World. Overall, the former MVP was virtually invisible for almost 18 months after being the focus of three enormous and tumultuous seasons with the Warriors.
The long wait is over: Durant and the Netze will open a training camp this week and give interviews on the virtual media day. Basketball watchers who have put him out of sight and mind should respond by getting him to the top. Durant has to prove that Achilles’ injury didn’t fundamentally change his game, but his comeback is taking place in favorable conditions.
First, it’s about his absence. Traditional basketball wisdom refers to an Achilles tear as a two-year injury: the first is spent getting back on the court and the second is spent regaining mobility and pop. The NBA’s four-month coronavirus shutdown gave Durant more time to work through this process before embarking on games that count.
Though the league cut its off-season, Durant benefited from an additional two-month recovery due to the delayed start of the 2020-21 season. Relaunching into empty arenas with no fans could also help ease the pressures and expectations a superstar would feel on a long-awaited return from a serious injury. Durant can work at full speed as he sees fit.
The biggest factor that will benefit Durant is the new competitive landscape at the Eastern Conference. With LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and James Harden in the west, he just as easily returns to the most successful player in the east. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is the two-time reigning MVP, but he has yet to prove his game was translated into the playoffs, as did Durants for Oklahoma City and Golden State.
If every player in the East were perfectly healthy, Durant would be the first pick in a draft of postseason players leading Antetokounmpo, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Miami’s Jimmy Butler. Neither of these players won a title and only Butler made it to the final. Durant is a two-time champion and two-time final MVP who has played four finals.
Brooklyn deserves credit for clarifying its position on Durant as well. Kenny Atkinson, a development-focused taskmaster hired to lead a rebuilding would never be the right person to lead Durant and Kyrie Irving on a title boost. Steve Nash will face an inordinate number of questions and doubts as a coaching rookie, but he qualifies as a clear upgrade over Atkinson when it comes to the most important aspect of the job: interacting with his two stars.
Quietly, the Nets have put together one of the East’s best starting lineups and bank rotations on paper, and they could be a powerful and fun scoring machine if things fit together. Brooklyn has shooting, play, depth in every position, and size enough to buy minutes against larger front lines. The Nets have re-signed Joe Harris, their best free agent, and have taken on guards Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown in trade. Unless Brooklyn hits a blockbuster deal for Harden, a dream scenario rumored for the past few weeks, some younger pieces – Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jarrett Allen – will be used as closing time chips.
Interview the rest of the East’s competitors and Brooklyn will look like an off-season winner even by proxy. Milwaukee acquired Jrue Holiday but botched its attempt to land Bogdan Bogdanovic and settled on an overwhelming cast of fill-ins. Boston lost Gordon Hayward. Toronto lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Miami and Indiana were essentially pat. Philadelphia reversed course and broke up its massive frontline, giving Brooklyn a cleaner stylistic matchup. No other major threats emerged and no superstars moved from the west to the east. Aside from closing the Harden deal, Durant and the Nets could not have asked for a better off-season.
To be clear, the nets face their own questions, most of which stem from Durant’s decision to partner with the Mercury Irving. Can both of them get back in shape and stay healthy? Will they bond more effectively with their holdover teammates than, say, Leonard and Paul George at the Los Angeles Clippers last season? Will Irving’s speech about shaking up the squad last season be forgiven and forgotten by players whose roles are being marginalized this year? Can Nash oversee a playoff eligible defense and will Irving show improved discipline on this point?
While Durant is seriously on his way, it’s worth noting that a healthy return to All-NBA form can go a long way in answering most questions in Brooklyn. The nets should not be burdened with great expectations or occupied as competitors until he is three pointers away from dribbling, uncorking wonderful turnarounds and moving freely on the court. But prepare now – Durant’s return will be one of the top stories in the NBA for the next two months. He is no longer a forgotten man.