During his marathon rehabilitation, Durant left the Warriors for the Brooklyn Nets, celebrated his 31st and 32nd birthdays and mostly kept a low profile. He produced a television documentary about his Maryland hometown, launched a podcast and got into a few Twitter tiffs for old time’s sake. He chose not to rush back to play in the NBA bubble and didn’t accompany the Nets to Disney World. All told, the former MVP was virtually invisible for almost 18 months after occupying center stage with the Warriors for three tremendous and tumultuous seasons.
The long wait is almost over: Durant and the Nets will open training camp and hold virtual media day interviews this week. Basketball observers who have given him the out-of-sight, out-of-mind treatment should respond by moving him to the front burner. Durant must prove that the Achilles’ injury hasn’t fundamentally changed his game, but his comeback is taking place under favorable conditions.
First, there’s the matter of his time away. Conventional basketball wisdom labels 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 provided more time for Durant to work through that process before pushing himself in games that count.
Even though the league condensed its offseason, Durant still benefited from an extra two-plus months of recovery because of the delayed start of the 2020-21 season. Relaunching in empty arenas without fans might also help ease the pressure and expectations that any superstar would feel upon a long-awaited return from a major injury. Durant can work his way up to full speed however he sees fit.
The biggest factor playing to Durant’s benefit is the new-look competitive landscape in the Eastern Conference. He returns as easily the East’s most accomplished player, with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry and James Harden all out West. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is the two-time reigning MVP, but he has yet to prove his game translates to the playoffs as well as Durant’s did for Oklahoma City and Golden State.
If every player in the East were fully healthy, Durant would be the first selection in a draft of impact postseason players, topping Antetokounmpo, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Miami’s Jimmy Butler. None of those players has won a title and only Butler has reached the Finals; Durant is a two-time champion and two-time Finals MVP who has made four Finals appearances.
Brooklyn deserves credit for clarifying its positioning around Durant, too. Kenny Atkinson, a development-minded taskmaster hired to guide a rebuild, was never going to be the right personality to lead Durant and Kyrie Irving on a title push. 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 job’s most important task: meshing with his two stars.
Quietly, the Nets have assembled one of the East’s best starting lineups and bench rotations on paper, and they could be a high-powered and entertaining scoring machine if things fall into place. Brooklyn has shooting, playmaking, depth at every position and enough size to buy minutes against bigger front lines. The Nets re-signed Joe Harris, their top free agent, and acquired guards Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown in trades. If Brooklyn doesn’t consummate a blockbuster deal for Harden, a dream scenario rumored in recent weeks, it will retain a few younger pieces — Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen — to use as trade deadline chips.
Survey the rest of the East’s contenders, and Brooklyn looks like an offseason winner by proxy, too. Milwaukee acquired Jrue Holiday but bungled its attempt to land Bogdan Bogdanovic and settled for an underwhelming cast of fill-ins. Boston lost Gordon Hayward. Toronto lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Miami and Indiana essentially stood pat. Philadelphia reversed course and broke up its massive front line, giving Brooklyn a cleaner stylistic matchup. No other major threats emerged, and no superstars moved from the West to the East. Aside from completing the Harden trade, Durant and the Nets couldn’t have asked for a better offseason.
To be clear, the Nets face their own questions, most of which trace back to Durant’s decision to partner with the mercurial Irving. Can both return to form and remain healthy? Will they more effectively bond with their holdover teammates than, say, Leonard and Paul George did on last season’s Los Angeles Clippers? Will Irving’s talk about shaking up the roster last season be forgiven and forgotten by players who will see their roles marginalized this year? Can Nash oversee a playoff-ready defense, and will Irving display improved discipline on that end?
As Durant gears up in earnest, it’s worth noting that a healthy return to all-NBA form could go a long way to providing answers to most of Brooklyn’s questions. The Nets shouldn’t be burdened with major expectations or cast as contenders until he is back swishing three-pointers off the dribble, uncorking gorgeous turnarounds and moving freely around the court. But start preparing now — Durant’s return will be one of the NBA’s top stories over the next two months. He’s a forgotten man no longer.