The Nets are coming off three straight losses, falling to fifth in the Eastern Conference standings at 29-19 -- behind the Miami Heat (32-17), Chicago Bulls (30-18), Cleveland Cavaliers (30-19) and Milwaukee Bucks (31-20) -- after sitting comfortably in first earlier in the season. While there are multiple explanations for the disappointing stretch, this latest skid is in large part due to missing Kevin Durant.
He’s currently working his way back from a sprained MCL, but it’s going to be a few weeks. It’s been James Harden, sometimes Kyrie Irving and a motley crew of veterans and prospects trying to keep the team ahead in the standings, to varying success.
It’s impossible to replace a top-three player on the fly, but Brooklyn can fill some of the holes left by KD’s injury. Here’s what’s gone wrong with Durant out, and how the Nets might be able to turn it around.
With KD on the floor, his team scores 112.9 points per 100 possessions while allowing 108.5. With him out, those numbers drop to 109.8 and 111.2, respectively. That’s a six-point swing spread across both sides of the court.
Not that it should be any surprise, but this helps magnify Durant’s two-way impact. He was averaging 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists on 52 percent shooting from the field, 37.2 percent from deep and 89.4 percent from the foul line. This on top of being Brooklyn’s best defender, able to create stops 1-on-1 or as a free roamer.
This is why the Nets traded for Harden, to prop the team up on the backs of two stars in case one went down. Unfortunately, he’s spent most of this season trying to find his footing and doesn’t appear 100% settled yet. This latest challenge is somewhat exposing that fact.
In the five games since Durant went down, Harden has upped his overall production to 24.6 points, 10.8 assists and 8.4 rebounds a game, slightly above his season averages. His shooting has yet to recover though, as he’s still only hitting 42.6 percent of his field goals and 32.1 percent of his threes.
It’s all very up-and-down with Harden right now. In his five games without KD, he went from scoring more than 20, to 18; more than 30, back to 13; then back to more than 30 once again.
On the season, he’s shooting sub-40 percent from the field with Durant off the court. Strangely enough, most other members of the roster perform similarly or better with their lead star out. Harden just simply isn’t the MVP Brooklyn hoped they were trading for since the hamstring injury.
He’s not the only star left, though. Irving made his return to the team this month, and has done his damnedest to carry the load.
In four road games since Durant’s injury, he’s putting up 27.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists on 52.9 percent shooting from the field and 39.3 percent from deep. Those are very strong numbers, and might require Irving getting more of Harden’s volume if the Nets want to win more of these games.
Having Harden and Irving play to their best every night can’t be relied on given the season Harden’s having and Irving not being playable at home. The Nets will need others to step up, and so they have.
All the usual veterans are back playing up to snuff in this recent stretch, namely Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge. James Johnson has seen a big leap in minutes as the defensive free safety and offensive connector at Durant’s position.
Perhaps the biggest contribution has come from Brooklyn’s young core, suddenly inserted into big NBA minutes. Cam Thomas is doing his scoring thing off the bench, and Day’Ron Sharpe has stepped up in Nic Claxton’s absence.
The big name recently? Kessler Edwards, playing 34 minutes a night since Durant’s injury.
He emerged prior to Durant going down but is now seeing a bigger role, and making the most of it. The second-round pick is shooting 39 percent from 3 on the season, providing defense and smaller impact plays on the other end.
If the Nets are going to withstand losing Durant and keep from falling into the play-in picture, it’ll take guys like Edwards and the supporting cast continuing to perform when called upon. But they can’t do it alone.
At some point, the stars have to come to bat. This is Harden’s opportunity to get right and reclaim his spot as the league’s most dominant single-source offense, or at least come close.
If Irving were able to comply with his city’s mandates, he could become the season’s savior with his play. For now, he’s relegated to road appearances.
Brooklyn isn’t down one star -- it’s down all of them. With Durant out, they need Harden to be Harden and Irving to be around.
That’s the simple reality, and the sooner the Nets’ stars accept that, the sooner they can go back to winning.