Even now, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that two-time NBA Finals MVP and one-time league MVP Kevin Durant is a member of the Nets along with his All-Star point guard pal Kyrie Irving. It’s one of those unexpected events that doesn’t compute.
But after an interminable 18-month journey through injuries and the perils of playing in a COVID-infested world, the reality of the new title-contending Nets will take shape when they face Durant’s former Golden State team in the season opener Tuesday night at Barclays Center. The Nets won their two preseason games, and even that brief glimpse revealed their offensive explosiveness, surprisingly effective defense and possibly the NBA’s deepest pool of talent.
Of course, the main attraction is the KD/Kyrie combination, two best friends and elite talents who made the offbeat choice to elevate the Nets to championship level together.
"I feel like it’s always evolving," Durant recently said of his relationship with Irving. "The game of basketball is evolving non-stop, and we are players that both feel like we can adapt to any situation. It’s just a matter of communicating on the floor and communicating with our teammates and seeing the best places for them to be successful, which is going to make us successful in the long run, too."
For Irving, the challenge of turning the Nets into a legitimate title contender is as much intellectual as anything else. When the Nets first hired Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash as a first-time NBA head coach, Irving scoffed and said the Nets didn’t really have a head coach and he and Durant could just as easily be head coach. But after working with Nash, Irving recently took back those words, called Nash "amazing" and embraced the freedom he and Durant will have to orchestrate Nash’s offense.
"Our offense is predicated on guys just being efficient in space," said Irving, who has praised the likes of Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris as options who can play off himself and Durant.
"When you have Caris, myself, Spence and KD out there — just that four alone in one group, it is hard to match up. We see mismatches all over the floor."
Since taking over as coach in September, Nash has shown a deft touch in terms of managing egos, selecting an All-Star coaching staff that includes the likes of long-time NBA head coach Mike D’Antoni, previous Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn, and highly respected long-time NBA assistant Ime Udoka. Nash’s 18-year career was as much a product of his basketball acumen as it was his athletic ability, and that intelligence clearly has won the respect of Irving and Durant.
Describing his interaction with them, Nash said, "They both have such high basketball IQs that a lot of it is body language, is understanding, is processing as they go. They’re definitely two guys that have a great relationship and will talk things through as will the rest of the team.
"We have a structure and then we have freedom, and part of that is problem-solving. You want them to solve their own problems. You don’t want them to look over to you to solve problems, especially those two highly creative, skilled, competitive players. So, it’s trying to give that right balance of freedom within our confines so that our team plays great basketball."
One player who will be called upon to sacrifice in support of the Nets’ superstars is Dinwiddie, last season’s leading scorer. Describing his new role, Dinwiddie said, "It’s stress-free. That’s the best I can put it. I’m trying to win, so, if you can throw it to either one of them and get a bucket and you get the third or fourth defender trying to check you, you’re like, ‘All right, I guess I’ll go score now.’ Stress-free. This is fun."
Regarding how Durant is rounding into shape quickly, Dinwiddie winked and said, "MVP form coming soon."
Following a blowout win over the Celtics in Boston on Friday when he scored 25 points in 27 minutes, Durant was asked if he’s all the way back. "Nah, I feel like that’s going to come over time," Durant said. "But having a team like we have, those guys support me every time I step on the floor, try to put me in great positions to be successful and we’re just playing off each other. If we continue to do that, this will be a smooth ride for me."
Oddsmakers have installed the Nets as second favorites behind the defending champion Lakers, but Irving put that in perspective. "As much as I would like to put aspirations, expectations on us, like we’re going to be a championship team, we know that’s just not true," Irving said. "We’ve got to make progress every single day in terms of getting to the NBA Finals, which is the biggest goal for us…This is the beginning of the journey, use every day to get better."
Now that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both are healthy, it’s impossible to see a team that is better-equipped to win the Eastern Conference title. The Nets have depth beyond belief with such past playoff stalwarts as guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert in addition to top three-point shooter Joe Harris. Then you have youthful center Jarrett Allen backing up aging big man DeAndre Jordan. This mix is just much deeper in Eastern Conference than the Bucks, Heat and Sixers. Yet, it will be very tough to get past the defending champion Lakers with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell.
Prediction: 48-24, lose to Lakers in NBA Finals.