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Popper's NBA 2020-21 predictions: How far can Kevin Durant take the Nets?

Nets forward Kevin Durant dunks during the second

Nets forward Kevin Durant dunks during the second half of an NBA preseason game against the Celtics on Friday in Boston. Credit: AP/Mary Schwalm

The last time Kevin Durant was on the floor in more than a meaningless preseason game was in the 2019 NBA Finals when he was attempting his own Willis Reed moment — admittedly longer-term — beating expectations to get on the floor for Golden State to try to capture an NBA title.

But unlike Reed, who got to celebrate, Durant suffered a torn Achilles, hobbling off the floor and off of Golden State's roster and eventually to this moment in Brooklyn facing his old team Tuesday night.

A long path for sure, but the real question for Durant is where it leads now. Is he back, as he has appeared in practice and preseason, to be the player he was, a dominant force who can lift the Nets into contention for a championship? And if he can, is he an MVP candidate? A comeback player of the year possibility after a year away? Or simply a part of a team that looks deep enough to challenge LeBron James and the Lakers?

From what he showed, his progress might be easier to predict than anything else in this pair of strange NBA seasons. The offseason was crowded into a week in November and training camp was a careful attempt at social distancing and constant testing for COVID-19. Preseason was pared down — four games for the Knicks, two for the Nets. Only the first half of the schedule has been announced, and some NBA team officials have speculated that avoiding the virus might be as important as anything else in determining who gets the hardware this season.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Durant could certainly merit some consideration if he can lift the Nets to the top of the East, but after a year away, it seems too much to ask for him to be there every night. James fits in the same category, with no need to play 72 games to ready for the postseason. Figure this to settle on a battle between the league’s top player last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the rising star, Luka Doncic. The pick: Doncic.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

When the Knicks were able to hold tight at No. 8 and grab Obi Toppin, it figured that they might get some consideration for postseason honors with a player who is older than most rookies and can get time on the floor with a struggling franchise. But a look at what LaMelo Ball has done in preseason only backed up what we’ve written before: His highlight-reel plays are a symbol of his high ceiling. The pick: Ball.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Steve Nash will get strong consideration for this award, with the Nets poised to make a huge jump forward. But that will be countered by the fact that he’s doing it with an upgrade in talent, not to mention benefiting from the developmental work that Kenny Atkinson put in for the hold-overs in Brooklyn and also, that little detail of Kyrie Irving opining that they’ll be taking turns serving as coach of the team. So let’s go with someone who has deserved credit, yet has yet to win the award, and put this between Denver’s Mike Malone and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle. The pick: Malone.

THE WINNERS

Eastern Conference: Experience still matters and it’s hard to put a team together on the run. Milwaukee didn’t get all the pieces it wanted but could push forward this time. The pick: Milwaukee over Brooklyn.

Western Conference: Somehow in a salary-cap league, the defending champion Lakers managed to hang on to their stars and still improve the roster. Though the Clippers should still be good and Golden State could be back, the real challenge might come from young teams in Denver and Dallas. The pick: Lakers over Nuggets.

NBA Finals: Too much experience and firepower. Lakers over Bucks.

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