When you have one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game, it’s hard not to lean on his talents. Although Kevin Durant is the driving force behind the title-contending Nets, an argument can be made that the team has been relying on him too much, too often in their offensive schemes.
While the loss of Kyrie Irving has to be considered a major reason for Durant’s heavy load, there are other reasons as well. James Harden has been up-and-down as he tries to get back into basketball shape following an off-season devoted to rehabbing his hamstring issues. With a lack production by committee, Durant’s numbers early in the season have to be high.
Durant is leading the league in scoring (29.5 points) and is sixth in the league in double-doubles (six). Those numbers are great for the world’s best offensive player ... but he’s also averaging the most minutes per game (34.0 minutes) through the first 11 games — the most minutes in any such stretch since he returned from his Achilles tear back in 2019. For context, Durant averaged 33.1 minutes per game in 35 games last season. And he has yet to miss a game, playing in all 11 of the Nets contests.
“That’s the luxury of having All-Star players that they can do that. Kevin’s obviously elite at scoring and isolating, so there are times when we lean on him but it’s important for our team that we don’t overburden someone like that [Durant],” Nash said. You want to give him as many great opportunities to score out of the flow and out of teamwork, rather than having to face a loaded defense all night.
“So while that is a luxury that he can make plays against anyone, we definitely don’t want to rely on that. That’s the antithesis to our vision. But that is a luxury when he can just rise up and score over people.”
Nash and the Nets were very cautious with Durant playing in back-to-backs last season. Although Durant has played a total of 58 games (including playoffs) since returning from the career-threatening injury, he has played all four games in the two back-to-backs so far. The Nets superstar logged 35 minutes each in both of the second legs of the two back-to-backs. Brooklyn has a total of 12 back-to-backs on the regular-season schedule.
“Obviously, we hope that we don’t have to overdo it with anyone,” said Nash about using Durant in back-to-backs. “But that’s the kiss of death whenever you start thinking you’re going to limit guys here and there.”
Beyond the Nets missing Irving’s ability to create his own shots and draw gravity while on the hardwood, there is the Harden factor. He’s been in the process of regaining his own confidence, his own legs. Harden is also the team’s main facilitator, creating opportunities for Brooklyn’s offense to thrive at its fullest, with or without KD on the court.
The other Nets superstar is not only dealing with regathering his elite level of play as a solo act. He has also struggled to get the foul calls that have been a major element in his offensive game throughout his career.
During the Nets 118-95 defeat in Chicago against the Bulls, Harden’s frustration about calls was visibly on display. After a string of drives through contact that didn’t end with a whistle — one of which the Nets superstar stared at the official and took a seat on the stanchion behind the basket — he finally got a whistle to go. After he converted the layup, Harden threw his arms straight in the air and looked up. An act motioning that he finally got a call. At the end of the loss, Harden only attempted a total of three free throws.
Even The Onion has taken notice...
“I don’t want to talk about it. No, I don’t want to talk about it. It didn’t take me out of my game,” said Harden post-game. “I felt like I played well in the fourth quarter. In the fourth quarter, none of us played well. It definitely didn’t take me out of my game.”
Despite struggling to get whistles, Harden continues to slowly climb the ladder The superstar is averaging 18.3 points, 8.5 assists, 7.7 rebounds on the young season.
But until he’s back at that superstar level, putting up games of 30, 10 and 10 — and/or until Irving returns and returns to form — those “MVP” chants heard at Barclays Center will have a lot of relevance. The reality behind the chants is simple: that “burden” Nash spoke about has fallen squarely on Durant. and he’s delivered ... so far. He is not only having the best start in franchise history but in his own career as well. Not bad for a guy who sat out 561 days between regular season games from June 2019 through December 2020.