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Nets playing without Kevin Durant: How they doing? How will it go?

Memphis Grizzlies v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The thing that the borough of Brooklyn has feared the most just happened, and I’m not talking about the Chitauri raining fire upon the City. In a 120-105 win over the New Orleans Pelicans the Nets still lost, as Kevin Durant exited the game in the second quarter with a left knee injury.

The organization announced the following morning that Durant had suffered a “sprained medial collateral” [MCL] in his left knee. Though the Nets didn’t provide a timeline for his return, ESPN’s Adrian Wojaronwski dropped a bomb, saying the Slim Reaper would be out for four to six weeks.

“Of course it would be tough to lose him,” said head coach Steve Nash following the Pelicans game. “No one wants to see that. We’ll obviously hope for the best outcome, but regardless of the outcome, we have to continue to work, build and grow, get better and compete.”

Unfortunately for coach Nash and the fanbase alike, Durant will likely miss around 20 games. That’s not ground-breaking, as Durant missing time is not something new (again, unfortunately); as he’s not exactly been Lou Gehrig, though nobody is/ever will be. How have the Nets fared in Durant’s previous absences? Let’s look at the numbers with a particular focus: personnel available. But first, the overall records.

Records with and without Durant

*Playoffs included where applicable

Nets overall record without Durant: 30-16 (65% win percentage)

Nets record without Durant (this season): 5-4 (56% win percentage)

Nets record with Durant (last season): 30-17 (64% win percentage)

Nets record without Durant (last season): 25-12 (68% win percentage)

Nets record with Durant (this season): 24-12 (67% win percentage)

Nets record without Durant (this season): 4-4 (50% win percentage)

These numbers are pretty shocking, at least to me — I audibly said “wow” when I finished putting them down — as the Nets have statistically had a similar win percentage without Durant as opposed to with him. The highest win percentage on the board? The Nets without Durant last season at 68 percent. Woah. These numbers deserve more context, so let’s dive into it.

Last Season’s Absences

A large chunk of the wins from the 25-12 record came in early-February to mid-March where the Nets went on two separate six game winning streaks, coming out on top by an average of 13.6 points a night. That number almost doubles the current NBA-high Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns’ point differential of 7.9.

As we noted earlier, Harden will have to step up dramatically this season to try and patch holes that Durant is usually plugging. That’s exactly what he did during those impressive streaks last season, averaging around 29 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds a night with good efficiency: 49 percent from the field, 38 percent from three, and 84 percent from the line.

He didn’t do it alone, as he had Kyrie Irving to play alongside him for all but two of those games. At that point, there were no vaccination requirements limiting Irving’s eligibility to play. Kai chipped in 28 points a night shooting over 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from long range. Also of note, Joe Harris was on the court and shooting the lights out, hitting triples at a ridiclouis 52 percent clip — something Brooklyn doesn’t currently have, but desperately needs.

That’s what really kept the Nets afloat when Durant was out last season. In those 25 victories without Durant, the Nets shot 38.8 percent from the field. In losses? 32.1 percent — a 6.7 percent difference that would drop Brooklyn from fourth in the NBA (in three-point percentage) all the way down to dead last. But, that’s obvious, right? In modern basketball you pretty much need to hit your long bombs win. However, when you’re missing one of the greatest scorers in the history of the sport, you’ll need to find firepower somewhere. After all, you can’t just pull points out of nowhere… unless you’re Tim Donaghy.

Catch-and-shoot dominant players outside of Harris such as Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot and Landry Shamet saw upticks in their playing time in an attempt to make up some of offensive slack. From games 25 to 51 [where Durant missed 25 of his 37 games] TLC saw almost two more minutes per game but Shamet saw over five extra minutes per game; TLC shot around 29 percent from deep during that stretch while Shamet shot 44 percent, hence the drastic difference between the two. Hell, Jeff Green was playing four more minutes per game. In short, when missing Durant, Brooklyn was relying heavily upon its shooters.

However, what will be the biggest difference between last season and this season is Kyrie Irving. As we have noted, Irving has not changed his mind on getting the jab even with Durant going down. This makes Irving unavailable to play in home games plus two Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on February 16 and April 6 and one vs. the Raptors in Toronto on March 1. I don’t need to give you numbers to understand the difference in having Irving versus not having Irving.

This Year’s Absences

What we saw last year is already repeating itself this year. Role players with high offensive upside are getting increased burn to try and patch the wound. Notably, rookies Cam Thomas and Kessler Edwards.

“They’ve been great,” Steve Nash said of this year’s rookie class. “That’s why they’ve gotten an opportunity. We liked them in the preseason, but we felt like there was a process to them getting, to earning and to developing into an opportunity and it came… it’s huge for us. They bring that energy and effort every single night and that’s contagious. That rubs off on each and every individual on the team.”

In the eight games without Durant, Cam and Kessler (there’s a nickname pun in there somewhere…) have seen a huge increase in minutes. Kessler, who’s shooting 43 percent from deep this season, has played 34 minutes per game when Durant has been in street clothes versus 21 when Durant is active. Edwards has given the Nets a much needed outside threat with the absence of Joey Buckets. As for Cam, he’s been a stellar all-around offensive talent though he has occasional goose eggs, which is expected of a rookie. In games without Durant, Cam is averaging 18 points per game with Irving also being out; that number drops to four when Irving is playing — no real surprise due to a drastic drop in playing time. In a sense, Cam takes on a Baby Kai role when Grown Kai isn’t available. Still valuable.

Getting contribution from players outside of Brooklyn’s two superstars is key, especially for James Harden who will be eligible to play regardless of venue and will be asked to do a lot more, making wear-a-tear all the more worrisome. Nash would be the first to tell you that.

“It’s tough. No Kyrie [in home games]. No Kevin. No Joe. He’s going to have to play a lot,” said Nash. “We’ll have to be careful with how many games he plays at what number of minutes, but we’re definitely going to need him out there.”

What certainly won’t help the Nets is a present lack of continuity. We already know Kai’s situation, there’s no timetable for Harris’ return which has been labeled “tricky” by Nash, and all of Nicolas Claxton, LaMarcus Aldridge, James Johnson, Paul Millsap, and David Duke Jr. have been coming in and out of the lineup. Clax and Aldridge have been playing their roles on offense to a tee with Claxton being a Harden lob partner/down low menace while Aldridge has shown flashes of prime Dirk Nowitzki in the post. Okay, slight exaggeration, but he’s been pretty damn good.

Nash will continue to play this situation out, but Harden probably said it best. “Guys got to step up. Guys got to step up. It’s simple.”