Once again, the Nets are facing a string of games—perhaps four weeks, perhaps until the all-star break—without their leader and MVP candidate, Kevin Durant. Last season, KD missed 21 straight games from mid-January through early March, and the Nets had a dismal 5-16 record in that stretch. This year’s team (25-8 under Jacque Vaughn) has looked better than last year’s, and the roster seems deeper; nonetheless, they’ll be scrambling to avoid a substantial slide in the standings while KD is out.
The challenge is compounded by the fact that the Nets are a top-heavy team. KD and Kyrie Irving have taken 40% of the team’s total shots this season. Their usage rates are 31.8% and 29.1%, with Cam Thomas next at just 22.4%. The qualitative drop-off may be even steeper. KD and Kyrie are currently 16th and 19th in the league in offensive real plus-minus ratings; none of the other regular rotation players is in the top 150. Overall, Vaughn’s Nets have a shiny +10.1 net rating in 1139 minutes with Durant on the court, but a dismal −3.1 rating in 397 minutes without him.
Some key rotation players are probably limited in terms of how many additional minutes they can play. Ben Simmons, coming back from surgery and a year-long layoff, has twice missed multiple games after a string of 30-plus-minute outings; since coming back in mid-December he’s been held to 26.6 minutes per game. T.J. Warren, who returned in early December after missing almost two years, has gone from 16 minutes per game in his first six to 23 in the last nine. Over the same stretch, Joe Harris and Yuta Watanabe have both been in the 16- to 18-minute range. Which of these guys does the training staff think can bear a heavier load?
The coaching staff will be coming up with new rotations based mostly on guesswork. No one on the roster has played even 300 minutes without Durant this season. Since Vaughn took over, only two five-man lineups not including KD have played even 15 minutes together—and one of those was a garbage-time lineup of bench players. Expect some trial and error. But the most obvious place to look for clues about what might work is those 397 minutes without KD (breakdown courtesy of https://www.fantasylabs.com/nba/on-off/).
In terms of net ratings, the most successful Nets with KD off the court have been T.J. (+5.3), Kyrie (+3.6), Edmund Sumner (+2.8), and Patty Mills (+1.2). Fans like to complain about Kyrie’s “iso-ball” when KD sits, but it has been more effective than just about anything else when KD sits. Of course, beating opponents single-handed for 30 or 35 minutes per game is a lot harder than doing it for 10 minutes per game. We’ll see how much more Kyrie can do.
Warren, Sumner, and Mills are all among the next five guys in terms of usage, shot attempts, and points with KD off the floor. However, Sumner and Mills have both been ineffective defensively in those stretches, and their positive net ratings are mostly due to uncharacteristic hot shooting (.748 and .629 TS%, respectively) in relatively few minutes. Worth a try, but not to bank on. Two other guys in that high-usage group, Curry and Thomas, have also been ineffective defensively without KD, and shot poorly as well, producing two of the worst net ratings among rotation players.
The best hope in this group, based on the limited evidence we’ve seen so far, is Warren. He’s shot almost as well without KD on the court as with him, and scored just as many points. He’s also played long stretches as a higher-usage player with the Suns and Pacers. Defensively, he gives up less size than Sumner, Mills, Curry, or Thomas, requiring fewer additional lineup adjustments. The biggest question is minutes—how many will they let him play, and how durable will he be just weeks back on the court after a devastating injury?
Simmons is likely to be a disappointment to fans who expect him to assume a significantly larger scoring load in Durant’s absence. In 214 minutes without KD he has actually scored slightly less than in 602 minutes with him. His bigger contribution will probably be as a facilitator and rebounder, since no one who replaces Durant’s scoring will also replace those other aspects of his all-around game. Among rotation players, Ben and KD are first and second in assist percentage and second and third behind Nic Claxton in rebound percentage. And Ben’s assists and rebounds—unlike his points—have gone up when he plays without KD. They’ll be more important than ever in the weeks to come, as will his defense.
The Nets have played a lot of short-handed teams in Vaughn’s two months as coach, and have run into some gutty performances from unheralded players filling big shoes. Now it will be their turn to step up, individually and collectively.
- Kevin Durant diagnosed with similar injury that crushed Nets last season - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets in position to survive Kevin Durant’s injury - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News
- Kevin Durant injury: What his MCL sprain means for the Nets’ chances at a top-three seed - Kevin Pelton - ESPN+