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Are Nets in better shape this time around without Kevin Durant?

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Brooklyn Nets v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Put aside reports that Kevin Durant’s MCL sprain is not as bad as last year’s injury, which sent the Nets on a 5-16 spiral. That’s one point of optimism. The other is that the Nets are in better shape than last year, better equipped to handle the rigors of the mid-season NBA. The records — and concern — may be strikingly similar, but the Nets should do better.

As Brian Lewis writes Wednesday, the lineup the Nets put on the floor after KD went down in January 2022 was not ideal:

It’s important to note this is a very different Nets team than the one that crumbled in the wake of Durant’s injury. After he went down on Jan. 15 last season, the very next game they started Irving, James Harden and Patty Mills in a three-guard lineup with Kessler Edwards and Day’Ron Sharpe in the frontcourt.

The unvaccinated Irving was still a part-time road-only player, Harden was mentally checking out and soon to ask for a trade. Mills is essentially out of the rotation, while Sharpe and Edwards have spent most of the season in the G-League. These Nets are better constructed.

Moreover, Nic Claxton was dealing with an energy-sapping illness — reportedly mononucleosis: Joe Harris was done for the season with an ankle sprain and the bench included a number of non-performing and underperforming assets, namely Blake Griffin, Paul Millsap, James Johnson and Jevon Carter.

The roster is better constructed this season. First off, the Nets are down only one player — obviously their biggest player but still only one. Irving is not just healthy and free from vaccine mandates but playing at a consistently high level, as high a level as he’s played in a Nets uniform.

The big difference revolves around what Sean Marks did last summer. He traded for Royce O’Neale, signed Yuta Watanabe, T.J. Warren, Edmond Sumner and Markieff Morris, all of whom are playing solid ball, O’Neale and Watanabe having career years. As Kristian Winfield wrote Tuesday of Durant’s injury, “This is why you sign a player like TJ Warren.”

And yes beyond the players on the bench, Jacque Vaughn is proving to be a better head coach than Steve Nash. The numbers, the vibes, etc. show it. Of course, with Durant going down, Vaughn’s honeymoon is over.

There will be issues. You don’t lose one of the game’s greatest players ever without them. The big question is how much Ben Simmons can contribute on offense. He is averaging 7.7 points a game, half of what he scored in his four years with the 76ers, 15.9.

As Lewis writes:

[T]hey need a more assertive Simmons. The All-Star who used to drive 10 times a game in Philadelphia has been averaging about three for Brooklyn. The Nets need him to attack and create open looks for spot-shooters like Harris and Yuta Watanabe.

Better free-throw shooting would be appreciated as well. Simmons average so far this year, 41.3%, is by far the worst of his career ... and that’s saying something.

Alex Schiffer puts the statistics aside and offers this;

Ben Simmons hasn’t played like the All-Star he was in Philadelphia despite showing flashes throughout the season. All eyes will be on him to see if he can take his play to another level to aid the burden on Irving,

Then, there’s the question about Warren’s minutes. Vaughn has been slowly increasing the 29-year-old’s minutes, a judicious plan considering that Warren is coming off two missed seasons due to foot issues. Now, though, he may be asked to start and provide the kind of offense he showed during his pre-injury days in Indiana. Again, Lewis:

Though Vaughn has been determined to manage Warren’s playing time after two years away from the game, the veteran’s 19.9 minutes will surely skyrocket. He’s been kept under 20 minutes in half of his games so far, but averaged 13.25 points on 56.6 percent shooting in the other half with extended playing time.

It’s going to be challenge if not a struggle. The Nets have a rough schedule coming up starting with the Celtics on Thursday night at Barclays Center. In the next two weeks, they will be play the Warriors, 76ers and Suns, all of them on a five-game, eight-day road trip that begins next Tuesday.

The Nets are 69-68 without Kevin Durant since he started playing for Brooklyn in 2020. Would the Nets and their fans be satisfied with a .500 record while KD rehabs? We will soon find out. However, as Winfield writes, one thing does appear comforting for the team and its fans.

Last year’s Nets team folded under the pressure, but this team is different. From top to bottom, this team is better equipped to handle their star being out at least two weeks.

That of course will be proven soon enough.