Three questions facing the Nets with Kevin Durant sidelined

Brooklyn Nets James Harden
Jan 15, 2022; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets caught a break on Sunday with Kevin Durant’s injury — a sprained medial collateral ligament — but Brooklyn will still be without its cornerstone player for what could be at least a month. The Nets did not provide a timeline for his return, but a report from ESPN suggested it could be 4-to-6 weeks before Durant is fully healthy.

That is still a blow for a Nets team that has faced injuries to key players and had its lineup ravaged by COVID-19. Brooklyn had just reassembled its “Big Three” this month when Kyrie Irving returned as a part-time player due to his unvaccinated status and on Wednesday they played their best game of the year in Chicago.

What does Durant’s injury mean for the Nets now? Here are three key questions going forward.

Can Harden hold down the fort?

It was a year ago on Sunday when James Harden made his Nets debut after being traded from Houston. Since then, Harden, Durant and Irving have all been active at the same time for just 16 games. Brooklyn is set to their next four games on the road and 11 of their next 13 will be away from the Barclays Center.

That means Harden will have Irving on the floor with him for a majority of the Nets’ upcoming schedule, which will help alleviate some of the workload. The Nets will have to be cautious though to not overuse Harden, who has seen a lot of work lately and suffered a hamstring injury last season because of a similar situation the Nets find themselves in now.

“It’s been an incredible coup for us to have James in our program,” Nash said on Saturday. “There was a lot of bad luck, so to speak, last year, just the amount of games that we were able to play whole I think. I don’t even know what it was by the end of the year, but a dozen or less, that’s even if you include those games that James played on one leg. So, a little disappointment in the fact that we never had a real crack at it with full health or even close to full health.

“Having said that, he’s just brought so much to our team with his skill level and ability, so on the one hand an opportunity lost due to injury last year. At the same time, we’re still alive and building. We’ve had a lot more thrown at us this year, but we’re used to it, and I think these opportunities to overcome afford you a lot more in the end.”

Where will the Nets get scoring from?

The NBA’s leading scorer will not be on the court for the Nets for the next few weeks, which means they’ll need to find a way to replicate this 29.2 points per game Durant has been averaging this season. Again, Harden and Irving are big parts of filling that gap, but Brooklyn will need more scoring from others in the lineup.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Claxton will both make the trip to Cleveland, so one or bot may be available to play. The  Nets’ rookies have also been key offensive contributors over the past few games. Cam Thomas had 20 points and Kessler Edwards had 16 in Saturday’s win over New Orleans. Big man Day’Ron Sharpe had 12 points and recorded his first double-double.

The rookies will be part of the equation to keeping things afloat while Durant rehabs from his injury and Harden (and Irving) serve as the team’s offensive focal points

“We’re just playing our role,” Thomas said on Saturday. “Whatever role we’re put in, we’re playing our role and we’re just doing our best in a role. So I feel like we’re just excelling in the role that we’re put in.”

What does this mean for the lineup?

Nets coach Steve Nash has had to get creative with his lineup and rotation because of all the injuries and the ever-changing starting lineup with Irving in and out depending on whether Brooklyn is at home or not. Nash has had to experiment with his starting lineup and his rotation to try and understand what he has to work with.

“There is a balance to be struck there,” Nash said about playing his rookies and vets. “These guys deserve an opportunity. They’ve played well. They’ve been very solid. The vets, we know what they give us and we have a lot of guys on our team that are about the same level, so it’s really hard to be super consistent with it.”