This Was the Biggest Challenge of Kevin Durant’s Career

Durant during Game Four on Sunday. Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Durant carried the Nets to victory, scoring 49 points after playing every minute of Game Five.

Here’s something that has been forgotten about the state of the Brooklyn Nets before Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving came to town: They were good. The 2018–19 team, coached by Kenny Atkinson, was one of the happier stories in the NBA that year, a squad that was widely expected to be terrible but ended up clawing its way to a winning record and a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The two most heavily praised features of that team, both explicitly name-checked by Durant during his decision-making process, were its culture and its depth. The Nets had a roster stocked with contributors, a rotation that ran nearly 12 players deep, and a coach whose players loved him. Durant told me in an interview that “it was obvious they had a good thing going already.” The implication was clear: That other team in town didn’t. Durant would have help in Brooklyn.

Two years later, the Nets look so different from that 2019 team that they may as well have NEW JERSEY plastered on the front of their jerseys. Atkinson, who finished fifth in Coach of the Year voting that year, is gone, reportedly at the behest of Durant and Irving. The best player on the 2019 team, D’Angelo Russell, is now a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. In fact, there is only one player from that roster, three-point specialist Joe Harris, currently getting playoff minutes for Brooklyn. Every other spot has turned over. The culture and depth Durant craved so much? All of it, every little bit, is gone.

And now, really for the first time in his career, Durant stands almost completely alone.

After Irving went down with a sprained right ankle early in Game Four of the Nets’ Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Durant and what was left of his teammates looked entirely adrift in a blowout loss that evened the series at 2-2. Irving won’t be playing Tuesday in the pivotal Game Five, and the third cog in the would-be-unstoppable Nets machine, James Harden, is struggling with a hamstring injury as well. The Nets are in the most important week of their franchise’s history, and Durant doesn’t have much in the way of healthy teammates: Harris, what’s left of Blake Griffin, and a bunch of guys who wouldn’t crack the Knicks’ rotation. So much for the championship master plan.

This is the most isolated Durant has ever been. Even early in his career, before he made his infamous choice to join Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, Durant was playing alongside Russell Westbrook and, briefly, Harden. He then won his titles with Golden State, titles that, despite the detractors who claimed that he was merely coasting on Curry’s coattails, he absolutely earned in every way. (Curry is a top-shelf Hall of Famer, but in the playoffs, Durant was the Warriors’ best player on both ends of the court.) The move to Brooklyn had Durant as the centerpiece, obviously, but the role players on the team, along with Irving, were supposed to help ease the burden on Durant as he got older. But the 2019–20 version of the Nets, the one that had Irving but not Durant, was actually worse than the 2018–19 version. Their middling play got Atkinson fired and, as it turned out, most of the roster jettisoned. The Nets then sent Caris LeVert and just about every draft pick it has for the next decade to bring in Harden, a reasonable trade (any team would make it) but one that further thinned out the team’s roster.

For a while, it worked. At their best and most healthy, the Nets have looked completely dominant, most notably during the first two games of this series, when they wiped out the Bucks even without Harden. But without Harden and Irving, the Bucks feasted on the Nets. Durant was excellent in Game Four, but it was not nearly enough. So how could it possibly be enough in Game Five? And what if Harden and Irving are not healthy until it’s too late?

It is, without question, the biggest challenge of Durant’s career. The Nets were 2-0 with just Durant during the regular season, but now they’re facing Giannis Antetokounmpo and a Bucks team that is a perpetual title contender, and has been waiting years for a break like the one they were just handed. Durant has been at his strongest of late, averaging 31 points and eight rebounds in these playoffs and playing stifling defense in a way he hasn’t in years. He looks healthy and motivated, as if the last two years of rehabilitation and restoration were leading him to this exact point. And yet here he is, at perhaps his absolute peak as a player, and he has to do mostly by himself.

In the public consciousness, Durant usually can’t win. If he gets a championship, well, he was supposed to; look at the talent around him! And if he doesn’t … how could he not win a title with all that talent on his team? What a choker! As is usually the case, both of these views are wrong and miss the point. Durant is the sort of transcendent talent other stars want to play with, and he’s also smart and savvy enough to know there’s no honor (and no titles) in carrying a team of lesser talents on your back. He has always made the prudent decision any reasonable person would make. It’s no wonder he’s always getting killed for it.

But now, the Harden and Irving injuries have actually given him a rare opportunity, one he may never see again. If he can somehow manage to propel Brooklyn to victory in this series, it could change every conversation anyone has about him moving forward.

So, that’s the good news. The bad news is that doing so with such a thin supporting cast, very much of his own making, is probably impossible.

This Was the Biggest Challenge of Kevin Durant’s Career