This is why you sign a player like TJ Warren.
It’s why you load up on the wings and keep a secondary playmaker like Seth Curry on the roster. It’s why trading a player like Joe Harris is easier said than done and why the phrase “next-man up” will live on in perpetuity in Brooklyn.
The Nets had no choice but to prepare for this moment when Kevin Durant requested a trade during the off-season and highlighted specifically the portion of last season where the team fell from No. 1 to No. 10 while he was out due to injury.
Now Durant is hurt again — this time the same injury (an MCL sprain) on the opposite knee (right), and this time a less severe diagnosis providing optimism around the team. Durant missed six weeks of action last season after getting hurt. The Nets say this time around he will be reevaluated in two weeks, and Kyrie Irving says Durant’s strength work in the gym helped prepare his body to better sustain an injury like this.
The team is equally in better shape to sustain Durant’s absence.
For starters, this is a deeper roster — with far less drama, at least at this point of the season.
Last season, the Nets went spiraling on an 11-game losing streak in large part due to Kyrie Irving’s absence. Irving, who is unvaccinated, was ineligible to play at Barclays Center due to New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which did not have an exemption for professional athletes at the time. Irving’s spotty availability frustrated James Harden, who ultimately quit on the Nets and forced a trade to the 76ers at last year’s deadline.
Without Durant, with a checked-out Harden and a part-time Irving — not to mention with Steve Nash as head coach — the Nets didn’t stand a chance.
These Nets are not the same.
You only have to look to the Dec. 10 victory over the rolling Indiana Pacers to know this is a different team. That night, Vaughn coached his way to victory against Rick Carlisle despite resting every key rotation player except Edmond Sumner and Yuta Watanabe.
A more recent example is how the Nets finished the game against the Heat in Durant’s absence on Sunday. They held Miami to just 11 points in the game’s final nine minutes and hung on to win despite losing their captain to a freak injury, winning the game on Royce O’Neale’s last-second putback of Irving’s missed game-winning jump shot.
The only certainty is that for two weeks, the Nets will not have the most efficient 30-point scorer in NBA history.
Durant is averaging exactly 30 points and shooting 56% from the field, 36% from downtown and 94% from the foul line. He moved past Dominique Wilkins for 14th place on the NBA’s all time leading scorers list in the first quarter against the Heat before leaving in the final minute of the third period.
It’s impossible to replace his scoring, let alone his dominance, which makes the Nets a threat to win games even if they’re down 20 points at the half. With 21 potential playoff opponents in their next 23 games, Durant’s injury has erased any margin for error. If he misses exactly two weeks, the Nets will have to survive eight games without him: vs. Boston, vs. Oklahoma City, at San Antonio, at Phoenix, at Utah, at Golden State and at Philadelphia before returning home to face the Detroit Pistons.
Again, this is why you sign a player like Warren, who was heavily featured in Indiana averaging 27 points per game in the Orlando Bubble before missing back-to-back seasons with stress fractures in his left foot. The Warren signing has been a revelation for the Nets. He is averaging a hair under 10 points per game off the bench and could easily be thrust into the starting rotation as one of few isolation scorers capable of playing Durant’s role offensively alongside Irving.
Vaughn could also opt to replace Durant in the starting lineup with Harris or Watanabe. He could also go small and start Seth Curry alongside Irving to provide an additional ball handler, shot creator and play maker.
Irving, himself, must take it to another level. Teams are going to double-team and scheme specifically for the All-Star guard knowing Durant is no longer the head of the snake. The added responsibility undoubtedly trickles down to Ben Simmons, who has visibly improved as an athlete since undergoing offseason back surgery but has yet to find his groove impacting games on the offensive end with his scoring.
Without Durant, everything changes. Opposing teams will now smell blood in the water with Brooklyn’s MVP candidate out an extended period of time.
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.
Just like Durant made clear he wanted when he asked out this summer.