There is no way to predict what version of Kevin Durant the Nets will get, whenever Brooklyn’s newest star returns to the court. He will likely miss the entire first year of the four-year, $164 million contract with the team that he announced Sunday on the first night of free agency. He may not be the player we remember when he comes back. Durant is recovering from the most devastating injury in basketball—a ruptured Achilles tendon—an injury that has ended a lot of careers. Few players have been the same after.
KD could have a particularly difficult recovery given his age and the number of miles on his body. He’s no longer a young man, as he’s turning 31 in September and is going into his 13th season in the NBA. He has also made deep playoff runs for most of the past decade. Durant ended last season at no. 15 among active players in career regular-season minutes (31,305) and no. 4 in postseason minutes (5,598).
But there is plenty of reason for optimism in Brooklyn. Durant is one of the most talented players to ever play the game. His unprecedented combination of size, skill, and athleticism gives him a huge margin for error, even in comparison with other superstars. He can still be an elite player even if he loses a step. While there is no one-to-one parallel to what Durant is coming back from, if he can no longer be the player he was, there is one all-time great who could be the model for KD’s next chapter: Dirk Nowitzki.
Durant is an evolutionary version of Dirk. He already has many of the same moves. They are both elite shooters with the size to shoot over the top of any defender and score in every conceivable way: posting up, facing up, driving to the rim, shooting off the dribble, and shooting off movement. The difference is that Durant does those moves with a longer and more streamlined frame than Nowitzki. There have only been 10 7-footers in NBA history who have played for more than five seasons and averaged more than 20 points per game in their career; KD and Dirk are the only ones to do that while also taking more than two 3s per game. The similarities in their career shooting percentages are striking:
Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki’s Career Numbers
That Dirk maintained his trend-setting offensive production deep into his 30s is proof that Durant doesn’t need to be particularly fast to score at will. Nowitzki didn’t need to create much space off the dribble. His size created all the separation that he needed.
Durant, if he doesn’t suffer another serious injury, could have a similarly long career as Dirk. Size and shooting ability are the two things that don’t decline with age. A player whose game is based on those traits can play at a high level for a long time. Dirk won an NBA championship at 32, was last voted to the All-Star Game at 36, averaged 18.3 points per game at 37, and retired at 40.
Nowitzki did make some concessions to age, though. He was an underrated athlete in his prime, even if he never had the quickness or leaping ability of Durant. The younger version of Dirk could clean the defensive glass, start the fast break, and beat his man down the court. He even put a few players on posters in his 20s.
Nowitzki became more of a half-court player in his 30s. The Mavs played at the 14th-slowest pace in the league in his only championship season. They walked the ball up the court and posted him up as much as possible. Dirk was involved in more post-ups than any other offensive play type. But he wasn’t a prototypical low-post scorer. Many of his post-ups came at the elbow, allowing him to dribble into midrange jumpers without getting into wrestling matches in the paint. And while he was still the hub of their offense, he didn’t have as much responsibility as when he won his only MVP, in the 2006-07 season. Dallas used him more as the screener in the pick-and-roll than the ball handler, knowing that defenders wouldn’t leave him on those plays, creating open shots for his guards without forcing him to use much energy.
That type of role would require an adjustment from Durant. He has spent his whole career initiating the offense himself, beating his man off the dribble, and collapsing the defense. The Warriors also ran a more unorthodox offense than the Nets likely will. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr believes in using his top scorers as screeners off the ball. Few teams in the NBA ran as little pick-and-roll as Golden State. Just look at the difference between the way Durant was used in 2018-19 and the way Dirk was used in 2010-11:
Dirk vs. Durant
|Total % of offense
|Total % of offense
|Pick-and-roll ball handler
|Pick-and-roll roll man
Durant doesn’t have quite as much bulk as Dirk, but he should be able to play in a similar way. He knows how to score with his back to the basket: He was in the 78th percentile of post scorers in the league last season. It doesn’t matter how fast he is, or what the defense does to guard him. KD will always be able to get a clean look at a fadeaway. He could score in slow motion if he had to.
A slower version of Durant, just like Dirk, would also be unguardable in the two-man game. Durant would be more of a pop threat than a roll man, leaving the defense to choose between two equally unappealing options. Either his man would have to stay attached to him all the way out to the 3-point line, creating openings for the guard dribbling around his screen, or they would have to switch a smaller defender onto Durant, a nearly automatic two points.
Durant has an advantage over Dirk beyond athleticism: He is a much better passer. He averaged a career-high 5.9 assists per game with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Dirk’s career high for assists in a season is 3.5, and he had only one season with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2-to-1 or higher, when he averaged 1.6 assists and 0.7 turnovers per game at 39. Durant has improved as a passer over the course of his career, turning into a legitimate point forward who can see over the defense and make every pass in the book. The Nets could run their offense through him in the high post and trust him to create a quality look for himself or for one of his teammates every time down the floor.
The Nets have the personnel to make that type of system work. The most important piece is Kyrie Irving, who agreed to a four-year, $141 million contract with Brooklyn on Sunday. Kyrie is more of a scorer than a pure playmaker, but he showed in his time with LeBron James that he can limit turnovers, control the tempo of the game, and play as a secondary option. He doesn’t need to race up and down the court. He’s such a creative ball handler that he can score in isolations against a set defense. Kyrie forced his way out of Cleveland so that he could be the primary option, but his decision to partner with Durant seems to indicate a willingness to return to a smaller role. He could have stayed in Boston if he wanted to dominate the ball.
Brooklyn will do a couple of other things to make life easier for Durant. Kerr turned the pick-and-roll between Durant and Steph Curry into a glass box that he broke only in case of emergency. Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, who has traditionally built his offense around the play, will not have the same reservations. He will run the two-man game between Kyrie and Durant down the throat of opposing defenses and force them to adjust.
KD will also have more 3-point shooting around him than he did last season, a strange thing to say about a player leaving a team that employs the Splash Brothers. Golden State never placed an emphasis on shooting in its supporting cast. DeMarcus Cousins was the only Warriors player outside of their top three scorers to average more than three 3-point attempts per game. The Nets had eight players who reached that mark. The only players in their rotation who didn’t shoot 3s were their centers. A slower version of Durant will need to play in more space to create his own shot. The history of the moves that Atkinson and GM Sean Marks have made in Brooklyn indicates that he will get that space.
His new supporting cast may be even more important on defense. That is the area of the game where Durant could see the biggest dropoff. He was in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago: He had the length and athleticism to defend players at all five positions, while also protecting the rim. KD took the challenge of guarding LeBron in the 2017 and 2018 NBA Finals. Those days might be over. He will need a lot of younger and faster players to cover for him on the perimeter and take the most challenging defensive assignments. The new-look Nets have those players in droves. Look at how young their team will be next season:
PG: Kyrie Irving (27), Spencer Dinwiddie (26)
SG: Caris LeVert (25), Joe Harris (28)
SF: Taurean Prince (25), Garrett Temple (33)
PF: Rodions Kurucs (21)
C: DeAndre Jordan (31), Jarrett Allen (21)
Durant fits in perfectly at power forward. The Nets will be able to grow this group around Durant and Irving since they control all of their younger players—Dinwiddie, LeVert, Prince, Kurucs, and Allen—for at least two more seasons. Prince, whom they acquired in a pre-draft trade with the Hawks, will be crucial. At 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, he’s their one player with the length and athleticism to defend players at either forward position and allow Durant to hide on the least challenging assignment on a given night.
Brooklyn has a high floor over the next few seasons. But the team’s ceiling depends on Durant. The Nets will be a title contender if he can return and play as well as he did in Golden State. They may not get out of the first round without him next season.
The toughest challenge for Durant could be psychological. He was averaging a career playoff high of 32.3 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting before going down last season. He had reached a level few players ever have. Durant had taken the title of most well-rounded player in the league from LeBron James, and was the first 7-footer in NBA history without any holes in his game. It would be hard for anyone in that position to accept never being that guy again. KD was this close to history. He could have been the third player to ever win three consecutive NBA Finals MVPs, after Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.
The NBA will look a lot different when he returns. Durant will be two years removed from his last Finals MVP. He will be out of sight, out of mind, in much the same way that Kawhi Leonard was headed into last season after a similar absence. The odds are against Durant making a full recovery. He will likely not be at 100 percent at the start of the 2020-21 season, but assessing his effectiveness in percentages may be the wrong way to look at it. KD can be great without being the same player that he was. He can change his game to be something different, though not entirely new.