NBA Notebook: Knicks, Lakers, Raptors, Mavericks, Pistons, Kevin Durant

NBA Notebook: Knicks, Lakers, Raptors, Mavericks, Pistons, Kevin Durant

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Looking for good vibrations in Brooklyn hasn’t been an easy task in recent times. Scandals, injuries, trade requests and public turmoil have been a staple since Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving landed with the Nets. The closest thing to happiness happened in the last 20 games. With Irving back in the fold and Jacque Vaughn established as the new leader on the court, the promised land looked closer than ever for this restless franchise.

Since November 27, Brooklyn rolled with a league-best 18-2 record, tying for best offense in the league with the Nuggets while shooting an insane 60.3% in effective field goal percentage. In fact, the Nets would currently be the best shooting team ever in a season (58.4 effective field goal percentage). But most importantly, Vaughn has built one of the strongest defenses in the league. Only Grizzlies, Cavaliers and Knicks had a better defensive percentage since the start of the Nets’ 20-game run.

In a league deep in offensive talent, no one has been more important than Durant. At age 34 and after overcoming a torn Achilles, we have enjoyed one of the finest versions of the future Hall of Famer. Scoring almost 30 points per game, he’s setting career-highs in field goal (55.9 percent) and free throw percentage (a league-best 93.4 percent). His mid-range game is an absolute beauty, making 57.1 percent of his shots on 7.0 attempts per game. In the 21st century, only Dirk Nowitzki has finished a season over 50 percent from mid-range with at least seven attempts. No one has shot better than 53 percent… till now.

But then, Durant got injured with a right MCL sprain. A very similar injury to the one that sidelined him last season, though at least with an expected shorter recovery time.

During the 2021-22 season, Durant’s injury was a painful inflection point. The Nets went from legit contenders for the Eastern Conference No. 1 spot, only half a win behind the leading Bulls, to having to compete for their lives in the play-in Tournament. With KD away, they were the worst team in assist percentage (only 55.7 percent of their shots came after an assist). Trading James Harden in February for an inactive Ben Simmons ended any chance for an elite playmaker to solve the problem.

And on top of that, the team, still coached by Steve Nash, became the third-worst defensive team in the NBA while Durant was out, only behind the lottery-bound Rockets and Pacers. The result: a catastrophic 5-16 record that ended any chance of a top seed in the playoffs and, eventually, a quick first-round exit.

Could this year be different? Well. there are reasons to be optimistic.

It’s impossible to emphasize enough how good and motivated the defense looks compared to last season. Nic Claxton, averaging a league-best 2.6 blocks per game, has exploded as one of the best rim protectors in the league. Newcomer role-players like Royce O’Neale, Yuta Watanabe, and Edmond Sumner are bringing some defensive grittiness Brooklyn didn’t have last year. And for all his offensive struggles, Simmons’ versatility on the defensive end has provided a perfect balance for the team.

It’s inevitable the Nets will be a worse offensive team without Durant. Without him on the court, Brooklyn has a 108.0 offensive rating in 2022-23, which only would be good for the 29th-best in the league. The team will have to rely more on a more well-covered Irving and on the inconsistent playmaking of Simmons. And the great assortment of elite shooters the Nets have will enjoy less space to find shots. It’s all on Vaughn and his defensive scheme. If he succeeds in the next few weeks, Brooklyn can finally believe again.

– Alberto De Roa

You can follow Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto), Yossi Gozlan (@YossiGozlan), Frank Urbina (@FrankUrbina_), and Alberto De Roa (@TikotDeRoa) on Twitter.