What does Kevin Durant’s MCL sprain mean for him and the Brooklyn Nets?
One day after Durant left the Nets’ victory over the New Orleans Pelicans with a knee injury, an MRI revealed a sprain of his left MCL. Sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Brooklyn expects a four- to six-week schedule for Durant’s recovery, in line with a grade 2 sprain.
Durant should be back in good time for the playoffs, but his absence limits the number of opportunities for the Nets to see him play with All-Star teammates James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The trio had only played two games together since Irving rejoined Brooklyn while he was eligible to play in road games, including a 26-point victory in Chicago over the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls most recently.
With 11 of their next 14 away games, the Nets expected an expanded look at their three stars. Instead, as was the case for much of the 2020-21 regular season following the addition of Harden, the Brooklyn trio will instead provide the team with coverage to deal with one of them absent.
Let’s break down the consequences.
Nets stars are rarely available at the same time
The extent to which the absence of Durant, Harden and Irving has been shifted since Harden debuted in Brooklyn a year ago is almost appalling. Of the 101 games in the regular season that the Nets have played in that time, Brooklyn has had all three stars for just 10. Only twice has none of the three been available. Brooklyn has typically been down with one star (66 out of 101 games) and occasionally two of the three (the remaining 23).
Even in the playoffs of 2021, the Nets only had all three stars together for their first-round league win over the Boston Celtics. Harden suffered a re-injury to one of his hind legs a minute inside Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks and returned ahead of schedule after Irving lost to the series with an ankle sprain.
To some extent, of course, it’s the value of having three stars. Brooklyn should be able to survive Durant’s absence because Harden and Irving are able to pick up more of the load. Even in the handful of home games between now and the All-Star break, where Irving will be unable to play due to his vaccination status (five in total), the Harden alone gives the Nets a chance to win. Brooklyn is 7-4 in games where he is the only member of the Big Three available.
At the same time, it’s definitely frustrating for Nets coach Steve Nash to first get a real look at his entire lineup of stars in the final quarter of the season. Provided Durant is able to return after the All-Star break, which is optimistic but not aggressive, Brooklyn will have 10 remaining road fights to build lineups and rotations around the stars with Irving entitled.
The concern is probably less about how Durant, Harden and Irving fit together – they are good enough and gained enough experience last season to figure it out – and more about how they can complement them. Nash has quickly moved through lineups, exacerbated by Irving yo-yoing in and out of the lineup and other absences. Nash last used the same start five more than two games in a row in a stretch that ended on December 7, just before a number of Nets players began entering health and safety protocols.
Sowing is not a primary concern for Brooklyn
It’s hard to say how much Durant’s absence could affect the Nets’ final place in the playoffs because the East position is so crowded at the moment. Only 2.5 games separate the Bulls first place from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers, who are just in fifth place in terms of games left. Realistically, this group is likely to fix itself at some point, especially if mid-season surprises Chicago and Cleveland experience some slippage.
Brooklyn, who are currently number two at halftime after the Bulls, are almost certainly safe to get into the top six and avoid the play-offs. Nets enjoys a 4.5-game cushion there over seventh-place Charlotte Hornets. Other than that, seeding is unlikely to be Nash’s primary focus.
After all, if Irving remains unavailable for home games in the playoffs, the away series away might not be the worst for Brooklyn. It is possible that the ideal finishing position for the Nets will end up being the No. 3 seed, which would allow them to emerge a more difficult matchup in the first round, but leave them as the likely lower seed in matchups against the other Eastern powers. .
No matter where the Nets are in the position in four to six weeks, seeding alone should not be a reason to rush Durant back.
Precedent for Durant’s return from MCL sprain
This is not the first time Durant has suffered an MCL sprain in the middle of the season. Back in February 2017, during his first season with the Golden State Warriors, Durant was relieved to avoid a more serious injury when he fell early in a game against the Washington Wizards. When he was diagnosed with a grade 2 MCL sprain, Durant missed a little more than five weeks before returning in the final week of the regular season.
Despite another injury (a minor calf strain) that put him on the sidelines in two games in the opening round of the playoffs, Durant was his usual superstar-self as the Warriors put together one of the most dominant playoff races ever. Golden State started the postseason 15-0 before losing Game 4 of the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers, settling for a 16-1 finish that is the best winning percentage ever in a single playoff.
Individually, Durant delivered a career-high 0.683 true shot percentage during the 2017 playoffs and was named the Finals MVP after averaging 35.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 5.4 APG head-to-head against LeBron James.
The timing of Durant’s injury this year is likely to knock him out of the MVP race. Even a best-case scenario with a return in four weeks would mean missing 13 games on top of the six Durant has already sat out. No player has won the MVP while losing more than 11 games since Bill Walton in 1976-77. With so many other candidates, it is not realistic for Durant to overcome being out of line for so long.
Nevertheless, the major trophies remain in a championship and a third MVP in the finals in play for Brooklyn and Durant. A short-term absence should not do much to change this pursuit.