What changes with Kevin Durant out a month nursing a sprained MCL?
Both nothing and everything, said Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn.
The plan is to approach every game with the same attention to detail, the same selflessness and the same scrambling defense that made the Nets the hottest team in all of basketball riding a 12-game winning streak into the New Year.
But at the end of the day, the Nets were able to win most of those games because Durant — in the middle of a legendary scoring season — was on the floor.
And after sustaining an MCL sprain in his right knee in Sunday’s victory over the Miami Heat, Durant is projected to miss four weeks of action. His absence could very well stretch longer if he decides to sit until after the Feb. 19 NBA All-Star break — as he decided after sustaining a similar, but a more severe version of the same injury on the opposite leg this time last season.
Vaughn declined to provide a grade of severity for Durant’s sprain and said the superstar forward is in good spirits. The Nets’ coach agreed that it’s a relief Durant didn’t tear any ligaments or suffer a more severe sprain.
But the last time Durant got hurt, the Nets went on a 5-16 spiral that included an 11-game losing streak. It was that very stretch Durant pointed to last off-season when reportedly calling for Steve Nash and Sean Marks to be fired if the Nets weren’t going to fulfill his summertime trade demand.
Vaughn, in fact, held back words about how that team played during that stretch while he was an assistant on Nash’s staff.
“To [be in] the position last year where we were — I’ll just say, no excuses,” he said after Nets practice at the HSS Training Facility in Industry City on Wednesday. “Not giving this group a chance to make excuses. Here to play. Here to win. Here to compete. It doesn’t change.”
Vaughn’s job, now, is to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself, and the Nets hope the work that has been done — both to the roster via Marks’ off-season acquisitions, and to the game plan since Vaughn replaced Nash as head coach — can keep the team afloat until the captain returns to ship.
“Our schemes won’t change,” Vaughn said. “We’ll need to do things better, [like] rebounding the basketball better because Kevin can make a shot for us and cover up some of our sins. So the shot discrepancy can’t be the same. We can’t turn it over the same. So all the things that increase or decrease your margins, we just got to be better at.
“Nothing changes for our group. We play extremely hard and let everything else fall where it may.”
The words “nothing changes” are only half true because the Nets are so drastically different as a basketball team when Durant is on the floor. He averages the most efficient 30 points per game in NBA history and is a better defender than many give him credit for.
The rotations, for example, have no choice but to change. Vaughn declined to provide a starting lineup with Durant out of the rotation, but one could surmise sharpshooter Joe Harris starts in place of the injured star.
Vaughn said he does not want to overload reserve wing TJ Warren, who is finally getting back into a scoring groove after missing two consecutive seasons with stress fractures in his left foot. Warren’s mix of size and scoring ability makes him an easy candidate to fill in for Durant in spurts, but not if it puts his end-of-the-season availability in jeopardy.
“Do I see him playing 40 minutes? No, not happening,” Vaughn said. “We’ll continue to see how we’re going to manage the rotations. Who starts, who’s the first sub, what the second group looks like; all of that changes. So we’ll figure out what is best for the group.”
Since no one player is going to replace Durant’s production, Vaughn said the offensive game plan will change. He explained that likely means playing faster and creating more three-point opportunities in transition because the Nets won’t be able to rely on Durant — the league leader in mid-range field goal efficiency.
Durant is also a near seven-foot body close to seven rebounds per game. A team that lacks size and has historically (but not as much under Vaughn) been outworked on the glass must find answers.
“The rebounding piece [might] still be an issue for us. I think we’ve been sharing the basketball pretty well. That’ll need to continue,” Vaughn said. “I don’t think anyone has to do anything that they haven’t been doing. We need to be a little cleaner, a little tighter with our schemes but no huge changes philosophically of how are we going to approach this thing.”
The Nets are undoubtedly in a better position to sustain Durant’s extended absence than they were last season. When Durant went down last year, Kyrie Irving was only a part-time player, Harris was out for the season due to an ankle injury, and James Harden became so frustrated, he forced a trade to Philadelphia.
Marks insulated the Nets from their precious struggles with his off-season acquisitions. He loaded up on the wings, trading for Royce O’Neale and signing both Warren and Yuta Watanabe to minimum contracts. It also helps that both Ben Simmons and Seth Curry are healthy, available and playing steady minutes.
More than just the names on paper, however, it’s the vibe around the team that’s different this time, says starting center Nic Claxton. These are not the same Nets that succumbed to Durant’s MCL sprain last year. It’s why while everything has to change when Durant is out the rotation, everything still stays the same.
“Just our spirit, our energy, our vibes, the way that we’ve been defending [are all different than that 5-16 stretch],” Claxton said. “Even though we’re definitely going to miss him out there — I’m going to miss him out there on the defensive end — but yeah the way our principles (are), how solid we’ve been defensively, offensively. [I know] we’ll figure it out.”