Kevin Durant is why Nets will be title contenders next season

Authoring miracles had seemingly turned into Kevin Durant’s occupation over the last couple weeks, but when his oversized feet were tapping the 3-point line in the closing moments of regulation Saturday night, it would be unfair to expect more.

Durant had nothing left to give in overtime, but he drove home a necessary point even in defeat, the biggest point for optimism even in the face of heartbreak.

The biggest health risk on the Brooklyn Nets was the last man standing, only sitting for a total of eight minutes in the last three games against the Milwaukee Bucks and looking every bit like the best player on Earth — so much so, Giannis Antetokounmpo stated it twice in the last week.

The thought of the moment is simple: If Durant’s tippy toes were behind the line, the hobbling Nets would be the likely favorite to win the title this season. With no clear-cut juggernaut, the tie goes to the team with the best player. That’s Durant.

If James Harden was healthier or Kyrie Irving hadn’t twisted his ankle earlier in the series, the Nets would likely be hosting the East finals, but perhaps Durant wouldn’t have two 40-plus-point masterpieces to his ledger.

Kevin Durant pumps his fist as he celebrates after being fouled.
Kevin Durant nearly willed the hobbled Nets into the Eastern Conference finals. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Irving gets hurt; that’s part of his story so any team-building exercise must include the possibility or the likelihood he’ll be missing time. And this season, he was given the leeway to take time away from the team for a stretch for personal reasons.

Harden’s case is trickier because he’s been far more durable than Irving historically. His hamstring injury that resurfaced in the playoffs ailed him through the season, and possibly could’ve stemmed from being out of shape to start the season when he acted up to get the Houston Rockets to trade him.

He’ll be 32 in August, and although that’s nowhere close to ancient, it bears watching for the Nets moving forward.

What Sean Marks, Steve Nash must address this offseason

It’s one of a few issues general manager Sean Marks and head coach Steve Nash will have to address between now and when this team marches back into the playoffs next season, but they’re still very much in the championship conversation.

And the number one reason is Kevin Durant, standing tall and healthy two years after his Achilles injury. He played half of the schedule, largely due to a conservative approach with his recovery. It’ll be hard to say if that will be the case next season, but considering he’ll be going to the Olympics, it could be another slow ramp-up for him come training camp.

Marks said they’ll have a conversation with Durant about the Olympics, but they generally seem supportive.

“If his body feels right, and if he's up for the task, you know, what a great opportunity to go play alongside a lot of his close friends and go and have a very, very unique experience,” Marks said Monday at the Nets' season-ending news conference.

Nash’s inexperience on the sideline showed a couple times this playoffs, and it’s to be expected. Keeping a timeout in his pocket in overtime instead of giving a weary Durant a moment to catch his breath and his legs could haunt him all summer.

“It's not that dissimilar to being a player, you know, we're gonna look back on the year and things that we did,” Nash said. “I like that part of the process. I like you know, trying to be as inquisitive and seeking as much kind of information or clarity as possible to make decisions.”

Steve Nash with his hands near his hips as he reacts to a call.
Nets head coach Steve Nash's inexperience showed during the Eastern Conference semifinals vs. the Bucks. (Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

It’s funny to point to karma and say it’s the basketball gods who prevented the quick grits Nets from winning it all in their first shot, but there were real basketball reasons, like lack of depth up front and the curious case of Joe Harris forgetting he’s one of the best shooters in the world. After Game 2, Harris was 7-for-31 from 3 and he was hard on himself for missing so many wide-open shots. The Nets sacrificed the depth they’d built in order to get Harden, and lost Spencer Dinwiddie to a partial ACL tear early in the season, so they were performing with no margin for error.

Then, errors happened. Harris couldn’t shoot, Harden was playing on one leg and they were heavily reliant on Jeff Green and Blake Griffin to give production above what should be expected at this point in their careers.

“Yeah, I think we have to be careful looking at what have you done for me lately,” Marks said. “Joe has been a stronghold here for the entire time I've been here and I've watched him grow, we've watched him develop, you know, he's a huge part of this culture and driving it.”

Nets could be refuge for veterans in 2021-22 NBA season

Harris is one of the eight players under contract next season, and with so much cap space devoted to Durant, Irving and Harden, they’ll have to make shrewd decisions in free agency to replenish the roster.

Of course, veterans who wind up being bought out will look to the Nets for refuge. Griffin was a shining example, going from looking ill-fitting on a rebuilding Pistons roster to fitting right in with the ambitious Nets.

Other free agents or free-agents-to-be will take note of that experience.

Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown slap hands to celebrate.
Blake Griffin looked like he was near the end of his career in Detroit. But in Brooklyn, he proved he still had a lot left in the tank. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

“I would love to say, the continuity of our group, bring back the whole group, that'll be great. Let's go and see if we can stay healthy and go for it again,” Marks said. “But I just also know that's unrealistic at this juncture.”

Due to the jagged nature of this season and the Nets hardly seeing their grand plan come to fruition, they won’t be operating from a full position of knowledge.

But it’ll be one of strength, that’s the advantage of having the best player in the game, motivated and still in his prime.

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