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Brooklyn Nets

Fact or fiction: The shadow cast by Kevin Durant and the uncertain identity of the Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant has not played in an NBA game since June 10 of last year when he ruptured his right Achilles against the Toronto Raptors in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. After signing with the Brooklyn Nets as a free agent, the expectation was that Durant would not suit up at any point during the 2019-20 season.

In October, the Nets announced that Durant would not play this season. At no point have the Nets officially moved off that stance even amidst a months-long suspension to the season that's left the door open to speculation of a potential return.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported over the weekend on The Woj Pod podcast that a return is not in the cards. "Kevin Durant's not coming back to the Nets this year," Wojnarowski said. "That's not happening... They're not playing him."

And yet questions still linger.

Back in April, Durant's manager Rich Kleinman said in an interview with SI's Chris Mannix that a return was unlikely though stopped short of explicitly ruling it out. And last week, Nets GM Sean Marks gave an interview to Newshub in which he openly discussed the complexity of any conversation about a potential return for Durant even as the stoppage of play has delayed the season and perhaps opened a window of opportunity depending on a presumptive season timeline.

"In all seriousness, we've tried not to talk about his timeline a lot. He knows his body better than anybody. Our performance team and training staff have done a tremendous job getting him to this point, but I just don't know how coming out of this pandemic will affect anybody, let alone Kevin.

"When you've got enough invested in a player like Kevin, we're never going to push him to come back. When the timing is right, he'll be 100 percent when he gets on the court.

"I can tell you this though - before the pandemic, he looked like Kevin Durant and that's a good thing."

Where do we go from here?

There is no playbook for what's happening right now. Sure, the 1998-99 and 2011-12 seasons began after delays but neither came in the middle of a season. Players targeting a return from injury in the spring of 1999 or 2012 didn't have the possibility of basketball in July or August, a factor that now weighs in every decision as teams decide how to best plan for the coming months.

MORE: Players with the most to prove if the season returns

Does a Durant return remain unlikely? By all accounts, yes. But there's also enough uncertainty that it's worth entertaining the prospect of a Durant return, especially given his immense talent and potential for a playoff-bound team in an already wide-open title chase.

We're not going to predict whether or not he's coming back, but rather discuss the ramifications of what a Durant return might have for the rest of the league.

Fact or fiction: Durant should return if healthy

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Fiction. After what happened last season, I don't think Durant should return just for the playoffs. He'd be better off returning next season when he has the benefit of using an 82-game season - or however many games each team plays - to get himself back into shape. My answer might be different if Kyrie Irving was healthy because there's a world in which the two of them hit the ground running and lead the Nets on a deep run in Year 1, but with Irving expected to be out until the end of the year while he recovers from undergoing shoulder surgery, I'm not sure there's anything for Durant to gain by returning.

Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Fact... with the caveat that he's truly 100%. It would be foolish to bring him back if he's anything less than 100%, but any trepidation over rust shouldn't be a factor. If the NBA figures out a way to come back and actually finish out the season in some capacity, why not take a shot at catching lightning in a bottle? The completely unpredictable nature of how the suspension will impact players and teams in what's almost assuredly going to be a vastly different set of on-court circumstances (perhaps shorter series?) means conventional wisdom about who can and can't win it all flies out the window. The Knicks almost won an NBA title as an 8-seed in a weird 1999 season and that can't hold a candle to the unpredictable nature of what a 2020 postseason might entail.

Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): Fact. If this pandemic has taught us anything is that nothing is guaranteed. If Kevin Durant is 100% or close to it and feels good enough to go what's the sense in holding him out? To prevent an injury that can happen at any other time? This should be KD's decision and if his body is a go he should suit up and play. The Nets' championship chances with him in the lineup are significantly better than without him. It would be silly to have a healthy Durant, who's willing to play sit on your bench because you're waiting on "next year".

Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): Fiction. Even with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, are the Nets going to win a championship with their current roster? Probably not. Even Irving himself said it's "glaring" that the Nets "need one or two more pieces to complement" their star duo. While Durant may well be at 100% by the time the season resumes, throwing him into playoff-level intensity games is a risk I'm not sure he or the Nets are willing to take. The goal for the franchise is long-term success and with Durant only 31-years-old and still very much in his 'prime', I think the risks outweigh the reward.

Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Fiction. Even if Kevin Durant is 100% and cleared to play, no amount of training or practice reps are going to be equivalent to gametime. Whether the league begins by resuming with the regular season or skipping to the playoffs, none of those game are that crucial because the roster he joins would not include a certain Kyrie Irving. So, although the roster gets a lot better with his return, if the team isn't likely to make a legitimate title run in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, then is it really worth putting KD on the court when you can contend better next season? I think not.

Fact or fiction: Durant would be the best player in a series against the Raptors

Adams: Fact. The real question is at what percent of his full capacity is Durant a better player than Pascal Siakam or Kyle Lowry? Even if he's fully recovered, Durant won't walk in the door and immediately replicate 100% of his pre-injury production. But let's say he's 80% of his fully realized self with the potential to ratchet it up for even 3-4 minute bursts, Durant's abilities are so vastly superior that he'd still present as a bigger threat than anyone on the Raptors. He's that good.

Rafferty: Fact. I mean, a healthy Durant is one of the three best players in the league, maybe the best player in the league. We have no idea how he's going to look when he returns, but the fact that he tore his Achilles in his non-dominant leg - an astute observation made by someone on Reddit - makes me believe that Durant can be 80-90% of the player he was when he returns, in which case he probably would still be the best player in a series against the Raptors.

Gay: Fact. At 100% this isn't even a debate. So as Micah said what percent of Durant are we willing to say we'd take over Lowry or Siakam. 80% seems low but you have to remember that we're talking about one of the all-time great scorers the game has seen. An 80-85% Durant would walk onto the floor and be the best player in the series. We saw what the dude did in the 12 minutes he played in the Finals last year. He wasn't at 80% then.

Kidane: Fact. Durant is better than any player that's pulled on a Raptors uniform. Ever. The continuity and coaching of the Raptors would most likely see them beat the Nets in a series, even with a healthy Durant, but having said that, an 80% Durant is still probably averaging 30 points per game.

Matange: Fact. This might have been a discussion if Kawhi Leonard was still on the Raptors but on the current roster of the defending champions, Durant, at 70-80%, might be the best player in the series. That's no disrespect to Pascal Siakam or Kyle Lowry but instead, just a testament to the greatness of KD.

Fact or fiction: Durant can be the best player in any series if he returns

Rafferty: Fact. I don't mean to sound like a broken record, but if Durant is still a top-10 player when he returns, he absolutely could be the best player in any series.

Adams: Fiction. I think Durant should return and I think Durant would be great... but not THAT great. Even if he's 100% recovered, there's still some rust to shake off which makes it hard for me to believe he'd be better right now than LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. But a series against anyone else? I could see it. I'd liken it to Michael Jordan returning in 1995 in which he put up big numbers, but wasn't entirely himself quite yet.

Gay: Fiction. At 100% there'd be a debate about him vs LeBron, Kawhi or Giannis. So the answer here is no.

Kidane: Fiction. Prior to getting injured, Durant was arguably the best player in the league for three seasons, right there with LeBron James. He is yet to play a single game with his Nets teammates, along with coming back from a serious injury, so I'd still take James, Leonard or Antetokounmpo as the 'best player' in a series against Durant, right now.

Matange: Fiction. That's taking it too far. Like I mentioned earlier, even if a 100% healthy Durant returns, he would need a few games to get used to the flow of the games and playing with Nets teammates for the first time. Not to mention the fact that there are players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who in current circumstances, are easily better than Durant.

Fact or fiction: The Nets can win the 2020 NBA title if Durant returns

Adams: Fact. I wouldn't go as far as to say that anybody can win it, but I whole-heartedly think more teams are now legitimate title contenders given the circumstances. What if the NBA returns with games in the middle of the afternoon in a makeshift empty facility? What if certain players just respond differently? What about the potential for shorter series? There are just so many variables at play and so many complete unknowns, I'd be more shocked if everything went chalk than if something totally bizarre played out.

I just said Durant couldn't be the best player in any series with James, Leonard or Antetokounmpo... but who is to say the road to a title even goes through those guys? We've seen the Nets compete even without Kyrie Irving and you add Durant to the mix, who knows what could happen. Durant has seen with his own eyes what happens when a team (the 2019 Toronto Raptors) throws caution to the wind and puts itself in a position to capitalize on completely unforeseen circumstances.

Rafferty: Fiction. As optimistic as I am about what Durant will look like coming off this injury, I have a hard time believing that he could lead the Nets to a championship after missing as much time as he has, especially without Irving by his side. Maybe next year.

Gay: Fact. As Micah said not everyone can win, but this will be as wide open as we've seen it in a while. Every team in the East has flaws and the Nets certainly do even if both KD and Kyrie are playing and are at 100%. But with two game-breakers including one of Durant's calibre, the Nets certainly have a chance to win a title in 2020. That why I think if both Durant and Kyrie are healthy they should play, why throw away a year if you have a chance at a title?

Kidane: Fiction. This isn't NBA 2K. Dropping Durant into the Nets roster makes them a TON better, but there are so many other factors that go into winning a championship. I don't think the Nets are quite there, but Durant certainly puts them in the conversation, which is a testament to his talent. The Nets are also in between coaches after firing Kenny Atkinson and promoting Jacque Vaughn to interim head coach. Give Durant and Irving a healthy 2021 season with a new head coach and they might well be the favourites for the title. 2020 not so much.

Matange: Fiction. Durant might be the best player in the series against the Raptors but I believe the Nets would struggle to win a couple of games against the defending champions, let alone pull off a title run.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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