Joe Harris will start in place of the injured Kevin Durant (MCL), Kyrie Irving’s role doesn’t change while Durant is out for a month, and according to head coach Jacque Vaughn, neither does Ben Simmons’.
At least not on offense.
The Nets are entering familiar territory. They went down this road last season and imploded via an 11-game losing streak when Durant missed a month-and-a-half’s worth of action due to a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee. This time around, it’s his right knee, and the Nets are cautiously optimistic his injury isn’t as severe as the one that derailed last season.
Yet the games must go on, and they must go on without the team captain.
There’s no way the Nets are going to find an apples-to-apples replacement for the current most efficient 30-point scorer in league history. Case in point: Vaughn said ahead of tipoff against the Celtics on Thursday he doesn’t want any other players taking mid range jump shots, that those shots are largely reserved for Durant — and to lesser extents, Irving, TJ Warren and Seth Curry — because he’s the most efficient mid range shooter in all of basketball.
Instead of leaning on Durant’s scoring ability, the Nets are going to rely on a combination of factors.
That’s why Harris will start. Not Warren.
The prevailing thought across the Nets fan base has been to fill Durant’s three-level scoring shoes with another three-level scorer at his position: reserve forward Warren.
On its surface, the idea makes sense: Warren has shouldered larger scoring loads during his past stint with the Indiana Pacers. He’s also 6-8, a better defender than given credit (according to his teammates) and capable of hitting shots and generating offense on his own.
Those are many of the reasons Vaughn decided to roll with Harris as the starter: Where Durant set the table for Brooklyn by regularly playing all 12 minutes of the opening period, Irving’s minutes will remain relatively the same with a substitution in the first quarter.
That’s where Warren comes in hand as an off the bench scorer — and judging by Vaughn’s thought process, it’s fair to assume spark plug Curry will also fill in during some of those opening period minutes.
“It’s gonna be a balance,” Vaughn said Thursday. “You’ve gotta think about: Kai’s not gonna play 12 minutes in a row like Kevin did in the first quarter, so you’ve gotta have someone who can score when Kai’s on the bench also. TJ can do that.”
Which brings us to Harris, and the Nets’ new identity with Durant on the shelf a month. The Nets know half court offense will be more difficult to generate without Durant’s automatic 30 points per game. They also know they can’t expect Warren, in his first season after missing two straight due to stress fractures in his left foot, to shoulder a 35- or 40-minute load.
That’s why more of the offense will run through Simmons with Durant out of the lineup.
Harris starting is important because even though he’s not a walking bucket like Durant, it’s almost the same sin for an opponent to leave him open. Harris creates optimal spacing. He’s an improved defender this season and isn’t afraid to put his body on the line scrambling for 50-50 loose balls.
He also gives Simmons another option in transition.
Vaughn said the Nets don’t anticipate — or at least haven’t asked — Simmons to score more in Durant’s absence. What they want to do, instead, is play faster and play to Simmons’ strengths, which are creating opportunities for both himself and his teammates in fast break situations.
“You want to have Ben as a facilitator, have Ben push the pace for us,” Vaughn said. “The big part of covering up for Kevin’s shots are we don’t want other people to shoot the twos he was shooting. He’s just so efficient at it. So we’re gonna have to shoot more threes. So who allows us to shoot more threes? Hopefully Ben pushing it in transition to a shooter allows us to shoot more threes.
“Can he get Joe Harris another three? Can he get Seth another two threes? Can he get Yuta [Watanabe] another corner trey ball to make up for the difference without changing the way he plays? So nothing’s added on his plate also. We’ve talked about him playing with force, that continuing throughout the course of the game. So no added scoring for him that I’ve asked him of.”
Simmons’ role defensively, however, will change drastically with Durant out.
Durant is a sneaky elite defender whose length, experience and overall IQ not only poses matchup nightmares but also makes the duo of him and Nic Claxton difficult to score on at the rim. With Durant out, Simmons will have to double as a lockdown perimeter defender and also a weak side support for the help if Claxton gets beat.
“I think we all know Ben can impact the game without scoring, and so it puts the onus on him to really produce each possession on both ends of the floor. It’s gonna put more [of an onus] on him defensively,” Vaughn said. “I think that’s where you’re gonna ask more of him, just because Kevin isn’t there, so he’s going to guard a perimeter guy, he’s going to have to come over and try to be vertical and contest a shot at the rim where he might not have a week or two ago, so that part defensively.
“Not going to ask him to score any more than he has. I think he loves facilitating, that’s good for our group.”
Lastly — Irving will have to score more.
Of course the other superstar has to pick up the slack with Durant out of the rotation. Last year, Irving was rendered ineligible to play at Barclays Center due to New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate when Durant went down. Without him on a consistent basis, the Nets leaned on a frustrated James Harden, who ultimately requested a trade because of everything going on in Brooklyn.
This season, Irving is fully available — and he’s fully motivated, one might surmise, because he only has one year left on his contract.
All the ball movement in the world goes out the window if the supporting cast isn’t knocking down shots. Vaughn said the Nets don’t want to put more pressure on Irving than he had when Durant was healthy, but naturally, the pressure of an entire organization rests on Irving’s ability to be special when the team needs him most.
”Kevin bailed us out a lot of times, bad possessions ended up being a good possessions,” Vaughn said. “So we’re going to have to be tighter on both ends of the floor, but no more pressure should be on eleven. His ability to create double teams, which will happen, and create for other guys, his ability still to play one on one at times for us is going to be there. We added nothing to the playbook yesterday to put any more on his plate.”