Kevin Durant left the Warriors after three years in search of something different. With two titles on the résumé, Durant headed to Brooklyn on a new basketball journey, wanting to see if he could create something of his own with his friend Kyrie Irving alongside him.
In Golden State, Durant might have been the best player on the superteam Warriors but everything revolved around Steph Curry. It was Curry who was tasked with keeping his finger on the pulse of the greatest collection of talent in NBA history. He had to know the state of each of his wing men, when it was time for him to take over and when it was best that he take a step back. The Curry-Durant Warriors went as Curry went. In their three years together, the Warriors still went 28-10 when Durant did not play but were just 24-23 when Curry sat. They had a net rating of 8.6 without Durant. It dropped to minus-1.5 without Curry.
Now, with the Nets adding James Harden to their superstar stew, Durant will walk in Curry's shoes. Make no mistake, the Nets are Durant's team. He's the center of the franchise's orbit and now must make sure he can keep the car from jumping the guardrails with Harden and Irving in toe.
It's, of course, not a perfect correlation. Durant will have a much more difficult task than Curry ever did.
At their peak, the Warriors were a beautiful basketball symphony with Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green moving in concert with one another. Like Beethoven or Chopin on the hardwood. Their games meshed perfectly. Curry, Durant and Thompson were equally deadly with or without the ball in their hands. They knew how to and relished playing off one another.
The new Frankenstein Nets have a more combustible feel to them. There will be brilliance and frustration. There will be moments of seamless beauty followed by jarring sequences of isolation basketball that will offend basketball purists at their core.
This season, Durant has a usage rate of 31.3. Irving's is 30.5 and Harden's is 29.1. While Durant, the greatest scoring forward in NBA history, can be lethal both on and off the ball, Irving and Harden don't tend to flow in an offense when they don't have the ball on a string. It'll be up to Durant, a basketball savant, to determine when he needs to take over, how to keep Harden and Irving involved when he does and when it's time for him to fade into the background and let them go to work.
The personalities of his star wingmen is what makes Durant's task worlds more difficult than Curry's was.
Yes, Durant is mercurial and his final season in the Bay made rocky by the constant questions surrounding his future. But Durant rarely let that impact his game. Once he stepped on the court, it was go time and the Warriors' beautiful basketball symphony was in session.
Curry rarely, if ever, had to worry about Durant being disengaged on the offensive end because he wasn't getting his touches. Thompson showing up to camp 20 pounds overweight and then pouting on offense never was in the cards. Curry never had to question Green's desire to play at a championship level.
Curry was the glue that held everything together. The conductor that kept things running on time. But his task pales in comparison to the one Durant now faces.
On paper, the Nets are a historic collection of offensive talent. Durant appears to be all the way back from the ruptured Achilles he suffered in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Harden can get 25-10-10 in his pajamas and Irving, when he's right, is one of the most gifted scorers of this generation.
They don't play the games on paper.
Harden arrives in Brooklyn with massive wreckage in his wake. His tenure with the Houston Rockets saw him rifle through three star running mates (four if you count the handful of games with John Wall) and none were good enough. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook couldn't combine with Harden to take the Rockets to the heights they wanted. Curry probably dealt the death blow to the Harden-led Rockets in the 2019 Western Conference semifinals with LeBron James finishing them off in the bubble playoffs.
This season, Harden arrived in Houston overweight after demanding a trade. He was more disinterested than usual on the defensive end and prone to sulking on offense when he didn't get the ball back after giving it up.
As Harden arrives in Brooklyn, it'll be up to Durant to make sure Harden is ready to buy-in on both ends of the floor. That Harden knows things won't revolve around him and his needs in Brooklyn the way they did in Houston. That he will sacrifice in order to reach the top. It's a big ask and gamble on a guy who has been the maestro of a one-man band for eight-plus seasons in Houston.
There are no more tickets being sold to the James Harden Show. He's going to have to buy-in to co-starring on Durant's team while getting second billing. The days of Harden taking 26 shots and 12 3-pointers a game are over. They have to be if the Nets' plan is to work.
Then there's Irving, who left the team for personal reasons and has yet to communicate with coach Steve Nash about when he will return. First and foremost, the hope is that Irving is able to find the peace and purpose he's looking for off the court. When he does return to the hardwood, it'll be up to Durant to get the triumvirate on the same page, playing together as one devastating unit.
Durant joined the Warriors with a desire to become a champion while playing the purest brand of basketball. He wanted to thrive in an unselfish system alongside the best shooter to ever play the game. He was a perfect fit.
Yes, Durant's otherworldly talents allow him to succeed anywhere. But the Warriors' success with him depended largely on Curry's willingness to welcome Durant onto his team and unselfishness in letting Durant have the spotlight. There was no jealousy. No gripes about touches or who the offense was running through. Like yin and yang, Curry and Durant might have been different personality-wise but their games interconnected and gave rise to each other, creating something the NBA world had never seen before and that only injuries and exhaustion could derail.
Now, Durant must take the lessons he learned as a Warrior and apply them as the gravitational center of the NBA's new superteam. The Nets must go as Durant go, following his lead both on and off the court.
Curry's leadership helped keep the greatest collection of talent in NBA history running on track and without disruption. That weight now falls on Durant as he looks to write the next chapter of his NBA legacy and get the Nets to reach the same heights as the Curry-Durant Warriors.