The NBA world eagerly awaits the return of former league MVP Kevin Durant to the fray. After suffering an Achilles tear that sidelined him for the entire 2019-2020 season, the superstar scoring machine is ready to remind the world just how good he is.
Suiting up for the Golden State Warriors, Durant went down at the worst possible time for the franchise, who was on the brink of securing their third straight title against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals. After battling injury heading into the Finals, Durant going down with his Achilles along with sharpshooter Klay Thompson tearing his ACL in Game 6 spelled the end for the Warriors championship run, which saw them appear in five consecutive Finals since 2015.
In the summer that followed, Durant opted to head East and sign with the Brooklyn Nets and good friends Kyrie Irving and Deandre Jordan. As the 32-year-old used last season to rehab from his injury, the Nets underwent an up and down campaign, which ended with a first round exit from the playoffs.
Fast forward 12 months, and the roster is now fully healthy and ready to put together a championship run. The Nets have what it takes on paper, but we’ve seen titles are not won on paper. The L.A. Clippers were a prime example of this last season, and the Nets will need to avoid falling into the same complacency. Durant will lead the charge, and for the first time since his Oklahoma City Thunder days, he’ll have to be the main driving force in leading a team to the promised land.
With his return and the availability of a fully healthy Nets roster, the balance of power shifts in the Eastern Conference. As currently constructed, the Nets will be competing with the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, and Philadelphia 76ers as their most significant threats in winning the conference.
The Bucks still have the services of back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and have traded for elite two-way guard Jrue Holiday to upgrade their star power. In an attempt to keep Antetokounmpo at the franchise long-term, the Bucks have mortgaged their future in the hopes Holiday will help carry the load when it matters most.
Next in line is the Celtics, who continue to ride the upward trajectory of emerging superstar Jayson Tatum as a measuring stick for their ceiling. He’s continuing to improve, and with more shots now available since the departure of Gordon Hayward, Tatum and company pose a more significant threat with fewer chefs in the kitchen.
As for the Heat, the reigning Eastern Conference champion is not going anywhere either. Jimmy Butler will continue to lead the team, and the natural development of young guns Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro make them a formidable opponent for any team.
The 76ers also got better this offseason. Bringing in sniper Seth Curry and offloading the seemingly untradeable contract of Al Horford, new GM Daryl Morey has been active in putting shooting and floor spacers around franchise cornerstones Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The arrival of new head coach Doc Rivers is also a factor, with an improved culture likely to follow. Lastly, the Hawks are a dark horse in the conference heading into the season. They’ve retooled the roster around franchise point guard Trae Young, adding a nice blend of young talent and veteran leadership.
The arrival of Rajon Rondo will help Young’s development as a floor general, and acquiring forward Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic through free agency gives the Hawks one of the more impressive starting lineups in the association. As you can see, the path to the Finals isn’t an easy one for the Nets. Regardless, the league’s consensus is they still have the best player in the conference when healthy in Durant.
His cohesion and chemistry with point guard Irving will likely undergo some understandable growing pains. Still, the Nets’ offensive potential is a much higher ceiling than any other Eastern Conference outfit. The sheer scoring talent they can field around Durant and Irving with Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and Joe Harris is a scary proposition for any defense, and their ability to play efficient and unselfish ball will be the key to their success.
Durant’s return to the hardwood also reignites the “best player in the world” debate, being the only consistent player in the league to challenge Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James for the crown.
Durant got the better of James during their latest Finals meetings in 2017 and 2018, as he was named Finals MVP in both victories, but now he has to prove he can do it again with considerably less help this time around. The Lakers-Nets is the dream matchup for any NBA enthusiast, but K.D. will have to overcome his rivals in the East before getting another shot at the king.
Photo courtesy of James Devaney/Getty Images.