There was a time when Kevin Durant’s return to the Bay Area could’ve gone any number of ways.
After all, despite winning two titles — and two Finals MVPs — in three seasons with the Golden State Warriors, his tenure wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Durant was never fully embraced like his homegrown co-stars — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — and often viewed as a mercenary who joined the league’s best team to get some rings and then bolt for Greener Pastures.
By the end, his uncertain future cast a pall over the team. Green told him to leave. And in his final game as a Warrior, Durant tore his Achilles, ending Golden State’s chances of pulling off a three-peat (no offense, Toronto).
For a while, it seemed like Durant was ticketed for New York — Manhattan, not Brooklyn. His agent, Rich Kleiman, was a die-hard Knicks’ fan. And James Dolan went on the radio with the arrogant confidence of an owner who was finally about to bring some starpower to Madison Square Garden.
To this day, it remains a great “‘What if?’”
What if Durant doesn’t get hurt? What if he doesn’t get operated on by renowned Nets’ team physician Dr. Martin O’Malley? What if the Knicks got the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, instead of No. 3?
Maybe there would’ve been a Durant-Kyrie Irving-Anthony Davis (or Zion Williamson) Big Three at the Garden instead of a Durant-Irving-James Harden Big Three at Barclays Center.
In any event, fun hypothetical scenarios aside, Irving and Durant decided to join forces in Brooklyn — no free-agent courtship necessary.
The Nets hired rookie coach Steve Nash, a choice that Durant endorsed. Nash and Durant had worked together in Golden State when Nash served as a player development assistant with the Warriors.
Durant put in 18 months of grueling rehab work to regain his MVP-caliber form, overcoming an injury that few others — like Dominique Wilkins and (now also) John Wall — have been to come back from.
It was Durant’s brilliance on court — combined with Irving’s recent two-week absence for personal reasons — that led Brooklyn to go all-in on its blockbuster deal for Harden, who had demanded a trade to the Nets to reunite with his former teammate and close friend.
Maybe Durant isn’t a vocal leader, but the team sure seems to revolve around him. Brooklyn intends to keep him past his current deal, which has two years left and then a player option for 2022-23. The Nets intend to win with Durant, too.
On Saturday night, Brooklyn treated Golden State the same way the Warriors used to treat the majority of their opponents in their dynasty days.
Durant (20 points) stroked a bunch of mid-range shots. Irving (23 points) finished a few circus layups. And Harden (19 points) dished out a staggering 16 assists. The result was a 134-117 blowout victory.
The stands were barren due to the pandemic, but Durant got a tribute video. He seemed happy. The win probably helped. His newfound perspective probably did, too. Afterwards, there were plenty of hugs. Durant even hugged Green.
“I wish Klay was healthy, but it’s good to be back in the Bay Area,” Durant said on ESPN. “I loved my time here. Loved playing for this team.”
“It sucked. We got our asses kicked,” Green told reporters. “They’re the team to beat in the East, if you ask me.”
The Nets obviously have the firepower on offense to reach the Finals. But as has been discussed ad nauseam, this team will live or die with its defense. Brooklyn doesn’t have a Swiss-army knife like Green. The Warriors also had long, active defenders like Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala.
Brett Brown has been an unsung hero for the Nets on both ends. But it’s up to Sean Marks to get more size and strength.
On the plus side, Brooklyn has gotten buy-in from its star trio. Harden has willingly sacrificed, serving as a facilitator first and scorer second. Four days ago, Irving told Harden that he’s perfectly accepting of the shooting guard role next to “Point Beard” in the backcourt.
It’s not like Irving really had a choice in the matter — the Nets’ plan was always going to be putting the ball in Harden’s hands — but it was still significant nonetheless to hear him say it. Even better: sources around the team have said recently that the backcourt duo has been getting along very well together.
The hope is that their “team above individual” mentality continues. Brooklyn’s Big Three all has something to prove. Legacies are at stake. Harden wants the championship that has eluded him. Durant and Irving want their own title — one that isn’t attached to Curry or LeBron James.
The Nets are 5-1 in games its star trio starts, and 9-1 against teams with .500 or better records. Those numbers are encouraging. The numbers Irving, Durant and Harden have put up together are also encouraging.
All of them will still have to make their returns to Boston, Golden State and Houston in full-houses once the pandemic allows.
Still, Kevin Durant could feel good leaving the Chase Center on Saturday night.
There was a time when his return to the Bay Area could’ve gone any number of ways.
For Durant, this was the best way.