Nets season preview: Kevin Durant changes everything

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Great expectations are finally here for the Nets. They tip off their most highly anticipated season ever on Tuesday, and it’s because of the return of one man.

He’s Kevin Durant. You know who he is.

After going through essentially a gap year — with Durant recovering from a ruptured Achilles, and Kyrie Irving limited to 20 games with a shoulder impingement — the Nets have more offensive firepower than a fully operational Death Star. They have a very real shot at winning the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2003, and are aiming even higher.

“We own the expectations, and no one is more upfront about that than the guys we have,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said. “They all know why they’re here, and it’s not right to just put that on the back burner.

“We’re doing everything we can to have those championship characteristics, and that is without a doubt led by our players. Steve Nash has owned that from the get-go, and we’ll see where the chips fall. Winning a title anywhere takes preparation and accountability, but also health and a little luck.”

In this weird, condensed season — fraught by COVID-19 — the Nets are going to need good luck to stay healthy, from both injury and the pandemic. Steering clear of both will be key as they try to break in a new coach in Nash, and mesh Durant and Irving into a team that made the past two postseasons.

Starting five

Can the Nets stay healthy?

If Durant plays opening night against his former Golden State teammates, it will be his first game in 561 days since rupturing his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. Irving has missed 184 regular-season NBA games and 26 more in his lone campaign at Duke. Caris LeVert’s injury history is well-documented.

With that kind of injury history — combined with a 72-game schedule crammed into just five months — expect the Nets to baby their stars. Durant and Irving will likely be rested often in the first half of the season, and the schedule congestion is assured of being brutal in the second half.

Can Irving lead?

Fair question after his ugly Celtics exit. Irving clearly didn’t see eye-to-eye with several young teammates and coach Brad Stevens at times, and has admitted multiple times that he struggled to lead in Boston. He will need to do better in Brooklyn.

The Nets overcame the loss of some locker-room leaders in the summer of 2019 by bringing in veteran guard Garrett Temple last offseason. Now with the well-respected NBPA vice president gone, Irving may have to step into that role. But will he? Can he?

Can Nash coach?

Much was made about Marks handing a ready-made contender to ex-teammate and longtime friend Nash, despite the two-time MVP having never even been an assistant, much less a head coach. Nash was humble enough to admit that he not only jumped the line, but that he needed a solid staff to help guide him through his growing pains.

Nash will need to not only manage the egos of stars Durant and Irving, but admits he’s still getting used to watching film through a coach’s eye. He will lean heavily on coordinators Mike D’Antoni and Jacque Vaughn to help with the Xs and Os, but eventually has to juggle rotations and handle endgame tactics.

“From a coaching standpoint, it’s more getting up to speed, or getting comfortable with the management side of just how many people and departments you’re connecting with constantly and trying to make work,” Nash said.

“Getting used to all the elements of the job more so than just basketball games, the breadth and the depth of all the things you have to do to prepare your team behind the scenes is an adaptation for me. … That’s been an eye-opener and an adjustment for me, but I’ve enjoyed it.”

Can Brooklyn defend?

The Nets were 10th in Defensive Rating last season, with the top three teams also boasting the top three records. With the way the Nets should score, sorting the defense is the key to contention.

Durant joining centers DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen ensures rim protection, and newly signed Jeff Green gives the Nets a switchable big. But Irving and Joe Harris aren’t lock-down perimeter defenders, and Bruce Brown has his work cut out to crack this rotation.

“We have guys that have length, guys that have athleticism, and we just want to play to those,” Irving said. “Steve reminds me every day, ‘[you’re] head of the snake. You set the pace, you set what we’re demanding out of our team.’

“That’s really been the emphasis, on the defensive end. … Obviously, we can score a bunch of points, but defensively is really where you make your mark and you separate yourself, so we’re looking forward to continue to grow on that end.”

Can the Nets land James Harden? And should they?

Yes to the latter. Not so sure on the former.

The team that gets the star player in a trade usually wins the trade, so if the Nets can acquire Harden they likely should. Scouts that spoke with The Post felt a Durant-Harden-Irving Big Three probably makes Brooklyn favorites to unseat the Lakers, and if it doesn’t work, the three-time scoring champ would still have value.

But after earlier cursory talks, Houston was less-than-enamored by the players the Nets have to offer. After the Rockets reportedly expanded trade talks beyond Brooklyn and Philadelphia, they and the Nets are believed to have re-engaged and looped in an unnamed third team. Stay tuned on this one.

Buzzer beaters

Newcomer to watch: Kevin Durant. Yes, Durant actually picked Brooklyn back on June 30, 2019. But considering he still hasn’t played a single regular-season second for the Nets, he could still be considered a newcomer. Make that the newcomer. Will the Nets get MVP Durant, or just All-Star Durant, or somewhere in-between? The answer to that may shape not just their campaign but the playoffs as a whole.

“I feel solid. I feel like I definitely can get better,” Durant said. “I feel like it’s just good to be back out on the floor again healthy, moving around again. But I’ve got high expectations for myself. I hold myself to a high standard and you know I feel like I got to always go.”

Most important decision: It’s tempting to say how to rest and protect Durant, but that’s less a decision than it is a series of judgment calls. The single most important determination Brooklyn will have to make is whether to pursue James Harden, and how intently? What’s preferable: a Big Three or a Big Two backed by great depth and versatility?

Good days to come: Jeff Green is 34, and seen by some as a consolation prize for missing out on Serge Ibaka in free agency. But he had an epiphany playing under Mike D’Antoni last season in Houston, with career-bests in PER (18.6), Win Shares/48 Minutes (.183) and Offensive Rating (131). He could provide the same stretch-five floor spacing on offense, and the mobility to switch out on the perimeter on defense.

Bad days ahead: Rodions Kurucs. Forget the assault case that he still has hanging over his head, due back in court right at the end of the season. The Latvian power forward only averaged 14.6 minutes in 2019-20 despite Durant being out all season and Wilson Chandler being set back by a 25-game PED suspension. With Durant now back and Green signed in free agency, Kurucs will have his work cut out to get back into this rotation, as his mere seven preseason minutes show.

Don’t be surprised if… Brooklyn’s rotations remain fluid and the starters stay in flux, at least for a while. Kenny Atkinson favored Jarrett Allen over DeAndre Jordan and Jacque Vaughn immediately reversed them when he became interim, but Steve Nash has carefully tried to downplay his center battle. He’s implied both will share the position, and Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie could also find themselves splitting sixth-man duties.

Story that won’t go away: COVID-19. The story won’t go away in everybody’s lives, and the NBA won’t be any different. The Nets were hit harder by the coronavirus than any other team, and the refrigerated mobile morgue trucks parked right outside HSS Training Center are a grim reminder of the pandemic.

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