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Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Durant and Irving Shine as Nets Rout Warriors in NBA's Season Opener

The Brooklyn Nets versus the Golden State Warriors is not one of the NBA's storied rivalries, but it is understandable why the league chose that matchup to kick off the 2020-21 season: not only is this Kevin Durant's first regular season game since he fled Golden State but this is also the first opportunity that NBA fans have had to see Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving--who memorably squared off against each other in three straight NBA Finals (2015-17)--for quite some time. The NBA has marketed star power for decades--going all the way back to the Madison Square Garden marquee promoting George Mikan (not his Minneapolis Lakers) versus the Knicks--and this game featured three of the league's brightest stars (two other stars of lesser wattage, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, missed the game due to injuries). This game also marked the NBA regular season coaching debut of Steve Nash, who is attempting to build "Phoenix West" with the Nets, though Durant and Irving each play differently than Nash and his running mate Amare Stoudemire did during their prime years with the Suns.

The matchup and the star power may have looked good on paper, but that did not translate into a competitive contest on the court, as the Nets took command from early in the first quarter and cruised to a 125-99 win. Durant looked sharp from the beginning of the game, scoring 10 points on 4-6 field goal shooting as the Nets raced to a 20-8 first quarter lead. Durant finished with 22 points on 7-16 field goal shooting in 25 minutes. Durant's skills and athleticism do not seem to be diminished in any way in the wake of his Achilles injury and long period of time away from playing in NBA games, so the only questions about Durant revolve around his conditioning--specifically, his ability to maintain this level of play throughout the grind of an NBA season--and his durability, both of which are natural concerns regarding any player who suffered such a serious injury involving a long recovery period.

During TNT's pregame show, Charles Barkley asserted that Durant will not be a "made man" in the NBA until he wins a title on his own (which contradicts something Barkley said later in the evening when he correctly noted that basketball is a team sport in which one player cannot win a title by himself). Barkley discounts the two championships that Durant won with the Warriors because the Warriors had already won a title prior to acquiring Durant. Kenny Smith disagreed with Barkley, while Shaquille O'Neal said that he could see validity in both sides of the argument.

Great players' legacies depend heavily on how many championships they win as dominant players. In that sense, Durant's rings "count" but, for example, Gary Payton's ring does not "count": Durant won the Finals MVP during both of his title runs, while Payton--a great player during his prime--was a spare part for the Dwyane Wade-Shaquille O'Neal-led 2006 Miami Heat. Payton has every right to be proud to be a contributing member of a championship team, but when one is comparing great players Payton's ring does not lift him above, say, Allen Iverson (in other words, if one chooses to rank Payton ahead of Iverson such a decision should not be made solely or primarily based on Payton winning a title while Iverson never won a title).

Barkley is correct that there is a difference between being the "bus driver" and being a "bus rider" but Kevin Durant was not a "bus rider" when he played with the Warrriors; Durant was the team's best player, and thus his rings "count." Durant's championships--and LeBron James' championships--are not "tainted" by their ring-chasing team hopping. As a basketball fan and a basketball historian, I would have preferred for Durant to stay in Oklahoma City and battle against the Warriors as opposed to joining forces with them, but after Durant chose his path any responsible analyst/historian has to evaluate what actually happened--and what happened is that Durant established himself as the best player on two championship teams. 

It is possible that, in retrospect, Durant feels unfulfilled by the path he chose, and there is little doubt that some of his peers--and many of the great players who came before him, obviously including Barkley--believe that Durant took the easy path. However, regardless of how Durant feels about himself, or what commentators say, Durant became a "made man" when he outdueled LeBron James in back to back NBA Finals.

If Durant wins a title as a dominant player in Brooklyn then he elevates his status on the all-time list by virtue of becoming a three-time champion, but if he never wins another title he is still a "made man" regardless of what Barkley or others say.

Barkley also said that Irving does not belong in the same conversation with Durant or James or Curry, and I agree with Barkley about that. Irving played a critically important role for Cleveland's 2016 championship team, but James was without question the "bus driver," and when Irving has been his team's number one option the results have been less than impressive. Irving is a very good player and he is more than qualified to be the second option on a championship team, but he is not an all-time great, and his status does not change if he wins a title as the second option behind Durant.

There is no doubt that a healthy and focused Irving is very difficult to guard. He led both teams with 17 first quarter points on 6-8 field goal shooting, while Curry started slowly (six points on 2-5 field goal shooting). Irving finished with a game-high 26 points on 10-16 field goal shooting in 25 minutes, while Curry scored a team-high 20 points on 7-21 field goal shooting in 30 minutes.

It is not wise to draw sweeping conclusions about players or teams based on one game, and that cautionary note applies to an even greater extent when considering the uncertainties surrounding this season. The NBA hopes/expects to play 72 regular season games but, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA has not even officially announced the second half of the schedule, in case the league needs to reschedule missed games or deal with other contingencies. However, it is fair to say that the Nets have a very talented and deep team; if their stars stay healthy and the bench players--many of whom are good enough to start for other teams--accept their roles then this squad can be a championship contender. Regarding the Warriors, one should refrain from making judgments until Draymond Green returns to action and the Warriors' young players have an opportunity to develop.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:38 PM



At Friday, December 25, 2020 3:38:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


How long is curry going to get a pass for quitting on his team last year

And if he a all time great why cant he drag a team like he has currently to 45 or 50 wins

Isiah Thomas

All did

People rountinely put him in top 10 or 15 all time

When really he more at best top 25 to 35

He too small to carry a team and look at his best when he has all time great talent around him

All all time greats have dragged teams to playoffs that didnt have alot of talent around them but curry not called out for not doing it

Durant is a all time great if he wins another ring or not. But to put himself wit kobe or lebron he needs to win a ring in brooklyn

Kyrie is a great 2 option he not a number 1 never has never will be that correct

But he a clutch player and big game player

I think brooklyn or boston makes finals in east

At Friday, December 25, 2020 10:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure what you mean regarding Curry allegedly quitting last season, but I agree with your larger point that Curry is not a top 10-15 (Pantheon level) player.

I can't see Durant catching Kobe at this point, but if Durant gets at least one more ring and Finals MVP he is certainly at least in the conversation with LeBron, particularly if he gets that ring by outdueling LeBron head to head again. Durant already is 2-1 against LeBron in the Finals, and if Durant pushes that to 3-1 while LeBron is playing alongside one of the top five players in the NBA then that speaks volumes.

Irving is clutch but when he is the best player on his team that becomes less evident because the games are often not close enough at the end for his clutch abilities to matter.

Boston does not seem quite good enough, but they will be in the mix and if one of the other top teams falter then the Celtics could reach the Finals. Brooklyn certainly looks like a Finalist after the first two games of the season. I still like Giannis and Milwaukee to win the East. Fans forget (or are too young to remember) that it took Jordan seven seasons to reach the Finals, and even after Pippen and Grant joined the team the Bulls still did not immediately reach the Finals; people act like Giannis has failed, but he is still in the early stages of his journey.


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