Among the music and outside a huddle on the Nets’ sideline, a dribbling Kevin Durant can be found. Ball in hand, the two-time Finals MVP sometimes makes his way onto the court during timeouts—a brief look into the place he has been absent from for the past eight months.
It is clear Durant misses basketball. But as the NBA enters All-Star weekend, the league has perhaps missed him more.
A ruptured Achilles for Durant in last season’s NBA Finals was a blow that continues to impact fans and the NBA. The 10-time All-Star averaged 26.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists on 52.1% shooting through 78 games in 2018–19 with the Warriors, who fell short of their third championship in Durant’s three years in Golden State.
Now, the former MVP’s offseason move to Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving has put a pause on excitement for another dominant duo.
The 2019-20 season has not been short of challenges for the NBA. Between injuries and top contests impacted by time differences, television ratings have been down from national and local networks. The league has also dealt with backlash from China after Daryl Morey’s comments in October.
While commissioner Adam Silver says he is “not concerned” by the drop in ratings and that they are buoyed by increased social media interactions and NBA League Pass viewership, the numbers still stand out. As of mid-December, NBA ratings on ESPN and TNT were down over 15 percent compared with last season, per The Washington Post. Viewership may matter more in the playoffs, but a regular-season drop can still be a point of worry.
Injuries have impacted the league in the lull, from No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson's missing over three months with meniscus surgery to Klay Thompson’s ACL recovery. The same can be said of Stephen Curry, who has missed the majority of this season with a broken wrist. While he is due to return in March, the NBA has missed the spark Curry adds to a court, and his shooting spectacle is difficult to match.
Atop the list, Durant’s absence may make the largest difference.
Fans knew they were going to have to wait to see the Durant and Irving together in Brooklyn, both dealing with their share of injuries in a 25-28 Nets season that has them at seventh place in the East. Still, the league is likely eagerly awaiting Durant’s return in the face of its current circumstances.
The intrigue with Durant starts in the Eastern Conference, where Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are rolling. While the Raptors have continued to win without Kawhi Leonard, Milwaukee has yet to have any true threats. A Durant-led Nets could make for more must-watch games in a conference that has lacked them, and an interesting race between MVPs at the top.
Another opportunity for a must-see duel comes in Durant's newest city.
“I never came out and said anything about me wanting to play for the Knicks, ever. Ever,” Durant said on Showtime’s All the Smoke. “Then when we came here last year, they had the billboards up and somebody asked me about it, and I wasn’t too excited about it, because I didn’t like it.”
Durant has insisted that he did not consider New York as an offseason destination. The Nets and Knicks have not had a meaningful rivalry for years, but one thing fans can look forward to is Durant potentially helping bring it back.
NBA fans hold mixed feelings for Durant, from the Knicks to a Warriors base that may miss his presence. He will likely get a warm welcome in his first visit to Golden State after helping bring the city two championships, but a face-off against a revitalized and healthy Warriors team will make for an interesting look at the squad Durant left.
The duo of Durant and Irving would also help counter the headliners of LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the West, along with Leonard and Paul George of the Clippers. The NBA will benefit from another top-level star in the East and can draw eyeballs to earlier games.
While Durant has said he will not play this season, videos of his rehab workouts continue to surface and stir up excitement. It only causes fans to wonder whether there is hope for Durant to return in 2019-20 in time for the playoffs. The Nets have not given an update on his status to that effect, but a resurgent Durant just in time for a potential postseason matchup would be the boost the NBA—and Brooklyn—needs to make up for its slow start.
Durant’s return may not be the only answer to some of the NBA’s struggles, but once he is back, he will be a game-changer in viewership and rivalries—and his talent alone will remind the league what it had been missing.