BY HENRY ABBOTT with JAROD HECTOR and DAVID THORPE
Kevin Durant didn’t airball that Game 7 game-winner because he hasn’t practiced enough, was too covered, or is scared of the moment. He airballed it because he was exhausted.
Why was he so exhausted?
Because he didn’t have nearly enough rest. He didn’t sit enough during games, and he played in more games per week than science suggests humans can handle without a big drop in performance and an elevation in injury risk.
He could have rested any time he wanted, of course.
Why didn’t he?
The Nets used to have a coach who led the league in spreading around the ball and minutes. Opposing coaches said the Nets, a few years ago, ran their offense as well as any team in the league. A tremendous number of their young players emerged as promising, including Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, and Spencer Dinwiddie.
But from another perspective, Kenny Atkinson led the league in benching players. No one on that team averaged even 30 minutes. Atkinson had a particular vision and told players what to do and what not to do.
In the summer of 2019, when the Nets acquired Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Atkinson told Jackie MacMullan he saw his job as, "'How do we keep [Durant and Irving] here without compromising our culture?'”
Atkinson spent a year telling the Nets where to run and when to sit, and then he was fired. Reports speculated that he wasn’t star-centric enough.
Kevin Durant is in a peak phase of his career. He’s not just one of the best players of all time, he’s also the de facto Nets CEO.
As a player—a job that is judged by his performance—he’s killing it.
It’s his performance as CEO—a job that is judged by the performance of the company—that has been underwhelming.
The way Durant plays (all the minutes and most of the shots) makes it hard to get much out of the rest of the roster. If leadership is breathing spirit into others, what message is Durant sending by demonstrating he prays they don’t have to play for him? He seems to think the team will lose if he sits for just a few minutes.
Of course the Nets had injuries. Every team does. But they weren’t ready to win without Kyrie Irving and a hobbled Harden. They didn’t have a scheme that other people could run and star in.
Bruce Brown, Alize Johnson, Landry Shamet, and Nicolas Claxton are all young players with promise. They weren’t playing exhausted in the playoffs, because they didn’t play much. Johnson had games of 20 points and 21 rebounds, and 23 points and 15 rebounds. Could he have had a big playoff game like young players on the Suns and Clippers? We’ll never know—he didn’t play.
Kevin Durant CEO settled on having Kevin Durant player pretty much do everything.
The Suns get the ball to people where they can use it. Often open. They beat you many ways, a lot of which involve Mikal Bridges or Deandre Ayton shooting some of the easiest shots in the game.
The Suns have a system designed to work without Chris Paul. A who’s who of Suns have blossomed. Ayton, Cameron Payne, Bridges, Devin Booker—it seems like the whole roster is blossoming.
The Clippers made the conference finals after coach Tyronn Lue, adjusting to the absence of his injured star Kawhi Leonard, turned to Reggie Jackson (six playoff games with 20+ points) and Terance Mann (a stunning 39 points in eliminating the Jazz).
Chris Paul hasn’t even been in the building for a while, and the Suns have won eight games in a row in a Western Conference that is so elite that teams like LeBron’s Lakers and Steph’s Warriors didn’t even qualify.
There’s an art to getting people to do what’s best for the group. On ABC, Rachel Nichols reports that Suns coach Monty Williams says: “I’m not calling you out, I’m calling you up.”
Running things is a chore. All kinds of high-achievers—Michael Jordan, Doc Rivers, Stan Van Gundy, Steve Kerr—had the chance to run everything before deciding they prefer a more focused job. It’s a treat to get to decide everything, but it’s also a treat to get to focus on what you do best.
We talk about player empowerment and I’m all for it. But we might find that in the long run, really delegating things like minutes distribution to somebody you trust will reduce airballs, and increase wins.
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