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The split between Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry is even more interesting now

In 2019, Kevin Durant moved on from Golden State to Brooklyn to pair up with another star guard. Is that choice one to regret?

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Nets star Kyrie Irving has been unable to participate in team activities since the 2021-22 season began.

He traded Stephen Curry for Kyrie Irving two years ago. That’s a swap others might’ve hesitated to do even before Irving took a controversial vaccine stand that effectively forced him to take a seat.

Of course, Kevin Durant if nothing else travels his own path, plays by his own rules and listens to his own beat — privileges that are made possible when you’re one of the two or three best NBA players on the planet. Durant earned that right long ago when he demonstrated an ability to empower himself and any franchise lucky to have him. You flex your freedom to your satisfaction in that situation and no one else’s.

Your choice, however, does come with consequences — same as everyone else’s. And right now, examining the current state of his previous and current teams, and weighing the worth of Curry and Irving, it’s fair to wonder: Did Durant choose wisely when he bailed on the Warriors in 2019?

The Nets are dribbling a ball of confusion here in the wee hours of a new season. They’re locked in a championship-or-bust reality, with no wiggle room for error. This is the single-minded pursuit when you put three in-their-prime future Hall of Famers in uniform for that very reason.

Kevin Durant's hot start to 2021-22 has put the rest of the league on notice.

But the early returns of a long season are complicated for Durant and the Nets. They’re searching for that championship traction. James Harden is off to a mild start and the former Kia MVP is possibly bedeviled by new rule changes that no longer honor his ability to draw fouls. The supporting cast is fine, but again, they’re for support only.

And anyway, it’s all about the elephant in the room, who was told by the Nets to leave the room and stay home.

Irving is busy sitting, while Curry is busy cooking. Nobody knows how long either will trend in those directions, but the safe money is on Curry for obvious reasons. He’s coming off an MVP-finalist year and is closing in on the NBA’s all-time lead in 3-pointers made. He recently dropped 50 points and 10 assists in a game and still remains the best teammate Durant ever had.

Durant and Curry are the two leading scorers in the league right now, respectively, while also holding down the top two spots in Michael C. Wright’s latest Kia MVP Ladder. Both are also the reigning NBA Players of the Week.

Meanwhile, Irving is holding firm on his reluctance to receive the vaccine. Who knew that the guy who disrupted the Warriors dynasty in 2016 with a legendary jumper would turn down not just one shot, but two?

In a curious coincidence, that Game 7 pull-up 3-pointer by Irving was launched over Curry’s outstretched fingertips. It was a cold-blooded Finals moment frozen in time and gave Irving and his talents the ultimate stamp of approval.

Well, a second approval was stamped a few years later when Durant, as a free agent, surprisingly bailed on Curry and the Warriors following three fruitful seasons and hitched his future instead with Irving.

As Durant prepares to meet his former co-star and team Tuesday when the league-leading Warriors play in Brooklyn (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT), the Nets are leaning heavier on Durant than they originally thought, or wanted to, at this point. Crazy thing is, Durant is more than capable of carrying the freight. He has scored 20 or more in all 14 games to start the season, one shy of Karl Malone’s record.

He’s averaging 29.6 points per game on an astonishing 58.6% shooting. He’s also grabbing 8.4 rebounds per game and causing problems for the other bench, which is standard for him. He is, as he once famously said, Kevin Durant — “you know who I am.” Indeed.

Kevin Durant has been named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.

But remember, this superteam was designed with superstars — plural — in mind. Harden and Irving and Durant, an epic trio, poised to erase the Knicks in the minds of New Yorkers, win titles and supply an answer to the famous question shouted in the biggest Borough: Where Brooklyn at?

This might eventually happen if the moons and Irving’s moods are aligned.

Durant in public is steadfast in his belief about the Nets. He said in early October “of course we have enough” to win without Irving, which actually isn’t a bold statement in the regular season.

He added: “While we are playing in a game, I am not going to sit there and say … when we get down or it is a tight game, like ‘Damn, we don’t have enough.’ We definitely want Kyrie Irving out here on the floor. And he is a huge part of what we do. But it is not happening right now. So we got to figure it out … no one is going to lose confidence and hope Kyrie comes to save us. We got to play. Everybody here has confidence in what they do.”

But in the here and now, Durant and the Nets are staring at the potential of Harden being diminished by rule changes and possibly Father Time … and also the chance of Irving digging in his sneaker heels and never returning this season.

The local government’s vaccine mandate means Irving will not play any home games at Barclays Center, and the Nets, weary of the drama, didn’t want a part-time player in the lineup so they told Irving to skip the road games, too. The franchise could stick to its guns and hope Irving’s love of basketball eventually overwhelms his distaste for the vaccine, but who knows who’ll blink first?

Meanwhile, there are no such worries with the 11-2 Warriors. Curry is following up an epic season with the makings of another. His jumper remains pure (and could get even better) and his determination to lift the Warriors back among the contenders remains firm. An argument can be made that Curry is still the most difficult assignment in the league, putting him in very small company — one that includes Durant.

Once upon a time, they were a dangerous duo, taking turns dropping daggers and stealing the soul of whatever team nervously stared across the floor from them. Aside from injuries — Durant suffered an Achilles tear in 2019 that prevented a third title with Curry — nothing could stifle their reign unless either Curry or Durant left town.

Best plays from Kevin Durant's time with the Warriors.

That wasn’t happening with Curry, the home-grown and beloved star, who stayed put and signed a four-year extension with Golden State in the offseason. Durant, though, longed for something else, something that re-signing with the Warriors couldn’t give him. So he departed — again, his right to do so — and hooked up with Irving. When Harden forced his way out of Houston, the Nets had a three-man nucleus that, on paper, seemed just as strong as Curry-Durant-Klay Thompson.

Speaking of Klay: He’s on the mend from a pair of major injuries and anxious to prove that he belonged on the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. That fuel should only help the Warriors elevate themselves among the best in the West … but how much better off would they — and Durant — be if they’d remained intact together?

No sense playing that game anymore in the rearview mirror. Durant seems happy where he is — he signed a contract extension this summer — and focused as usual on winning regardless of the situation.

Meanwhile, Curry couldn’t push the Warriors to the playoffs last season — blame Golden State’s many injuries for much of that — yet the challenge of returning the Warriors to prominence has clearly lit a fuse within him.

And that is the heart of this matter: The challenge for Durant in Brooklyn is much harder than the comforts afforded to him at Golden State. So salute him for taking the road with more dangerous curves.

We’ll check back next spring and summer to revisit this issue and update the scorecard. Meanwhile, and until then, there’s no mistaking where Durant’s choice stands at this very minute:

Irving is busy drawing DNPs, while Curry is busy drawing applause.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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