Kyrie Irving looks like a point guard. He's the size of a point guard, he dribbles like a point guard, he has the ball as often as a typical point guard, but he's not a point guard. He's essentially said so himself in an incident reported by ESPN's Jackie MacMullan. When then-Cleveland Cavaliers coach Ty Lue asked him to play faster during a 2017 practice, Irving responded by saying "I don't need to play faster to get my shot off." Lue fired back that he was asking Irving to do so in order to help his teammates get their own shots off, but Irving made his stance on table-setting clear. 

"Well, that's No. 23's job," Irving said, referring to LeBron James. The arrangement worked in Cleveland. Irving got to be a shooting guard in a point guard's body because James is a point guard in a forward's body. Cleveland never lacked for playmaking because it had LeBron. Celtics coach Brad Stevens manufactured enough of it schematically for Boston to get by. But Irving's Brooklyn Nets faced a theoretical problem entering the season. How would a roster starring two isolation scorers in Irving and Kevin Durant keep teammates engaged enough to adequately perform their off-ball duties? 

Nets coach Steve Nash initially combated the potential issue by starting another point guard, Brooklyn's 2019-20 assist leader Spencer Dinwiddie, alongside the two scorers. A partially torn ACL ruined that plan after only three games. Even accounting for the growth of both Irving and Caris LeVert off the bench, Brooklyn was still ranked 24th in the NBA in passes per game entering Wednesday. The passing burden needed to be shared. 

And in Wednesday's victory over the Atlanta Hawks, it was Durant who picked it up. He either led or tied for the Nets lead in assists (eight), secondary assists (13) and total passes (44) en route to a staggering 145-point outburst from Brooklyn's offense. The passes themselves were workmanlike. None of them would register as highlights, but each served to emphasize the power of Durant's gravity as a scorer. Watch Atlanta's defenders in this transition cross-match. Both Cam Reddish and Clint Capela instinctively flock to Durant because, well, he's Kevin Durant, and if you're making an instinctive decision about who to defend, he's usually a good answer. But that left Joe Harris, currently shooting 53.6 percent from behind the arc, wide open for a 3. All Durant needed was the situational awareness to make the pass: 

This fourth-quarter drive came in a half-court setting, but look at the eyes of Atlanta's defenders. All five are trained squarely on Durant from the moment he gets the ball, and three more are there to contest him in the lane. That includes Solomon Hill, who is supposed to be guarding Taurean Prince in the corner. When Prince realizes that Hill is going to leave him alone, he makes a backdoor cut over to the dunker's spot, and even if that was a strange choice with Jarrett Allen already there, Durant draws so much attention that he gets the layup: 

Want a bit more razzle-dazzle? Check out this pocket pass to Jeff Green. A typical pick-and-roll operator would've snuck it between the two defenders. Durant is so long that he can fit it around Capela's right hip instead, shortening Green's path to the basket. That simultaneously limited Atlanta's reaction time. Green's only opposition at the basket was Trae Young

The fact that these aren't the kind of wild, behind-the-back Harlem Globetrotter passes who someone like LeBron makes is sort of the point here. Normal passes are easier for Durant than they are for normal passers, negating the need for him to pass at an elite level. His scoring is so valuable that he only needs to be a willing passer. If he makes the choice to set up his teammates, he can do so at an elite level. 

He made that choice Wednesday. Durant averaged only 31.3 passes per game in his first three outings of the 2020-21 season, making his 44 against the Hawks a meaningful jump. His 13 potential assists represented over 39 percent of his total on the season. While those numbers may regress somewhat with time, there is substantial evidence of Durant's ability to function as something resembling a point guard even outside of the Golden State Warriors' motion offense. 

When Russell Westbrook missed a 27-game stretch during the 2013-14 season, the Thunder needed Durant to serve as their co-primary ball-handler alongside Reggie Jackson. He responded by averaging 6.1 assists and 11.6 potential assists per game in that span, higher totals than he ever reached over a full season since potential assists started getting tracked. Not coincidentally, he won his MVP award that season. 

The circumstances aren't identical. Losing Dinwiddie is not the same as losing Westbrook. Durant is on a better overall team now than he ever had in the post-Harden Thunder era. But a similar pathway is beginning to present itself. Durant has been among the NBA's best scorers since he arrived in the NBA in 2007, but the best versions of him are the ones that have been forced to stretch their skill sets beyond that. 

In 2014, a greater emphasis on setting up teammates won him an MVP award. When he joined the Warriors, he raised his defensive effort to a new level. That helped him stand out on a team with a preexisting hierarchy and unlimited star power. He came away from the experience with two championships, and has quietly brought that same defensive intensity to Brooklyn. Through five games, the Nets are fifth in defense. 

The Nets' championship hopes always relied primarily on offense, and with Dinwiddie out, he's going to have to replicate that versatility to maximize Brooklyn's nearly limitless potential on that end of the floor. The best version of Irving is one that doesn't have to focus too heavily on setting teammates up. If Wednesday was any indication, though, he'll have No. 7 to help make sure that he doesn't have to.