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Coolican: Brooklyn’s experiment is working early

| Tuesday, February 23, 2021

When James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last month, the Nets sent the league a clear message. They were going all-in for a championship, whatever the cost. The cost was quite large. Three regular contributors, three first-round picks and four pick swaps. Many likened the trade to the infamous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade, in which the Nets traded a similar number of draft capital to the Celtics for two aging stars. The deal brought the Nets little success — a second-round playoff appearance, before Pierce left as a free agent after just one year — and the franchise floundered for several years until current general manager Sean Marks came in and built a contender from the ground up. This trade, however, is completely different. First, Harden is in his prime, while Garnett and Pierce were well past theirs. Secondly, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving already on the team, the Nets were contenders even before acquiring Harden. Adding a player of his caliber puts them among the favorites for the title. 

There are still concerns, chief among them the fact that the NBA has never seen three ball-dominant players on the same team. The phrase “there’s only one ball!” was uttered by perhaps thousands of fans and pundits. While the three stars have only played six games together since the trade, if early signs are to be believed, this trade was a great success for Brooklyn. While some showcased the growing pains of learning to play together, including a 147-135 double-overtime loss to the Cavaliers, the Nets are 4-2 in those games. Perhaps the best example of their potential was the win over the Warriors on Feb. 13. Irving had a team-high 23 points, Durant scored 20 and Harden added 19 with 16 assists. The three played seamlessly off of each other, and the Nets dominated the game from start to finish. The defense focused so much attention on the “Big Three” that they created easy opportunities for the likes of Bruce Brown and Joe Harris. Durant has been absent since that contest with a hamstring injury, but this game showed the immense potential of what can happen when all three are on the floor together. If they can keep that up for an extended period of time? Not a team in the league can stop Brooklyn. 

Harden has publicly stated that playing on the Nets, where he doesn’t have to carry the entire load offensively is refreshing. This sentiment has been evident in his play-he leads the league with 11.3 assists per game. When speaking to reporters, Irving said he told Harden that Harden was the point guard and that he would play shooting guard. That level of unselfish play will allow the Nets to reach new levels, as Irving’s creative dribbling and ability to create shots matched with Harden’s elite floor vision and shooting create a nightmare for opposing defenses, and that doesn’t even factor in Durant. 

Yes, the defense still isn’t great. Harden is still a below-average defender, and Irving isn’t much better. However, it has been improving. The Nets held the Lakers to under 100 points Thursday night, their first time accomplishing that feat since late January. Yes, the Lakers were missing Anthony Davis, but it still shows that as the three stars get more comfortable playing with each other, the defense will naturally improve. 

The depth is also a concern. After trading away the likes of Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince and Caris Levert to acquire Harden, the Nets depth took a significant hit. The center position is especially a concern, rotating through the often ineffective DeAndre Jordan and two-way players. The Nets haven’t had a solid inside presence since Allen departed. But when you can have a future Hall of Famer on the court at all times, is depth really an issue? They have a solid supporting cast, from three-point specialist Joe Harris, to Bruce Brown, who has proven to be a highly effective defender and off-ball scorer, to the emerging Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Additionally, in the playoffs (which, let’s be honest, is the only thing that matters to Brooklyn this season considering their relatively short window to win a championship) rotations traditionally shrink and stars get bigger minutes. As long as the Nets can keep their foot on the gas in the early rounds, beating teams in four or five games, they should be well-rested if they reach the conference finals. 

The biggest question mark will be staying healthy. Durant has missed a number of games this year due to COVID-19 protocols and a recent hamstring injury, and while his recovery from his Achilles injury is impressive, that will remain a question mark. Irving’s availability will also be key. Earlier this year, Irving missed seven games due to “personal reasons,” and later discussed mental health and family matters. Mental health is a serious concern, especially during a pandemic, and Irving’s reputation as a bad teammate is not fully deserved. He is described as a locker room “cancer,” yet his peers selected him as vice president of the NBA player’s association. He has used his platform to advocate for social change, including recently purchasing a home for the family of George Floyd. Irving also has a history of injury concerns, as well, so it will be vital to the team’s success for him to stay fully engaged and healthy. 

The Nets went all in for a championship, and they may consider the trade a failure if they don’t win one. Harden is under contract until 2021-22, and with a $47 million player option for the following year. Durant is already 32 and has publicly speculated about retiring at 35. They don’t have to win the championship this year, but the window is fairly limited. They also don’t have very much salary flexibility considering they owe their big three a combined $113 million this year — more than the combined salaries of three NBA teams, according to Basketball-Reference. A championship is far from guaranteed. Teams like the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks are all high quality and would challenge the Nets, even at their best. 

It is far too early to call the Nets undisputed winners of this trade. The playoffs will determine that. Regardless, the NBA has never seen a big three like this before, and even their early successes show that, given the right mindset and devotion to the team above oneself — which these three clearly have — such an experiment can succeed.

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