Imagine, for a moment, that you’re Duncan Robinson. I know it’s odd, but Indulge me. Put yourself in Robinson’s shoes on a given day in the NBA. You’re a 6’7 shooting guard with a beautiful jumper and league-average defensive mobility. And while we’re speaking in hypotheticals, let’s imagine that you’re playing in a COVID-free world, and as a result the entire Miami Heat roster is healthy and not sitting due to contact tracing regulations. You’re at practice the day before the Heat are scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets. You’re running through your normal shooting drills, attempting your 500th 3-pointer of the day, all the while you’re mentally rehearsing your shtick for Friday’s JJ Redick podcast guest appearance. You turn to your left to see Head Coach Erik Spoelstra approaching you.
“Duncan, buddy,” says Spoelstra with a sigh. “Looks like you’ve got Kyrie tomorrow.”
You stop shooting and assess your coach’s words. On some level, you knew this was coming.
“Come again, coach?”, you ask, knowing full well you heard him perfectly the first time.
“Sorry, Duncan, I hate to do this to you,” he responds. “I thought about giving Jimmy the job, but he’s the only guy we’ve got who’s got any shot at slowing down Harden. And of course we’re putting Bam on Durant, so…”
He shrugs and gives you a pat on your shoulder. “Don’t let him go left! Or right!”
Throughout the NBA, these types of conversations (maybe in less facetious tones) are now going to be had between coaches and their third-best perimeter defenders (the Duncan Robinsons of the world) in response to a harsh new reality: James Harden, former league MVP and scoring champion, is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, and opposing teams are going to have to determine how to guard a team with three offensive geniuses in their starting lineup. Harden will join Kevin Durant and (supposedly) Kyrie Irving as a result of a four-team trade that sends four first-round picks and four pick swaps to the Houston Rockets. Houston will also receive former Pacer Victor Oladipo, former Cavalier Dante Exum and former Net Rodions Kurucs. Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers will receive former Net Caris LeVert, and a second round pick. Finally, the Cleveland Cavaliers will receive former Nets Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince (per Shams Charania).
Debates surrounding this trade have been swirling for weeks, and observers were already questioning the on-the-court fit of these three stars. It’s safe to say that there has never before been a trio of ball-handlers that, well, like to handle the ball so much. The beauty of the Golden State Warriors dynasty of yesteryear was that their three offensive weapons — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and once again Durant — were all off-the-ball threats that could (were willing to) cut and run off of screens, creating chaos and defensive lapses. Conversely, Harden will be exiting a Houston system that featured him as the Alpha and the Omega; he boasted an astounding usage rate of 36% last year, which, believe it or not, was down 4% from the previous season. Pair that with Irving’s usage rate of 33% last year and Durant’s of 29% in 2019 and it’s suddenly looking like there will be too many cooks in the Barclays kitchen.
However, the new-look Nets aren’t entirely dissimilar to the Durant-Curry Warriors. Beyond the obvious similarity of having Kevin Durant (who looks like he hasn’t lost even half a step despite coming off of an Achilles tear), the Nets stars are also all above-average 3-point shooters. This means that, even in the worst-case offensive scenario in which one of the three stars is isolating and attempting to hit a tough shot off the dribble, the other two will at least have to be guarded. If that is this team’s floor — one of Durant, Harden or Irving isolating against single coverage on a properly spaced court — then that’s enough to get you to the conference finals in the East. Again, we’re talking about three of the most dynamic perimeter scorers to ever grace a basketball court. Harden’s stepback jumpshot is the hardest shot to guard in the league. Irving’s handles are second to none, and the runner-up might be his new backcourt mate. And Durant is the most efficient high-volume scorer of the 21st century in terms of true shooting percentage. All three are evolutions of Kobe Bryant: tough-shot-making magicians who combine elite footwork with staggering athleticism and impossible finishing, allowing them to score or facilitate from anywhere on the court. If it does just end up being each of them taking turns going 1-on-1, it’ll at least be a site to see. And one of the three will have mismatch to exploit and embarrass (sorry, Duncan Robinson) nearly every game.
But this rotation of iso’s does not have to be the Nets’ destiny. Durant has already thrived in a motion offense, and apparently he’s not the only one willing to attempt an egalitarian approach. According to a mic’d up conversation with Bucks’ Coach Mike Budenholzer, Stephen Curry said that Harden confessed to him that carrying the entirety of the offensive load was not his preference, and he would love to play in a “beautiful game” style of offense.
This is secondhand news, and it is just talk even if it is true, but it is worth considering that maybe Harden will actually be willing to shift away from the playing style that has made him infamous to many. If Head Coach Steve Nash can convince Harden to play like a traditional shooting guard from time to time, it would do wonders in terms of avoiding predictability.
The same goes for Irving. If one of the two guards is creating off-ball action while the other is running pick-and-pop with Durant (a Harden/Durant high-screen will be nearly unguardable), opposing defenses will be beside themselves. Floppy action would be a menace to deal with if Joe Harris and Durant were setting screens for either guard while the other is at the top of the key waiting to pass. Each of these guards draws so much attention and are both at the ready to exploit any gap in the defense. It would be a shame if they didn’t maximize the other’s potential by consistantly threatening the defense with movement.
It would’ve been unreasonable for any of Harden’s Houston coaches to ask him to run off of pin-downs on the few occasions when he wasn’t handling the ball. It would’ve been exhausting. Harden needed those few possessions where he could just stand behind the arc and take a breather, completely excluding himself from the play, because he knew that the following possession he’d likely be running yet another pick-and-roll, as it was their only viable scoring option. But now, with two dynamic playmakers next to him for the first time since his OKC days, Harden has the option to adjust if he chooses to.
But in all likelihood, Irving will be the one who will have to adjust or be left behind. Harden is flat out better than him, and will deserve the majority of the ball-handling responsibilities. It’s not an unreasonable request — Irving won a championship five years ago next to another dominant pick-and-roll addict. Perhaps history will repeat itself and Harden will defer to Irving in the final minute of a game 7 (though Durant should have a say in that as well).
In addition to the issue of ball-handling responsibilities, critics of this trade will cite the depth that Brooklyn relinquished in order to bring Harden into the fold. LeVert and Allen are both starting-caliber players, and Prince was a valuable piece in terms of wing depth. But a proper staggering of minutes can resolve both of these issues to some extent. To have two of Durant, Harden and Irving on the floor at all times is truly a luxury; it’ll allow each of them to play a role as the primary offensive engine, and it’ll bolster bench lineups that might otherwise be lacking in talent. Nash can enter the second quarter with a lineup of Harden/Shamet/Luwawu-Cabarrot/Durant/Green, for example. That’s a dangerous five with a ton of versatility and enough shooting to keep defenses honest. Even if Nash wants to keep Irving’s and Durant’s minutes paired, Harden can play with four average players and the offense will be above league average, especially against opposing bench units. Harden is a floor raiser, through and through, and his talents have been elevating role players for nearly a decade now.
The offense is going to work. In addition to being great shooters, all three stars are willing passers whose games are malleable enough to adjust to any system. The true issue will be defense. Losing Allen’s rim protection and thereby finally cementing DeAndre Jordan’s role as the de facto starting center (there are no other true centers on the roster) makes the Nets vulnerable to guard-penetration. Irving and Harden are notorious for their lack of effort when it comes to fighting over screens, and without a proper shot-blocker (Jordan hasn’t lived up to his reputation defensively in years) behind them, the Nets are going to struggle to contain opposing offenses. Their best bet might be playing Jeff Green at center and implementing a switching defense, a system in which Harden’s weaknesses have been masked in the past (see the 2018 Rockets that came within one game of dethroning the Warriors). Either way, the majority of the defensive burden will now fall primarily on Durant, as he is their best perimeter defender and rim protector by default — a lot to ask from a 32-year-old coming off of a major injury.
Ultimately, the Nets are a perplexing experiment the likes of which we’ve never before seen in the NBA. It is somewhat exciting to consider that, as player empowerment grows and star-movement becomes more normalized, we’ll be able to see every permutation of a superteam and learn what will and will not work. The Nets could develop the greatest offense in league history and outscore their way to a title. They could also combust internally, if Durant and Harden beef over “whose team it is” and Irving never returns from his mysterious, potentially Covid-contracting sabbatical. The range of outcomes for this latest goulash of talent is vast despite their relatively high floor, and an injection of chaos into the NBA is almost always fun.