LOS ANGELES – When the Brooklyn Nets ultimately decided to change their roster makeup and traded for James Harden, the thought process was clear. In a league swarming with talent and breathtaking guard play, you can never have “too many” on-ball creators.
Sacrificing a chunk of your rotational depth – especially the only semblance of a high-impact interior defender – matters less in the modern NBA than it did 10 years ago. If the objective is to win playoff games against physical, switchy, and dialed-in defenses when the tempo slows, the most obvious path is to accumulate otherworldly talent at the most critical position.
When games are tight and everyone is waiting to see how a team generates a bucket when there is no opening to exploit, they best have someone who can do one of three things: Attack the smallest gaps with their speed and creativity, read the defensive rotations at an expert level after receiving a screen, or simply shoot over the most hard-nosed defenders in isolation.
Brooklyn shipping off young talent and their future assets for Harden, now in his 12th NBA season, unlocked the ability to have all three of those options … in the same lineup.
Harden supplies the best floor vision of the three stars, sensing weakside help two steps before it actually comes, and spraying the ball out to the perimeter. He’s always had the world-class playmaking in his arsenal — it became a large of part of his game during the 2016-17 season when Mike D’Antoni took over as the Rockets’ head coach.
The true gift of Kyrie Irving in any offense is the supreme confidence he possesses as a pull-up scorer and downhill finisher. To him, there is no space small enough to dissuade him from shooting after a ball-screen. If teams switch against Irving, there’s a high probability he’s cooking the opposing center in the mid-range or at the rim. The only solution is to send a hard trap.
Then, if the Nets’ two elite guards are getting flustered – something that likely won’t happen at the same time – there’s a seven-foot answer to all their problems. Kevin Durant, currently averaging 29.0 points on 56.5%-43.4%-86.9% modern splits, exemplifies a basketball force that shatters any defensive coverage. He can be used as a screener and roller, or the play initiator while a smaller guard screens for him. If you switch, good luck contesting any of his shots. If you blitz him and try to force a turnover by trapping, his timing has improved to such a degree where he’ll get rid of the ball quickly … and the defense is almost helpless if Harden or Irving is leading a 4-on-3 opportunity at full speed.
At their peak, which we still haven’t seen, the Nets will perhaps be the second-hardest team to guard in NBA history. Only the KD-iteration of the Warriors, with their relentless off-ball movement, top 1% shooting personnel, and unparalleled balance between system scoring and isolation threats, could be considered a tougher defensive challenge for opponents.
Consider me one of the many voices shouting after the trade, “Does this team not care about defense? You’ll give up just as many points as you score in the playoffs!”
I fell into the trap most people do. And that’s believing there is any team, especially in the Eastern Conference, who can match Brooklyn on a possession-by-possession basis. Defensive talent, aggression, and a consistent focus – sure, they all matter. And the Nets sorely lacked all three components up until the last two weeks. But, when the postseason arrives in exactly three months, we shouldn’t be naive to think opponents will be looking at the Nets and feeling confident they can outgun them in a seven-game series. Even with the massive limitations of Brooklyn’s defense, it will be the other way around. Teams such as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Boston will internally have doubts about their chances of slowing down the plethora of scoring threats Brooklyn has assembled.
We can look at the Nets’ current situation one of two ways.
There’s the supremely optimistic view that suggests they are 43% through their regular season schedule and already own the NBA’s top-rated offense – both in the halfcourt setting and overall. This is with the Durant-Harden-Irving trio only logging 186 minutes over seven games. To put that into perspective, the Nets’ deadliest trio is only 13th among the team’s three-man lineups in total minutes. Yet, this team is still atop the league offensively – currently 6.7 points above the league-average offensive rating.
In reality, it feels as if they can only improve with time.
A pessimist would claim the lack of time together as we near the season’s halfway mark could result in mistakes down the road, as they will still be trying to iron out the details and on-court chemistry as the playoffs get closer. It could also be alarming we are this far into the season without the Nets having consistent lineups and player availability, considering the defensive side is where they need to flip a switch. Gaining a collective feel for each other is more important to a team’s defense than offense, especially when their postseason offense will be trending in the direction of isolation scoring against switches. It’s more crucial for the Nets’ defense to get healthy bodies on the floor and work through the issues together.
That is hard to do when Durant, their best player, has found himself in and out of the lineup for a couple different reasons.
First, the COVID health and safety protocols and contact tracing held him out of multiple games. Then, upon returning, a left hamstring strain has cost him the last three games on Brooklyn’s road trip.
According to head coach Steve Nash, there is still no timetable on when Durant could return. Before the Nets faced the L.A. Lakers on Thursday, he mentioned how the training staff is monitoring Durant’s “strength” from an explosive standpoint as it relates to his hamstring. And he reiterated that KD will have to meet various checkpoints before he’s cleared to return:
For the season, if you include the players Brooklyn traded, they have now used 19 different starting lineups in 31 games. Not only is that an extremely high percentage, but it’s a lot more lineups than other title contenders have used up to this point. For instance: The Clippers have used 12 different starting units in 30 games. For the Lakers, only six in 30 games. The Jazz? Three different starting groups in 29 games.
Yet, here are the Nets, cruising to a 106.1 halfcourt offensive rating. It’s 9.5 points per 100 possessions above league-average (96.6), and currently a better relative offensive rating in the halfcourt than those 2017 Warriors had (+8.0).
Only the Clippers come remotely close to their halfcourt execution. It’s a shame both teams are dealing with minor injury blows at the moment, because Sunday’s rematch in L.A. may have been just as exciting as the first meeting.
Brooklyn has now played 18 games since trading for Harden, giving them a 12-6 record during that span. With the trio together, they are 5-2. When Harden and Irving play without Durant, they are 9-4.
Harden’s importance to the team won’t be absorbed through the team’s record, which is still below the public perception of how dominant they should be.
However, his impact on the floor can’t be ignored. During Harden’s minutes on the floor, the Nets have scored 121.1 points per 100 possessions while allowing 115.1 – almost the same combination as Durant’s minutes since the trade.
When Harden takes a seat, though, look how much Brooklyn suffers. It’s not just offensively, either. It’s on both ends:
The Nets go from a +6.0 net rating with Harden on the court to -6.4 when he sits.
Trading for Harden was a no-brainer for GM Sean Marks, who understood how successful of a distributor Harden can be with the ball in his hands. For a team that will never lack pull-up shooting weapons and catch-and-shoot threats, the last piece of the puzzle may have been retrieving a passer of Harden’s caliber to dictate the flow.
Harden’s best attribute, beyond drilling step-back jumpers, is how frequently he draws help from other spots on the floor. It can be through pick-and-roll when he’s doubled 30 feet from the basket, or from the corners as he skates his way past the first line of defense and forces you to make a decision.
Only 17 games into his Nets tenure, Harden has assisted on 484 points. Generating 28.5 points per game off his assists, it’s the highest figure in Harden’s career — surpassing his marvelous 2016-17 season average of 26.9 when he became a full-time point guard.
Since Jan. 16, as a passer, he created nearly 100 more points than second-place (Luka Dončić with 388).
Harden’s passing brilliance will never get the same national shine as his patented step-back jumpers. Those shots are the toughest in basketball, especially against lengthy defenders, and Harden has transformed it from a widely inefficient shot to a viable offensive possession if you can hit them at an elite clip. Since the trade to Brooklyn, he is shooting 39% on step-back threes. When they’re falling at a rate that high, those plays will garner attention over any pick-and-roll pass.
After defeating the Lakers, who were missing valuable offensive pieces in Anthony Davis and Dennis Schröder on Thursday, Brooklyn is now riding a five-game winning streak on the backs of Harden and Irving. In those five games, Harden is a blistering 20-of-42 (47.6%) from three. The volume (8.4 attempts) isn’t as high as we’re used to seeing from the Beard, but that can be attributed to how willing he has been to take on the pick-and-roll duties as a playmaker.
The Nets embarked on a five-game West road trip on Feb. 13 and haven’t slowed down. It included a dismantling of the Warriors in the Bay Area, a shootout in Sacramento where the Nets shot 27-of-47 from deep and recorded their highest effective field goal percentage of the entire season (75.3%), and a vicious 24-point comeback in Phoenix where Harden’s full repertoire was on display in the second half.
They managed to take care of business in Staples Center despite having their least-efficient offensive game of the road trip. It was largely thanks to the Lakers going extremely cold at the wrong time, making just one of the 10 corner threes LeBron and company generated.
In the absence of KD, Brooklyn still elected to start with their small-ball lineup that includes Harden, Irving, Joe Harris, Bruce Brown, and Jeff Green as the center. Surrounding the superstar duo with three wings is how the Nets continue to make teams pay for overhelping once Harden or Irving get into the lane.
“The small lineup is our closing lineup,” Nash said. “I think is gives us a lot of space on the floor for our guys to operate. We can also be pretty versatile defensively. I think they’re gaining a confidence and understanding in that lineup. But all of our combinations have to improve, and keep refining, and keep getting better. Because we know the type of teams we’re going to face at the end of the road and what that’s going to look like.”
When Durant eventually returns, teams are going to be at the mercy of Brooklyn’s shooting streaks. The five-man combo of Harden, Irving, Harris, Green, and Durant as the center has only played 76 total minutes in seven games. Yet, the early returns are quite frightening. The (healthy) small-ball closers are scoring 125.6 points per 100 possessions together, while only allowing 108.2 – that gives the Nets’ most playoff-ready lineup a +17.4 net rating in an incredibly small sample size.
More than anyone, Nash understands how critical it is to have the adequate time together to clean up mistakes and learn each other’s preferences. Remember, his first season with the Lakers in 2012-13 turned sour after he fractured his leg and the team suffered one injury after another. Time on the court is going to be imperative for Brooklyn before they get to the real tests.
Nevertheless, during a season where there is seemingly not enough time between games and everything is scrunched together, there is a level of satisfaction about how the Nets look after a month of integrating Harden.
“I’m really proud of the guys for their continued improved, and really just their concentration,” Nash said. “Coming to try and get better every day. It would be ideal if these guys are bonding as well. It’s such a weird season – a weird world, frankly – for people to socialize. For me, as a former player, I think it’s really important these guys gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for one another that allows them to enjoy what they do and to feel a sense of caring for one another. You see that in performances (on the court). Hopefully this trip is more than just a good record and some wins.”
Their five-game winning streak started after an embarrassing loss at the hands of the Detroit Pistons (without Durant). It marked the third straight loss for Brooklyn and the fourth loss in five games. Since that moment, they have reached a different level offensively while also looking more competent in their switching defense and trusting each other on back-end rotations.
“I’m not thinking about the Detroit game. Having said that, it was a low for us. It did provoke some conversations and a rededication of what we’re trying to. I’m proud of the way they’ve responded since then. Obviously, we’ve taken care of business. But more than wins and losses, I keep messaging to the guys that it’s about – win or lose, are we getting better? Are we heading in the right direction, are we learning? Are we progressing without a training camp with a new group? It’s just really important we take every day as an opportunity to get better, regardless of the results.”
While Nash is always going to be a proponent of eyeing the long-term checkpoints and goals over the immediate validation that comes from a few regular-season wins, even he can’t deny how gratifying – and timely – it was for the team to snap out of a funk.
“But … it also tastes sweet when you go out West and win some games,” he said.
The Nets will look to complete their West road trip with one more game in Los Angeles on Sunday, where the Clippers will be looking for retribution after getting Leonard and George back in the lineup.