In one of the biggest blockbuster trades in recent memory, the Brooklyn Nets have acquired James Harden in a four-team trade that sent the former MVP to New York in exchange for some young talent and a hefty amount of picks. But having been involved in a trade of similar magnitude that didn’t quite work out (we will spare the details for you, Nets fans), will this be the trade that puts them on the path for the organization’s first title, or will it see the Nets pushed back to irrelevance in a few years’ time with no future? In today’s point/counterpoint, we will discuss whether this trade will go down as a steal leading to short-term dominance, or one of the worst trades in NBA history.
It is official. The Brooklyn Nets just finished trading away both their present and future prospects for the media sensation that is James Harden. He will be joining a team now devoid of depth, defensive capability and chemistry. The Nets dismissed a budding star and scoring machine in Caris Levert, the best young rim-protecting big man in the league in Jarret Allen and cashed in all their first-round picks for the next decade. And for what?
While the Nets have acquired a great scorer in James Harden, a player who gives Brooklyn the most prolific offensive trio in the NBA, averaging an absurd 83 PPG cumulatively (2020 stats), history is not on their side in regard to winning a championship. Out of the 14 highest point-producing Big Threes in NBA history, only six of these teams made it past the second round of playoffs and only one of these teams won the championship that season,the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers. Furthermore, in the last 45 seasons since the NBA and ABA league merger, the team with the number one offensive rating has only won the championship eight times, seven of which were a part of Jordan’s Bulls championship runs and those of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s Showtime Lakers. But these two teams were anomalies and paired their offensive prowess with some of the best defense the league has ever seen. The Brooklyn Nets are one-dimensional offensively and will have the most porous defense of any championship contender.
The Brooklyn Nets are doubling down on a system that has historically never worked, while adding variables such as potential chemistry issues regarding star player egos and going against the advice of numerous NBA champions including that of the late Kobe Bryant. Adding another scorer only helps a team if they can find a way to share the ball efficiently. Can people really expect the addition of a defensive liability in Harden, while stripping the team of its best interior defender in Allen and two-way quasi All-Star forward in Levert, to really be an improvement? There is now more pressure, less defensive talent and still only one basketball for a now diminished Brooklyn Nets team.
Listen, I personally hate this trade as much as the next guy, but it’s crazy to say the Nets got worse by adding a former MVP and three-time scoring champion in James Harden to their already stacked roster. Sure, they are lacking depth with Caris Levert and Jarrett Allen now elsewhere, but they still have plenty of solid pieces left on the bench that will be nothing if not serviceable when you have perhaps the most dominant Big Three of all time to lean on.
The most similar team to this Nets squad that I can think of is the 2017-2018 Warriors that also featured Kevin Durant. On any given night, either Steph Curry, Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant could drop 35 on you, sometimes two of them doing it in the same game, which is what made that team as scary as it was. And that is exactly what we have now in Brooklyn; three of the best scorers in today’s NBA alternating who drops 30 points or dishes out 10 assists on a nightly basis. It will take some time to adjust and for each of the guys to learn their role, but once they do, you’ll start to see the Nets winning a lot of games, even with a rather questionable defense. And don’t get me wrong, adding Harden in place of guys like Levert and more so, Allen, is going to leave a lot to be desired on that end, but they have enough pieces (ignoring Harden) where their D will be good enough to let their offense do the heavy lifting.
This Brooklyn team’s Big Three will have the highest usage rate in NBA history (a ridiculous average of 94.2%), due to both a lack of bench options and because all three players require the ball in their hands to be effective. Durant is actually the player most well-equipped to play off the ball, but is that why he came to Brooklyn to begin with? Does the organization really want arguably the greatest scorer in NBA history to play second fiddle? Regardless of how one observes the Nets’ situation, one of their players will have to take a backseat and compromise their statistical output for the betterment of the team, similar to the way Chris Bosh and Kevin Love changed their games in their own Big Threes. But are either of the Nets stars willing to take a backseat? Again referencing the history, out of the teams that featured Big Threes with top five usage rates — the 1984 Nuggets, 1991 Warriors, 2018 Pelicans, 2019 Warriors and Harden’s own 2020 Houston Rockets — none of them won an NBA championship.
This is because high usage rates reduce the durability of players, lead to debilitating injuries and drain teams on the defensive side of the floor. Harden’s debut against the Orlando Magic, while recording a 30-point triple-double to back Durant’s game-high 42 points, only resulted in a seven-point win over a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2010. There is not one player off the Brooklyn bench that averages double figures in scoring. Harden’s isolation scoring, which stagnates the rest of the Nets’ offense, will not make up for the lack of depth and depletion of defensive capability. Having to exert the stars to this extent against paltry league competition is not sustainable.
The Nets lost pieces to their championship puzzle in return for a guy who performs the same role as their other two stars and no future as an organization. A championship caliber team is worth more than just three big name stars who happen to wear the same team’s jersey.
In terms of usage rates, I’d imagine by season’s end it will hover closely to that of the 85.1% split between Curry, Thompson and Durant in Golden State in 2017. That combined usage rate, while still very high, led the Warriors to have one of the most efficient and deadly offenses in the league en route to their third title in four years. So while I understand the 94% usage rate prediction can be daunting, it is sure to level out as the three players become acclimated to playing with one another.
Speaking of which, sure the Nets only beat the Magic by seven points, but let’s look a little deeper into that. This is an Orlando team with a solid frontcourt and top-tier scoring center in the league in Nikola Vucevic, in Harden’s first game in a Nets uniform and still without Kyrie Irving. If we instead looked at the win from a couple nights ago against the two-time Eastern Conference Champs in the Milwaukee Bucks where Harden and Durant each dropped 30 with KD sealing the game in crunch time, that is more what we can expect from this team as the season goes on.
On defense, I agree with you 100% that it will be pretty ugly with Harden and Irving making up your back court, but this may be that rare case where a dominant offense simply overshadows holes the defense leaves. In the two games since Harden has joined the Nets and remembered how to play basketball, he has put up 33 points, nine rebounds and 13 assists. Kevin Durant has averaged 36 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Prior to taking his leave of absence, Irving was putting up 27 points, five rebounds and six assists. In short, this offense will be unstoppable.
Are they a lock for the title with the addition of Harden? Not at all, but that isn’t the question. The question is did the Nets get better for this season, to which the answer is a resounding yes.