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Will the Nets' James Harden-Durant-Kyrie Irving Experiment Actually Work?

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJanuary 14, 2021

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) drives to the basket as Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

The Houston Rockets not only answered James Harden's trade request, but they also sent him to the team he always wanted.

In a four-team trade, originally reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, the Brooklyn Nets sent out Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs, three first-round picks and four pick swaps to get Harden. 

Thirteen games into the season, the Nets are 7-6. In the nine games he's played since coming back from an Achilles injury, Kevin Durant has looked like his old self. Kyrie Irving has looked good on the court but is currently sitting out due to personal reasons and has no clear return date.

After reuniting Harden with his old Oklahoma City Thunder teammate, the Nets now have three All-NBA-level players. Durant, Harden and Irving will form the NBA's newest Big Three. 

This all leads to one big question: Will it work?

              

Why It Will Work

Few teams can put out as much offensive firepower as the Nets. So far this season, Durant and Irving are combining for 56.5 points and 11.9 assists per game while both shooting above 40 percent from three. Brooklyn is fifth in offensive rating, third in points per game and fourth in three-point percentage.

Now, the Nets are adding one of the NBA's best offensive weapons in Harden. He has either led the league in scoring or finished second in each of the last six seasons. Over that span, he has always finished among the top 10 in assists, as well. Harden is an offensive system on his own. 

Having the three stars on the floor together will create plenty of space. Teams will be hesitant to help off any of them, which means Joe Harris, Jeff Green, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Landry Shamet (once he finds his shot again) will have plenty of open looks.

Most importantly, adding a third All-Star-caliber player gives head coach Steve Nash the ability to stagger minutes. He can guarantee Brooklyn will have at least one 30-point playmaker on the floor for the entire 48 minutes each night. 

Brooklyn can employ several different styles of offense when it staggers those minutes. It can run a Harden-focused, isolation-heavy offense with shooters spreading the floor. With Irving leading the charge, it can go to a pick-and-roll-style game. It can also run Durant off a series of off-ball pindowns. 

It's easy to envision using any combination of Harden, Irving and Durant in the Nets' pistol action. All three could even be involved in that action with shooters on the weak side. Imagine the play below with Harden in place of Harris and with Green setting the screen. 

Few teams have multiple high-level defenders who will be able to defend the Big Three as well as the other two players. 

The other important aspect of this trade? It gives the Nets some insurance. 

Having two stars is nice, but having three is better. If one goes down, the team can stay afloat with the other two. Harden does not get enough credit for always being available to play. Throughout his eight years with Houston, he played at least 68 games in every season. Availability is sometimes the best ability, and Harden always checks that box. 

This experiment will work if the Nets can overwhelm teams with their offensive firepower. 

               

Why It Won't Work

Still, it might not work for a few reasons.

The first is that even with all these offensive weapons, there is still only one basketball. All three are high-usage players. This season, Durant is at 30.9 percent, Irving is at 29.3, and Harden comes in at 28.9 percent—the lowest his usage rate has been since the 2013-14 season

Adding another ball-dominant player requires all three to compromise. Durant made that sacrifice during his run with the Golden State Warriors. Irving was never able to make it work with the rising stars on the Boston Celtics. Harden has had his way in Houston both on and off the court for years. 

Those sacrifices raise the possibility of egos getting bruised and unhappiness growing quickly. 

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Defense is always going to be an issue for the Nets. Even before this trade, there were questions about their perimeter defense. Nash can't count on Irving to get a stop. Teams have always targeted Shamet on that end. Harris is not known as a defensive stopper. And Harden is well known for his poor defense. 

Trading Allen meant sending out their top rebounder and best rim-protector. It also hurts Brooklyn's center depth, leaving Nash with DeAndre Jordan as the only true center and Green as a small-ball 5. In a bind, the Nets can also use Durant as a center.

Building a defense with Irving and Harden starting in the backcourt will require more defensive ability up and down the roster, which the Nets currently do not have. Their best chance of changing that will depend on the buyout market, which is an uncertain proposition.  

For this to work, Brooklyn's offense will have to be as dominant on the court as it looks on paper. The defense will not bail it out most nights. 

Regardless, the Nets have pulled off a mega-blockbuster trade. They now have three of the top 25 players in the NBA—even two of the top 10. They mortgaged their future for what could amount to a two-year window. 

It's now championship or bust in Brooklyn.

                

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter, @MoDakhil_NBA

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