James Harden minted his Brooklyn Nets debut with a 32-point triple-double. Two nights later, Harden and Kevin Durant each scored 30-plus during a thrilling 125-123 win over two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Their triples and dashes to the rim dominated the potential Eastern Conference Finals showdown.
Brooklyn looks like a world-beater with Harden in the fold, and it suddenly stands as the odds-on favorite to advance out of the East. With Harden's contract guaranteed only through the 2021-22 season, the time is indeed now for the Nets. And with Kyrie Irving expected to play Wednesday night against Cleveland, it seems as though the Nets' new triumvirate will soon finally be unleashed.
Many rival team personnel, however, shared skepticism that Brooklyn's group of All-Stars will mesh as well as modern-day Big Threes before them.
The Nets are not the 2007-08 Boston Celtics. That talented group fit snugly like long-lost puzzle pieces. Ray Allen's lethal jumper provided spacing for Paul Pierce's mid-range dances, while Kevin Garnett played the heartbeat of Boston's stifling defense. The Nets' new collection of All-Stars boast far less complementary games.
Critics once doubted the 2007-08 Celtics' ability to coexist in terms of reduced scoring loads and shot attempts. This Nets group faces those same doubts, especially since Harden and Irving both seemingly prefer to score while pounding the rock.
"This is different because their games don't necessarily fit," one Eastern Conference assistant coach said.
Kevin Durant will always be Kevin Durant. He's perhaps the most malleable scorer in the history of the game. His unparalleled size and dexterity are the ultimate cheat code. In Golden State, he, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson ran wild within a whirring scheme where each scorer knew if they hit the next pass and cut hard, the ball would soon find them again, with all of the space to post historic numbers.
Brooklyn's dynamic presents something not nearly as idyllic. Durant's jumper will still rain down on foes near and far, but both Harden and Irving have typically operated as primary ball-handlers, weaving dribbles between their legs and slithering off high screen after high screen. Yes, there is only one ball. And maybe more pressing: Only one player at a time can initiate that pick-and-roll at the top of the key.
Coaches often repeat a cliche that "the ball has energy." When Harden's Rockets were battling Durant's Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, there's a reason why Houston's defense was predicated on switching. Houston wanted Golden State to attack one-on-one mismatches.
Sure, Durant, Curry and Thompson got theirs. Those three can settle for a tough jumper on any possession. But when the ball isn't humming around the perimeter and other teammates aren't getting involved, they're stranded in the corner observing, just like the courtside fans behind them. The oxygen is drained from an otherwise roaring offense, even when your stars are keeping pace. Now imagine if the unengaged teammate is Irving or Harden rather than Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston.
Rival personnel are plenty curious whether Brooklyn's group can avoid falling into that iso-ball trap. Many coaches polled by B/R expect the Nets to run a fair share of isolations with Harden and Irving.
"Letting them attack the weakest defender," one NBA coach said.
They'll look to punish switches and will likely succeed in doing so. But relying on your stars to beat their man off the dribble is untenable over 48 minutes. And skeptics around the league wonder how Irving will handle playing second fiddle to Harden. There will be inevitable stretches where both stars flank the other's dribble creation from the wing. But by all accounts, The Beard is poised to serve as Brooklyn's nominal point guard and leading ball-handler. Will Kyrie get frustrated and start launching every time he gets a touch? Will Harden then do the same?
The key to finding that balance seems to be through layers of discourse.
"Will they buy in? It's about their level of communication more than anything," one scout said.
Brooklyn's coaching staff and front office will be tasked with preaching a message of sacrifice—everything from shots, touches and minutes to glory and attention. One rival coach told B/R about the importance of learning each player's individual goals to balance how they can achieve them within the Nets' overall structure. Getting to know them as people, before knowing them as players, shouldn't prove much of a challenge given Brooklyn assistant Mike D'Antoni's long-standing relationship with Harden and the Nets front office having already spent a full season with Irving and Durant.
Perhaps Brooklyn will stagger Irving and Harden's minutes, which one coach suggested would optimally start halfway through the first quarter. Sending Harden to the bench early could immediately provide Irving with a long stretch conducting Brooklyn's scoring attack. However, some suggest Harden might be better suited to orchestrate the second unit.
"James is a better passer," one assistant coach said.
Irving has always been a scorer first, putting his head down for his array of fall-aways and mid-range jumpers. Without Irving applying pressure all the way at the rim, help defenders can stay home, especially against a bench lineup. There is no rotation, and Irving isn't drawing double-teams. He rarely kicks the ball out on drives to a spotted-up teammate who's ready to attack a closeout. During the 2016 playoffs, for example, Irving's field-goal attempts practically doubled once LeBron James took a breather.
Brooklyn can avoid a lot of half-court clutter by continuing to punish foes in transition. The Nets currently rank fifth in the league in pace, and that dangerous open-court attack only encourages hit-ahead passes and ball movement that should keep all three stars well-fed. But when the ball slows, tactics will prove critical.
So far, we've seen Brooklyn use Joe Harris frequently as a screener for Harden. That action will continue to stretch defenses even with Irving and Durant's immense gravity on the floor, allowing either plenty of room to operate if the ball gets swung their way.
Irving and Durant flashed an unguardable pick-and-roll pairing before the Harden trade and Irving's prolonged absence. When those two are performing that duet, some coaches predicted Brooklyn will try to engage Harden in some weak-side action. When the ball does swing his way, he'll be able to break down a defense that's already in motion, and perhaps a defender that's already switched onto him.
That will take some time to iron out, but that's the purpose of the regular season. The Nets will likely drop some outings as they go through the expected growing pains, and with both Irving and Durant still progressing back from season-ending injuries, they figure to be without one of their new Big Three in a number of games.
League personnel are most curious to see how this discussion unfolds in the postseason. The schemes, conversations and team philosophies can change like a flip of a switch depending on matchups and differing styles within each series. There will always be one ball, but crunch time in a playoff game only presents one spotlight. And the coaches and executives contacted by B/R suggested Irving will need to take a back seat to Harden in those situations. He is a scorer, not a creator, and many believe that alone renders him the unquestioned third star in this new triumvirate. Whether Irving accepts that may ultimately determine Brooklyn's level of success.
Yet no matter the skepticism, each modern-day Big Three we've seen has managed to win it all. Durant's Warriors went back-to-back, while James, Irving and Kevin Love claimed the 2016 crown. The King's Heat won two—even if it wasn't five, six or seven—and Boston's trio won a title in its first year together, just as Brooklyn's starry group hopes to achieve.
"We were a bunch of A-type personality guys, that everybody thought they could get the job done," Ray Allen told B/R.
And then those Celtics bought in.
Now the Nets need Durant, Irving and Harden to do so, too.