Brooklyn Nets Have Their Flaws, But James Harden, KD and Kyrie Can Hide Them

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2021

Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving (11) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers' Damyean Dotson (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The Brooklyn Nets made their first 10 shots in Wednesday's 147-135 double overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even with a slew of turnovers mixed in during that opening stretch, it felt like this offense led by James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving might be a full-blown juggernaut.

Then the Nets missed their next 11 shots.

Brooklyn had 23 points with 4:47 left in the first quarter. It stayed there until KD hit a two-pointer nearly two minutes into the second quarter.

In that opening frame and change, we got to see the full gamut of offensive possibilities for the Nets.

At the outset, the ball was popping, jumpers were falling and the Cavs looked incapable of seriously contesting the shots created by Brooklyn's superstar trio. When things devolved a bit too much into the "your turn, my turn" approach, Cleveland's defenders had an easier time getting a hand up.

Granted, much of that scoreless stretch featured reserves, but Durant, Harden and Irving combined for five of the 11 misses. Months from now, few are likely to remember this seven-minute stretch of stagnant offense. Heck, by the end of this game, Brooklyn had bounced back to finish with an above-average true shooting percentage and offensive rating.

But this loss, punctuated by Collin Sexton's 42 points (including 22 in the two overtime periods), served as a reminder that superteams can take some time to coalesce.

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The "there's only one ball" takes pretty much wrote themselves after the Nets acquired Harden. However, Kyrie dropped 37 points on 28 shots in his return. KD went for 38 points and eight assists, while Harden had a triple-double with 21 points, 12 dimes and 10 boards.

But for much of the game, particularly a first half in which he only took two shots, it actually felt like Harden needed to be more selfish.

The new guy's desire to defer is admirable, but there's an argument that he's the most devastating offensive player of the three. He's fifth in NBA history in career offensive box plus/minus. Over the last five seasons, he's first (by a long shot).

And his scoring is part of that.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

He showed a bit more aggression in the third and fourth quarters, but Harden still finished with the lowest usage percentage of the Big Three. He attempted 14 shots and six free throws to go along with five turnovers. It was just the 10th time in the last five years that he failed to exceed any of those marks.

Going forward, Brooklyn won't need the most recent Houston Rockets version of Harden, but something a little closer to that wouldn't hurt.

As good as Irving is (and he was spectacular in stretches on Wednesday), he's not quite the dynamo Harden is on offense. Overreliance on his one-on-one forays could lead to stagnation. And that's what happened on a handful of second-half possessions. The ball would move for the first 10-15 seconds of the shot clock before settling into Irving's hands for a little razzle-dazzle ball-handling and a pull-up jumper.

He did hit seven shots after halftime, but he missed 11. He was minus-14 in those 31 minutes and had only two assists.

It's too early for sweeping takeaways—this is their first game together, for crying out loud—but Harden and Irving should probably slide in opposite directions on the selfishness scale.

KD will probably be just fine. We saw this movie (or at least elements of it) play out a few years ago with the Golden State Warriors. Durant's game is malleable, perhaps as much as any superstar scorer we've ever seen. There is nothing beyond his offensive skill set, which means he can do whatever is asked of him. Catch-and-shoot option off Harden or Kyrie's drives? No problem. Iso when the other stars are off the floor? That's fine, too. Scoring in the post, running pick-and-roll and finishing in transition are all in his wheelhouse as well.

Whatever balance is struck between Kyrie, Harden and the supporting cast, Durant will be ready and able to pick up the rest.

The bigger problem for this team will almost certainly be defense. It gave up 122.5 points per 100 possessions to Cleveland on Wednesday. The league average is 110.1, and the Cavs came into the game with a last-place mark of 101.1.

Sexton deserves the bulk of the credit for his eruption, especially when he was drilling pull-up threes against tight defense in the fourth quarter and both overtimes. But Brooklyn's general inability to slow down the worst offense in the league could signify major problems moving forward.

For one thing, the Nets need rim protection. DeAndre Jordan isn't a sieve, but he's also 32 and is several years removed from All-NBA-level defense. A more traditional offensive game may keep him out of closing lineups, too. It did on Wednesday, when he checked out with 2:55 left in the third quarter and never came back in.

Playing Jeff Green as a small-ball 5 makes Brooklyn more dynamic on offense, but the lane is even more exposed in those configurations.

Bigs who can both protect the basket and play on the perimeter on the other end don't grow on trees, but the Nets will have to address a frontcourt need in some way (whether through the buyout market or the development of Reggie Perry's three-point shot).

Perimeter defense is a problem, too. The reputations of Harden and Kyrie on that front don't need much explanation. KD is versatile and able to switch onto most positions, but he's also not far removed from a ruptured Achilles and isn't the kind of player who should spend the bulk of his energy on that end.

In Oklahoma City, he had a defensive specialist in Thabo Sefolosha to take on the toughest assignments. In Golden State, it was Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

Durant has never been the best defender on a title contender, yet he may well be Brooklyn's best defender. Giving up the farm for Harden will make it tough to land the right specialists to fill out this roster.

That might not matter on a team with this many all-time great offensive players, though. Sexton and the Cavs got the last laugh on Wednesday, and other teams will have big scoring nights against this defense.

The real tests are still coming. Postseason series against teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks or others will present greater challenges.

But this amount of talent, especially when all three adapt to playing together, will hide plenty of flaws.