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The Nets Could Be Scary Good, With or Without James Harden

A year and a half after forming, Brooklyn’s superteam is ready to launch. Questions abound, but the projections look promising, no matter what shape the roster takes around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It didn’t take long for the Nets to flash their promise for this season. Less than a minute into their preseason opener against the Wizards Sunday, Kevin Durant received a pass on the left wing, accelerated past an onrushing defender, and rose for a two-handed slam. After a year and a half off the court, following an Achilles tear in the 2019 Finals, the former MVP was back with a flourish.

He’s not back with the Warriors, though. Few stars will play for a new team this season—and even fewer will play for a new team with bona fide Finals hopes. Chris Paul joined the Suns, a 10th-place team in 2019-20, whose main goal is to return to the playoffs; ditto Russell Westbrook with the Wizards, also a 10th-place team in 2019-20. Durant is the only other player with an All-NBA berth in the last three seasons who will play for a new team.

The Nets have been stuck in something of a stasis since July 2019, when they signed Durant and Kyrie Irving to four-year contracts and essentially told their fans, Check back in a year from now. Seventeen months later, they’ll start to test whether the wait was worth it. Whether the Nets keep their roster as is or spring a trade for James Harden, they should be right in the mix of Eastern contention right away, as long as the superstars they already have are able to stay on the court.

Because of the uncertainty with Durant’s injury recovery, the Nets might be the most challenging team in the league to forecast. There is no reasonable precedent for a basketball player of his ability and age returning from an Achilles tear. The best comp might be 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, who tore her Achilles, missed the 2019 season, and then won the 2020 Finals MVP award—a promising path, albeit from someone six years younger than Durant.

But even with Durant’s unanswered questions and Irving’s early clashes with the media, the Nets as a whole inspire optimism for this season. That encouragement starts on offense, because according to the projection system from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, “even without assuming good health, Brooklyn tops the league in projected offensive rating.”

Last season, Brooklyn’s injury-marred unit ranked 22nd on offense. But now they have Durant. And in the last decade, Durant’s teams finished first or second in offensive efficiency more times (five) than they finished outside the top two.

Kevin Durant’s Career Offenses

Season Team Team ORtg Rank
Season Team Team ORtg Rank
2007-08 Seattle 29
2008-09 Oklahoma City 29
2009-10 Oklahoma City 13
2010-11 Oklahoma City 6
2011-12 Oklahoma City 2
2012-13 Oklahoma City 2
2013-14 Oklahoma City 7
2014-15 Oklahoma City 10 (injured most of season)
2015-16 Oklahoma City 2
2016-17 Golden State 1
2017-18 Golden State 3
2018-19 Golden State 1

Durant isn’t the only high scorer adding a new boost. Irving played just 20 games for the Nets last season because of shoulder surgery; together, he and Durant have had the two longest layoffs for any NBA star entering this season, according to ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry: 324 days for Irving, and a whopping 560 days for Durant. Compared to last season, the Nets are essentially adding two All-NBA talents, who rank among the best in the league at combining volume and efficiency. (Presumably, Irving won’t actually sacrifice that efficiency with his desired eight post-ups per game.)

Durant’s and Irving’s returns to the court help the Nets in two related ways: first, because they can lift the team’s production by themselves, and second, because they’ll make their teammates’ lives easier by bumping them down the scoring hierarchy. Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert each finished in the top 20 in the league in usage rate last season, ahead of clear no. 1 options like Karl-Anthony Towns and Jayson Tatum, because both Nets stars were absent and someone needed to shoot. But as the third and fourth options this season, or when squaring off against opposing bench units, Dinwiddie and LeVert can be much more efficient.

And that trickle-down effect will further help the team avoid sub-replacement play on offense. The problem last season wasn’t so much how the team performed when Dinwiddie took over for Irving, but how the team performed when the top reserve missed time, too. This was a depleted roster even before the Orlando bubble, when a trio of Nets including Dinwiddie opted out. According to figures derived from PBP Stats data, the Nets scored about 111.9 points per 100 possessions with Irving and/or Dinwiddie on the floor, a perfectly respectable rate. But that figure plummeted to 104.7 points per 100—worse than the Warriors’ league-worst efficiency—without either lead guard.

The Nets enter the 2020-21 season with much more depth, via a projected rotation that goes 12 deep with capable NBA players. Given the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic and a compressed schedule with more back-to-backs, as well as the added injury risk that Durant and Irving represent, depth should be crucial this season. And if new additions like Landry Shamet, Bruce Brown, and Jeff Green fit as well as intended, the Nets are better positioned here than most or all of their Eastern competition.

When the whole gang is healthy, all that creative ability should help first-year coach Steve Nash, who in the early going has touted positionless basketball, with any of a variety of players encouraged to initiate the offense. Whichever Net handles the ball will have space to operate and plenty of support on the perimeter.

Over the last four seasons—which encompass Durant’s entire tenure in Golden State—Durant has connected with 44.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point tries, which ranks fifth in the NBA in that span (minimum 400 total attempts). Irving is seventh on that list at 44.3 percent. Sandwiched between them? None other than Steph Curry.

And it’s not just the Nets’ two stars. Joe Harris (44.0 percent) ranks 11th over that span. Shamet (40.4) is on the right side of 40 percent too, and Taurean Prince (39.4) isn’t far behind. Given all the offensive talent at their disposal—especially if Durant plays a healthy amount at the 5—and all the options they’ll have running even a basic pick-and-roll, it’s easy to imagine some broken scoreboards in Brooklyn this season.

(As an aside, the bottom two players on that catch-and-shoot list are Marquese Chriss and Draymond Green, who play for Durant’s most recent team. Kelly Oubre Jr. is close by. And sophomores Eric Paschall and Jordan Poole would join them in the cellar if they had enough shots to qualify. Even with Curry back, I’m worried about the Warriors’ offense.)

The Nets’ roster is reminiscent of the Clippers’ last season, both in star power and depth. Both teams were led by a primary star (Durant and Kawhi Leonard) and secondary star (Irving and Paul George) with injury concerns, plus waves of offensive talent (LeVert, Dinwiddie, Harris, and more; Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and more) supporting them. And for all the Clippers’ internal drama and playoff collapse, they were still a formidable contender, with the league’s second-best offensive and net ratings in the regular season. The Nets would be thrilled with such a result.

All the above analysis is predicated, of course, on players like LeVert remaining Nets—and not being traded for Harden, who hasn’t been shy about his desire to play with old teammate Durant (and old Team USA teammate Irving) in Brooklyn. For now, at least, Houston doesn’t appear ready to accept any Nets offer for Harden unless it includes either Durant or Irving, but when a player of Harden’s stature requests a trade, he doesn’t often remain ignored for long. So it’s worth considering the Nets’ 2020-21 outlook in the alternate scenario in which they nab Harden and form a Big Three. Spoiler: They’d still be good.

Despite the certain loss of depth that would result from a Harden trade, the sheer scoring talent the Nets would have in their hypothetical lineup boggles the mind. Among active players, Durant (second), Harden (third), and Irving (ninth) are all in the top 10 in career points per game, with Durant and Harden combining to win seven of the last 11 scoring titles.

The concern when a team with two high-volume shooters adds a third—and Harden is the highest-volume player in the league—is best summarized by the oft-cited maxim of “there’s only one ball.” But these Nets offer a handy example of how to bust that myth, as all statistical indicators suggest Harden wouldn’t strain the offense beyond a breaking point.

The first important rejoinder is that the three stars don’t need to play together all the time. As Mike D’Antoni—now a Nash assistant—said in 2017 when the Rockets traded for Chris Paul, staggering Harden’s and Paul’s minutes would ensure that “for 48 minutes we have a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor.” But for two-star rosters, staggering comes with a tradeoff: Teams typically benefit from playing their best players together as much as possible. Stars compound other stars’ abilities because they’re able to command so much defensive attention—so teams like the Nuggets try to keep Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic together, even if that means they have to survive scary minutes without either leader on the floor.

That tradeoff isn’t a concern for three-star units. A team with three stars could distribute its minutes using something like this framework, which would allow each member of the trio to play about 36 minutes; stack the start and end of each half with three-star lineups; and ensure at least two stars are on the court at all times. (It would also allow for the coach to account for the personal comfort of his players; Durant, for instance, likes to rest just once per half, so he could take the “Star 3” slot.)

How to stagger your superteam, in three easy shifts
The Ringer

In this fashion, the three-star roster would give way to different permutations of two-star lineups for most of the game, alleviating concerns about sharing the ball. What about those key minutes when the three stars all play together? Here, too, concerns about one or two stars not receiving enough touches are likely overblown.

If that concern refers to actual touch time, the Nets shouldn’t have problems. Durant doesn’t actually need the ball that much. His highest-ever ranking in average time of possession (dating back to 2013-14, as far back as the database goes) was just 46th in the league, in 2018-19; when he won the MVP and his last scoring title, he ranked 58th in touch time, around the same amount as players like J.J. Barea, Nick Calathes, and Norris Cole.

In recent seasons, both Durant and Irving have run just about three to four isolations per game—or just about one per quarter, hardly an amount that would anger their teammates. Harden, on the other hand, runs more isolations and handles the ball more than any other player in the league. But look at those catch-and-shoot numbers again, and imagine Harden dribbling at the top of the key with Irving, Durant, and Harris running actions away from the ball or spotting up at the line. The offense would generate open 3s for knockdown shooters with hardly any effort.

If the “one ball” concern refers to total shots instead of touch time, it isn’t much of an issue, either. The league’s faster pace means more available shots, and Harden, Irving, and Durant would be able to get their individual fills: The Nets averaged 90 shot attempts per game last season, so even if that trio attempted 60 combined—they’ve averaged about 57 per game in recent seasons, even on separate teams—there would still be another 30 left over for the supporting cast.

In fact, in NBA history, teams have benefited when rostering three high-volume players. This chart shows the performance for every team this century within a given range of shot attempts from its no. 3 option (all adjusted to 2019-20’s pace). Teams with a third option who doesn’t take that many shots tend to finish below .500, while teams with a third option who takes a bunch of shots tend to perform much better. (The same sort of finding appears with usage rate rather than pure shot attempts, and when going back further in NBA history.)

Team Performance by No. 3 Option’s Shot Attempts (21st Century)

Shots from #3 Player Teams in Bucket Average W/L % Wins Per 82 Games
Shots from #3 Player Teams in Bucket Average W/L % Wins Per 82 Games
<10 64 .462 37.9
10-10.9 83 .502 41.2
11-11.9 128 .496 40.6
12-12.9 154 .489 40.1
13-13.9 93 .515 42.3
14-14.9 56 .522 42.8
15-15.9 33 .513 42.0
16-16.9 6 .596 48.8
17+ 8 .582 47.8

This chart doesn’t mean teams should just start giving their no. 3 options more shots; correlation does not equal causation. Rather, it probably suggests that if a team has three players sufficiently skilled to get a lot of shots, it’s probably in good shape already—which the Nets would be if they trade for Harden. The Warriors, for one relevant example, had three high-volume players every season with Durant and did rather well for themselves.

One more appealing consideration in a three-star setup? Harden’s addition would provide extra cover in case of both foul trouble within a game or longer-term injury or illness. If one star missed time, two more could still play—and compared to the Nets’ injury-riddled stars in particular, Harden’s durability stands out. Since he was drafted in 2009, no NBA player has appeared in more regular-season games.

With Harden or without, the Nets’ offensive projection is reason to salivate. But the prospective issue, and the reason the aforementioned Nets-Clippers parallel isn’t perfect, is the more lackluster defensive outlook. While the Clippers ranked fifth on defense last season, Pelton’s projection system pegs the Nets’ defense at 26th in the league, and the uncertainty around Durant’s form is even sharper here than on the other end of the floor.

That assessment might undersell the group’s defensive potential, particularly if a couple members of the group of currently fungible reserve wings breaks out. Brown is a savvy stopper entering his third season, with positive marks from various advanced defensive stats: Last season, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR rated him 1.9 points per 100 possessions above average, and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus had him 1.5 points above average. Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, who impressed in expanded playing time in the bubble, also rates as an above-average defender. And Prince, despite less impressive advanced numbers, has always looked like a promising 3-and-D option; as long as his strange shooting slump last season proves a fluke, he profiles as an important rotation piece.

But even if a few wings break out, the Nets’ closing lineup is likely to look like an Arena football squad, forced to outscore its opponents with a dizzying attack rather than rely on stingy defense. In their first preseason game, the Nets started Irving, Dinwiddie, Harris, and a maybe-compromised Durant; that foursome won’t stop sophisticated playoff offenses, and Harden won’t add much (beyond remarkably stout post play) at that end in the event of a trade.

With that group of guards and forwards, the key—beyond Durant’s health—is the center position, where DeAndre Jordan started in the preseason opener. The 32-year-old is a former All-Defense honoree and evinced a legitimate rejuvenation toward the end of last season, but he’s still stiff and upright and unlikely to slow jitterbug guards like Kemba Walker or Kyle Lowry in the pick-and-roll.

If the Nets are to rally for a deep playoff run, they’ll more likely do so with the springy, mobile Jarrett Allen at the 5—presuming, of course, he doesn’t set course for Houston in a Harden trade. Allen’s continued development is one of the team’s most important story lines to track; so too is the politicking around Jordan’s status as the incumbent center and $40 million Friend of the Stars.

That last point leads to the final potential obstacle for either version of the Nets, after health and defense: chemistry. If they swing a deal, Irving will have to accept a reduced ball-handling role and Harden will have to engage more off the ball than he was accustomed to in Houston. If not, Dinwiddie and LeVert will have to adjust to complementary roles after essentially running the show last season. Even if the numbers all fit and theoretical strategies all cohere, any championship contender needs buy-in up and down the roster, and the Nets’ situation, with a novice head coach, could prove more flammable than most.

But at the outset of the season, the image is fairly clear: If Durant is anywhere close to his former self, the Nets should still challenge for a top-two seed in the East with or without Harden. They’ll certainly score enough to have a chance in every regular-season game, and they have a wide range of contributors who can anchor the team if Durant rests or Irving twists a knee. So much changes so quickly, so constantly, in the NBA that it can be easy to forget the promise of a Big Two pairing from 2019, but the Nets have been waiting for this moment for a while. The roster is ready to compete right away.