clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Nets Mortgaged Their Future Again, but This Time It’s Worth It

Brooklyn’s trade for James Harden may be giving you flashbacks to the Nets’ 2013 deal for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, but the blockbusters are different in a few crucial ways

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nets fans may be experiencing déjà vu as their team trades three future unprotected picks and offers the Rockets four opportunities for pick swaps, even if James Harden is the prized return. They have a history with this sort of thing.

Back in 2013, the Nets, who had been in Brooklyn for only a year, made a similar all-in push. In exchange for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and other pieces, they sent Boston three first-round picks and a pick swap, plus cap filler.

And then the Nets collapsed. One year after the trade, Boston received the no. 17 pick (James Young) via Brooklyn. Two years later, they picked Jaylen Brown no. 3. Then came the swap, for the no. 1 pick—facilitating the Celtics’ trade for Jayson Tatum. And finally, a full half-decade after the trade, the Nets lost the no. 8 pick (Collin Sexton, to Cleveland via Boston), too.

One ill-advised deal simultaneously ruined the Nets and built Boston’s future. From 2016 to 2018, the Nets ranked 29th in wins, at just 23 per season, as Garnett and Pierce left and no young talent could replace them; the Celtics, conversely, have gone on to reach three conference finals and feature the best young core in the NBA, thanks to two players who arrived as a result of the heist.

But Harden is not Garnett or Pierce, and this 2021 trade is not that 2013 blockbuster. Come 2027, this article might end up looking fairly foolish—but from the outset, these are very different deals.

To start, and most importantly, Harden is significantly younger now than either Boston star was in 2013. Harden is just 31 years old; back then, Garnett was entering his age-37 season, and Pierce his age-36 campaign. Those extra years make a massive difference for athletes, as evidenced in this chart showing the number of All-NBA seasons by age in the league’s history.

All-NBA Seasons by Player Age in NBA History

Age Number of Seasons
Age Number of Seasons
30 68
31 47
32 41
33 27
34 18
35 9
36 6
37 2
38 2
39 0
40 0

Superstars typically continue to play at a superstar level at age 31 and 32—the seasons that matter to Brooklyn now, as Harden is under contract for this season and next (plus a player option in 2022-23). They drop off at the ages the Nets called upon Garnett and Pierce.

And while Harden has maintained his elite production, leading the league in scoring in each of the past three seasons and being named first team All-NBA in each of the past four, Garnett and Pierce were already on the decline at the time they were traded. Garnett in particular had seen his numbers drop almost every season since his peak.

Pierce, meanwhile, was never near Harden’s heights as a regular-season player. He will and should make the Hall of Fame—but he never made first team All-NBA or finished better than seventh in MVP voting. By the time of the trade to the Nets, he hadn’t made any All-NBA team or received any MVP votes in four years. Garnett hadn’t made any All-NBA team in five.

This graph shows each player’s regular-season wins above replacement, according to FiveThirtyEight, in the 10 seasons leading up to their trade. (Harden’s short, unenthusiastic start to this season is excepted.) The difference in trajectory between Harden and the Celtics’ duo is quite clear.

The Celtics pair’s trajectories continued through their only full season in Brooklyn. Garnett played just 54 games and averaged career lows, at the time, in points (6.5 per game) and shooting efficiency (44.1 effective field goal percentage). Pierce scored just 13.5 points per game, at the time the lowest output of his career. And though the Nets did win a playoff series (cue Masai Ujiri’s taunting profanity), they did so only after staggering to a thoroughly unimpressive 44-38 record. Pierce left in free agency the next summer, Garnett in a trade the following year, and the Nets’ hastily constructed veteran core crumbled.

Harden, suffice it to say, will outscore Pierce and Garnett combined in Brooklyn. The Nets’ new starting five of Harden, Kyrie Irving (when he returns from a prolonged absence that is currently under investigation by the league), Joe Harris, Kevin Durant, and DeAndre Jordan makes the team the new favorite in the Eastern Conference, according to FiveThirtyEight. Concerns about three high-volume scorers sharing one ball are likely overblown: Whether coach Steve Nash staggers his stars’ minutes or plays them all together, there are enough shots to go around for everyone. Barring terrible injury—and here, it’s worth noting that Harden has never missed more than 10 games in a season—the Nets will not send Houston a prized pick in 2021 or 2022.


That leaves five more years post-Harden, of course—and potentially post-Durant and Irving, too. All three stars now have player options in the summer of 2022. There is considerable downside for the Nets if that trio departs and the team doesn’t have high picks to replace them.

They won’t have no picks, though, because four of the picks they might surrender are merely swaps, so they’d retain a first-round pick in those drafts. That’s still a valuable opportunity—the last time they participated in a swap, due to the Boston trade, they landed Kyle Kuzma and spun him to Los Angeles for future All-Star D’Angelo Russell.

Anyway, analysis that far into the future is a fool’s errand, given all the shifting parts that could reorient the league’s landscape in the interim. When I looked in 2019 at the value of far-off future firsts, I found that, on average, those picks end up near the middle of the first round. The Celtics’ 2013 haul is the exception, not the norm.

It’s not the norm here, either: Just because the Nets made a foolish win-now, trade-all-the-picks deal last decade doesn’t mean their win-now, trade-all-the-picks deal this decade is foolish, too. They have new ownership; they have new management; most of all, they have new and better stars, as Harden and Durant are both worlds better than any member of the 2013-14 squad.

After all, the Nets-Celtics trade isn’t the only one of recent vintage in which a superstar was exchanged for young talent and a bounty of future picks. Before last season, the Lakers traded Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, three firsts, and a pick swap to New Orleans. Then they won the title with Anthony Davis; even with Ingram winning Most Improved Player, and even with those future picks potentially vaulting toward the top of the draft, the Lakers have no regrets whatsoever.

For the Harden deal, that cheery outcome is just as likely as the Pierce-Garnett downside, and the Nets, who have won just that one playoff series since moving to Brooklyn and see a wide-open Eastern Conference, leaped at the opportunity. They wouldn’t let the prickly sensation of déjà vu get in the way of an increased chance at a championship.