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Brooklyn’s New Big Three Could Be Unstoppable—If One of Them Is Willing to Sacrifice

The Nets have assembled an unprecedented collection of scorers, but one of James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving will need to take a back seat to make it all work. And there’s one obvious candidate to do so.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every superteam is a work of excess, but none quite so much as the newly refashioned Brooklyn Nets. As if it weren’t enough for one team to have two undeniable shot creators in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets quickly sought out a third: James Harden, whose dominant play (in style and production) drove the Rockets to contention and carried a top-flight offense for the better part of a decade. Few teams in NBA history ever have been so lucky as to concern themselves with what first-year head coach Steve Nash and his staff will now navigate in Brooklyn. Harden, for one, is among the highest-usage players in NBA history—a conceptual standout even in an era when teams have been increasingly willing to funnel their entire operation through a single star player. Durant, an old and new teammate of Harden’s, is himself a limitless scorer worthy of taking as many shots as he likes, and Irving always has been most engaged and dynamic when he could feel the ball in his hands.

Together, those three will run a live experiment in additive value while competing at the highest levels of the league. An NBA team can never have too much shooting on the court, and to stack lineups with Durant (the best shooter for his size the world has ever seen), Harden (an all-time shooter in his own right), Irving (a multilevel scorer who hits 40 percent of his 3s like clockwork), and sharpshooter Joe Harris (who ranks 10th all time in career 3-point percentage) will turn even the most casual possessions into an impossible bind. Any help from the defense will be punishable by tortuously open shots. More complicated is the process of three perimeter stars finding the right creative balance between them amid the usual diminishing returns. One of Harden’s greatest strengths as a player is his capacity—not what he does with a single possession, but what he does with a hundred. By urging a trade to Brooklyn, he volunteered either himself or his costars to scale back what they do best, to find comfort in their overlap.

It helps that all three at least have some experience working in tandem. In their shared minutes in Brooklyn thus far, Durant and Irving have been a model of offensive balance. Durant and Harden (along with suddenly essential Nets forward Jeff Green) famously came up together in Oklahoma City, and reunited periodically for All-Star Games and international play. Harden and Irving were two of Team USA’s leading scorers in the 2014 FIBA World Cup—a team Durant was a part of until he withdrew in the aftermath of Paul George’s harrowing leg injury. Those were simpler times, before Irving ever had played with LeBron James and before Harden began making an annual run at the MVP. They come together now heavier with talent and baggage.

Who adapts to whom is the great, looming question, one even the stars themselves can’t yet know. Harden might be willing to accommodate, considering he’s the last to arrive and the only star of the three without championship validation, but giving ground isn’t exactly his style. It’s been almost a decade since Harden had to fit into any system but his own. Durant and Irving might have the stature to persuade him, though it seems more likely that Irving—whether by choice or by default—falls into more of an off-ball role that allows him to channel his inner Mamba. Irving has found his greatest basketball success by working parallel to an elite playmaking wing. How the Nets look on the floor will depend on his willingness to return to that place, and to revisit the sort of role he once requested a trade to escape.


Those dynamics, while complex, seem manageable in the shadow of what Brooklyn could be. The Nets will meet every opponent knowing there isn’t a defense on earth that one of their stars can’t crack. Brooklyn already had one of the most productive half-court offenses in the league this season before the trade, according to Cleaning the Glass, despite Durant’s recent stint in the health and safety protocol and Irving’s as-yet-unexplained absence. There’s only so much conceivable room for improvement for a team clicking at that level, but Harden’s arrival insulates the Nets against all challengers. Even if an opposing coach, in a bolt of divine inspiration, found some way to keep Durant from getting to his spots, that same strategy couldn’t keep Harden from bowling his way to the rim. In the event that a rival team manages to deny Harden his stepback and create enough of a wall to bar him from the basket, it would invite Durant and Irving—two of the most dangerous midrange scorers alive—to carve up the soft, exposed middle of its defensive scheme. This is an elevation of the formula behind Harden’s most successful teams in Houston, only with two stand-ins for Chris Paul: one more agile and one 7 feet tall.

Brooklyn doesn’t present a matchup problem so much as a philosophical dilemma. Even the best NBA teams tend to have only a few high-level, two-way players, and otherwise fill out lineups with more limited contributors who offer what they can. If the Nets are as dangerous on offense as they seem, would it really even help for an opponent to move a defensive specialist into the lineup when Brooklyn can treat every possession like a shell game? Stall Harden and the Nets will yawn and run action through Irving, their other All-NBA guard. Focus on Durant and they’ll have him screen for one of his fellow stars in the pick-and-roll, jumbling the coverage. The three stars might not all apply pressure at once, but each individual poses a constant threat—no matter how the defensive assignments are doled out. Yet if an opposing coach instead uses his rotation to lean into his offense, is there really much hope of outscoring a team of such explosive potential? Even in acknowledging that the addition of Harden (and the not-insignificant loss of Jarrett Allen) creates problems for Brooklyn’s defense, the idea of going bucket-for-bucket with some of the most prolific scorers of the age seems preposterous on its face. Golden State’s version of a Durant superteam had more avenues to seamlessly combine the talents of its best players, strengthening its hold on the game through an elaborate weave. Yet even that group—one of the greatest teams of all time, mind you—didn’t have this level of interchangeable, defense-busting flexibility. However vulnerable the Nets might seem on defense, their opponents will feel even more so.

This assumes, of course, that Irving has any interest in being a piercing third option, or that he’s interested in rejoining the team at all. Maybe that sort of stratification will prove meaningless on a team like this. If Harden initiates the offense for the bulk of the game but Durant leads the team in scoring and Irving plays more of a closing role, does any of the sports-talk pecking order bullshit really matter? Part of the appeal in building this team is the way all three stars insure one another. Harden and Durant make it easier for the Nets to accept Irving’s ongoing absence, however long it might be. Durant and Irving will ease some of the big-game and late-game pressure that has haunted Harden throughout his career. And in time, Harden and Irving will allow Brooklyn to play even safer with Durant’s surgically repaired Achilles, sparing him minutes and strain he would have weathered otherwise. There are many reasons superstars lobby to play together, not least of all is the peace of mind.

Whenever one of the three takes a seat on the socially-distanced bench, they’ll get a front-row seat to watch two All-NBA-caliber teammates devastate opposing second units. Whichever defender they found annoying to deal with now might not guard them at all, the opponent’s attention pulled away in the swirl of the shell game. A superstar can rest easier knowing that the teammate he swings the ball to can not only hit a shot, but find a better one. There is obvious appeal in having another peer around to share the burdens of the regular season, particularly when that peer is a 30-a-night ironman like Harden, built to carry a team of his own. It’s easy to dwell on what Brooklyn’s stars will have to give up. The reason for their union, however, lies in all the ways they can let go.