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The Nets’ Early-Season Turmoil Comes Down to James Harden

Even without Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn should be a championship favorite. To get there, it’ll have to get Harden out of one of the worst slumps of his career.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This is what the Brooklyn Nets look like when things are not going according to plan:

That’s Kevin Durant, dribbling into a triple-team in the corner and rising for a pull-up jumper over Dewayne Dedmon and P.J. Tucker with 13 on the shot clock. He’s doing this because his Nets, a team built to overwhelm opponents with relentless offensive onslaughts, had missed seven of nine shots with a pair of turnovers over the previous six minutes, allowing the visiting Heat to rip off a 20-5 run and regain the lead.

He’s doing this because the other player in Brooklyn black who’s supposed to be able to make something out of nothing, James Harden, had just front-rimmed a stepback 3-pointer, slung a pocket pass out of bounds, and given the ball up to Durant before crossing half court. He remains mired in one of the worst slumps of his career. And the third member of the Nets’ shot-creating Cerberus, Kyrie Irving, isn’t in uniform, and won’t be for the foreseeable future, barring a sudden change of heart or New York public health policy.

Durant’s attempting this shot because, a week and change into a season that was supposed to serve as a coronation for the league’s latest player-crafted constellation, the Nets don’t have many better answers than, “Hey, Kevin, just make something happen.”

In fairness, that’s typically a damn good answer. Despite the Nets’ early-season turmoil, Durant’s still averaging 29.8 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists per game on .629 true shooting. Those are absurd, MVP-type numbers. But it can’t be the only answer—especially for a team expected to top out at average at best on defense. (Brooklyn sits 17th in points allowed per possession, and 25th or worse in points allowed off of turnovers, second-chance opportunities, and fast breaks.)

After a 106-93 home loss to the Heat on Wednesday—the Nets’ lowest-scoring regular-season performance with Durant in the lineup, just below the previous nadir: Sunday’s home loss to the Hornets—a team that entered the season as the championship favorite even without Irving sure looks like it has more questions than even a superhuman KD can address. Most of them surround Harden, who has opened the season looking like a pale imitation of the player who won three scoring titles and the 2017-18 Most Valuable Player trophy.

Five games into the season, Harden has yet to score more than 20 points; the last time it took him this long to top that mark was a decade ago, when he was coming off the bench for the Thunder. A lot of teams would kill to have a starting point guard who averages 16.6 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds per game. But given Harden’s résumé and the Nets’ galactic need for firepower sans Irving, that sort of production isn’t just an issue. It’s a disaster.

Many, including Nets head coach Steve Nash, have pointed to the NBA’s latest adjustment to officiating as a contributing factor in Harden’s slow start. Heading into the 2021-22 season, the league instituted “an interpretive change in the officiating of overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves by offensive players with the ball in an effort to draw fouls.” One of the specific kinds of moves on which refs were told not to reward the offensive player with free throws? When he uses his off arm to initiate contact with a defender, long a Harden specialty. Adjusting to that new set of standards appears to be taking Harden some time: He’s attempted just 15 free throws on the season, his lowest total over any five-game stretch in more than 10 years.

Harden’s far from the only player affected by the new “no abnormal non-basketball moves” rule change. NBA teams are on pace to average the lowest number of free throws in NBA history, a drop of about two per game this season from 2020-21, and three fewer than in 2019-20. Harden’s the most notable, though, for the same reason he’s been the league’s premier call-hunting villain for years: Nobody makes it more visible. On more than a few occasions this season, Harden has gone about his typical business: initiating contact with a defender, locking arms, and snapping his head back. Yet the whistle doesn’t come, and the play ultimately breaks down:

But as Harden himself has said, the dramatic reduction in trips to the stripe—his free throw rate (.192) is less than half what it was last season (.440), and just over one-third what it was in 2019-20 (.528)—isn’t the whole story here. A few extra freebies would certainly help, but refs not taking the bait has nothing to do with Harden attempting fewer drives to the basket per game than he has since 2013. Nor should it lead to a career-low share of shots at the rim and a career-high share of shots from “floater range” (inside the lane but outside the restricted area), or shooting a dismal 15-for-39 in the paint while missing two-thirds of his 3-pointers.

Those things seem like they’re about a lack of burst: an inability to blow past defenders off the dribble, create space in tight windows, or elevate above the defense to finish. (They’re also due to defenses, emboldened by the removal of Irving from a roster with few threats to knock down 3s besides Patty Mills and Joe Harris, making a more concerted effort to pack the paint.) We’ve seen it for the past decade: When Harden’s right, he’s able to use his elite combination of strength, quickness, and balance to consistently generate clean looks and knock them down, inside and out. This ain’t that:

Harden’s not reliably getting separation in the half court, even against defenders he’s accustomed to dusting. He’s also front-rimming a ton of shots—a problem for a player whose commitment to super-deep stepback 3s helped redefine offensive basketball and left countless defenders floating in space.

Maybe that’s a sign Harden—at age 32, having played more minutes than anybody but LeBron James over the past 13 years—is starting to slow down. Or, more likely: It’s a sign that Harden has yet to rediscover his rhythm after spending his entire offseason rehabilitating a nasty right hamstring strain. The injury cost him most of the final month and a half of last season, only for him to reaggravate it 43 seconds into the Eastern Conference semifinals. It reduced him to a one-legged ball-mover for most of the final three games of Brooklyn’s matchup with the Bucks.

“I had no opportunities to play pickup or nothing this summer,” Harden told reporters after Wednesday’s loss to the Heat. “Everything was rehab for three months, from a Grade 2 injury that happened three times in one season. So this is my fifth game of trying to just play with competition against somebody else. And as much as I want to rush the process and be back to hooping and killing, [have to] take your time.”

The lack of timing and touch that can come only from full-speed game action would also help explain Harden’s uptick in turnovers. He’s coughing it up on more than 21 percent of Brooklyn’s offensive possessions, which would be a career high, with many coming on missed connections with the Nets’ raft of big men: air-mailed lobs for Nic Claxton, roll/pop miscommunications with LaMarcus Aldridge, bounce passes fired at the feet of cutters rather than hitting their hands in stride. The hope in Brooklyn is that with time and more live-action reps, Harden will find all of it: the chemistry with his teammates, the range on his floater, the lift on his jumper, the burst off the bounce, and a new pathway to more easy points. If he does, the Nets offense could once again look like the world-beating, championship-caliber wrecking crew it was after his arrival.

Right now, though, that seems like a long way off. Through five games, the Nets are scoring just 93 points per 100 possessions when Durant and Harden share the floor. That is 29.1 points-per-100 fewer than they mustered last season—a yawning chasm of a difference larger than the gap between the highest-efficiency offense of all time (last year’s Nets, of course, who scored 117.3 points-per-100) and the absolute lowest in the quarter-century for which the NBA has play-by-play data (the 2002-03 Nuggets, who rake-stepped their way to 91.2 points-per-100).

Which is to say: Somehow, right now, lineups featuring two of the greatest scorers basketball has ever seen have been have been nearly as punchless as one of the worst teams in NBA history. This is not the way anyone in Brooklyn drew it up, but Nash and Co. better figure something out fast. With Harden still working his way back to full form, Kyrie not swooping in to save the day, and the rest of the East looking like it’s leveled up, a Nets team that can’t score could find itself behind the eight ball awfully soon if they don’t.

An earlier version of this piece misstated that Nets lineups featuring James Harden and Kevin Durant had a worse points-per-100 rating than the 2002-03 Nuggets; in fact, these Nets lineups are marginally better than that Nuggets team.