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The Nets Have Already Figured Out the Key to Unlocking the Power of a Big Three

The defense is still a work in progress, but Brooklyn is at least ahead of the curve in the way it deploys its superstars

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Brooklyn’s Big Three era has had a bumpy beginning. On the one hand, the Nets beat the Bucks and Heat (twice), and they have the best offense in the league since trading for James Harden. On the other hand, they lost to the Wizards and Cavaliers (twice), and they have the 28th-ranked defense in the league since the trade.

There’s reason for concern, especially after squandering a win over the Wizards in a late collapse. But that concern needn’t be excessive—after all, the Nets still have the second-best record in the East, as well as the conference’s second-best net rating with garbage time stripped away. (Here’s a twist: Milwaukee has the East’s best differential; first-place Philadelphia ranks fifth, behind the Bucks, Nets, Hawks, and Celtics.)

Each member of the Big Three has missed time since the trade, so Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving have played only four of a possible nine games together. But even in that span, the Nets have figured out an approach to best utilize their star trio—one that could be just as effective as recent superteams in Miami, Cleveland, and Golden State.

Evaluating a coach from afar is tricky because so much of the job occurs behind closed doors; that’s especially true for a first-timer without any assistant experience like Steve Nash. But one concrete, easily observable element is how a coach juggles rotations, and Nash is handling that task ably thus far.

This chart shows the Nets’ star distribution in the four games they’ve all played together, per PBP Stats, with low-leverage minutes removed.

Nets’ Big Three Minutes Distribution

Star(s) On Star(s) Off Minutes
Star(s) On Star(s) Off Minutes
Durant, Harden, Irving None 120
Durant, Irving Harden 33
Harden Durant, Irving 29
Durant, Harden Irving 11
Harden, Irving Durant 6
Irving Durant, Harden 4
Durant Harden, Irving 0
None Durant, Harden, Irving 0

A couple of key takeaways emerge from this broad overview. First, the Nets have played every single competitive minute in these games with at least one of Harden and Irving on the floor. Second, their one-star minutes have been relatively sparse.

This is one of the clearest advantages of a Big Three roster. Nash had already praised a star-staggering approach even before the Harden trade; after Spencer Dinwiddie’s partially torn ACL removed a playmaker from the rotation, the coach said of Durant and Irving, who had rested at the same time instead of staggering at the start of the season, “I think it’s ideal if they don’t play every minute together. … Ideally, we get to a place where we can stagger minutes.”

Harden’s addition allows for a sort of super-stagger, with multiple stars on the floor at almost all times. In this fashion, the Nets can both ensure that every lineup is equipped to score points in bunches and minimize any “there’s only one ball” straw-manning by giving the stars more space to operate in the minutes they play.

Recent Big Threes—the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Heat, the LeBron-Irving-Love Cavaliers, and the Curry-Thompson-Durant Warriors—all played multiple stars at a time as a general rule, too. But none of them ensured multi-star minutes to the extent of the Nets in the early going. (Of course, the Warriors also benefited from a fourth All-Star on the roster—and an ace defender at that.)

Minutes Distributions for Big Threes

Team 0 Stars 1 Star 2 Stars 3 Stars
Team 0 Stars 1 Star 2 Stars 3 Stars
Heat (2011-14) 1% 27% 21% 51%
Warriors (2017-19) 1% 21% 30% 48%
Cavaliers (2015-17) 1% 20% 28% 51%
Nets (2021) 0% 16% 25% 59%

The Heat, Warriors, and Cavaliers tended to restrict their single-star minutes a bit more in the playoffs, showing that they understood the importance of playing multiple stars together as much as possible. The Nets are already there.

Understandably, Brooklyn has kept the minutes with Harden and Irving on the floor without Durant to a minimum. With Dinwiddie injured and Caris LeVert gone via trade, Harden and Irving are the only lead creators left on the roster. Staggering their minutes means that, as Nash’s assistant Mike D’Antoni once said of Harden and Chris Paul in Houston, “for 48 minutes we have a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor.”

That split has yielded more minutes with the Irving-Durant duo, with Harden playing as the lone star in certain lineup combinations—a natural choice, given that Harden might be the most qualified one-man show in the league.

Perhaps the most encouraging early signs for the Nets—beyond Durant’s health—are those that suggest Harden’s ability to adapt to a non-Rockets system. For one, Harden is playing differently when he shares the floor with Durant and Irving than when he’s alone. His usage rate has scaled to the number of star teammates he has on the floor at any given time, according to figures derived from NBA Advanced Stats data.

James Harden Usage With Nets

Number of Star Teammates Usage
Number of Star Teammates Usage
0 29.0%
1 25.0%
2 20.6%

Harden leads the league with 11.1 assists per game, and he clearly understands when to call his own number and when to take a step back to set up his teammates. “Obviously, I could be more aggressive offensively,” Harden said after a recent win, “but we have more than enough scorers and guys that can put the ball in the basket.”

Harden has tempered other extreme tendencies from his Houston days, too. For instance, across the past two seasons, only 16.5 percent of his 3-pointers were assisted—by far the league’s lowest rate. With the Nets so far, that figure has nearly doubled to 29 percent, which would still rank among the lowest marks but reflects his greater involvement in a multi-handler offensive system.

Harden also has been involved in many more two-man, rather than solo, offensive sets. He’s roughly doubled his pick-and-roll rate compared to last season, taking nearly all those possessions away from his isolation game. Harden still leads the league in iso frequency, but at a much lower rate than he tallied during his final seasons in Houston.

Somewhat surprisingly, not many of those screens have come from Durant. (Perhaps Nash is taking a page out of the Warriors’ playbook, when Steve Kerr saved the Durant–Steph Curry plays for the postseason.) But the Nets have taken particular advantage of the nascent pick-and-pop pairing of Harden and Joe Harris, which forces defenses into an impossible predicament. Try to stop Harden at the point of attack and Harris flares open in a dangerous location …

… or switch the pick to stick close to the shooter, and Harden feasts on an overmatched defender one-on-one.

Staggering isn’t the only positive rotation decision in the early days of the NBA’s newest Big Three. The Nets’ late-game lineups are a mark in Nash’s favor, too.

In Brooklyn’s second game after the trade, a 125-123 thriller against the Bucks, Irving wasn’t available, and Nash played DeAndre Jordan down the stretch. Against this immobile, traditional drop big, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo shredded the Nets’ defense with simple screens at the top of the key.

Nash quickly changed tact. The Nets have played 30 “clutch” minutes since—defined by NBA Advanced Stats as when the score is within five points within the final five minutes of a game—and a traditional big man hasn’t played a single one of them.

Nets’ Recent Clutch Minutes

Player Minutes (Rounded)
Player Minutes (Rounded)
Kevin Durant 30
Kyrie Irving 30
Jeff Green 30
Joe Harris 28
James Harden 27
Bruce Brown 6
Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot 1

The chief closing unit features the Big Three, Harris, and Jeff Green. Unsurprisingly, that group is scoring at will: It’s first in true shooting percentage and second in offensive rating (123.5 points per 100 possessions) among all lineups that have played as often. This group has played just 48 minutes together, but it’s not surprising that this much offensive talent would produce points in bushels. All five members of the quintet are shooting 40 percent or better from deep.

Nets’ Closing Lineup From 3-Point Range

Player Attempts Per Game Accuracy
Player Attempts Per Game Accuracy
Joe Harris 6.9 49%
Jeff Green 3.2 46%
Kevin Durant 6.4 45%
Kyrie Irving 6.8 42%
James Harden (with Nets) 7.5 40%

Harris in particular benefits from all the spacing his star teammates afford. Last season, he ranked second in the league in accuracy on wide-open 3s (54 percent); this season, he’s first (59 percent). Look at this gorgeous play, which ends with an uncontested Harris triple with the defense distracted by touches for Irving, then Harden, then Durant.

Removing Jordan—and Jarrett Allen, shipped to Cleveland in the Harden trade—has the domino effect of pushing other Nets up a position. Positional designations can be somewhat iffy in the modern NBA, but according to Cleaning the Glass, Durant is playing 76 percent of his minutes at power forward this season, by far the highest of his career. (His only previous season above 50 percent was in 2016-17, when he starred in a famous small-ball lineup for perhaps the best team ever.)

Green is playing up a position, too, with 32 percent of his minutes coming as a center—also a clear career high. Against Miami, Green was tasked with defending Bam Adebayo; against the Bucks, he guarded Brook Lopez. One wonders how he’ll hold up in potential playoff matchups against Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis down low.

That’s the flip side of the Nets’ scintillating offense: Their defense offers rather less reason for optimism. We could just quote Irving from the Wizards postgame—he “couldn’t guard a stick”—and move along. But, in short: The Nets don’t force turnovers, they foul a lot, and they allow too many offensive rebounds. Their offensively oriented roster means they’re forced into uncomfortable matchups, like Green on Adebayo or Harris on Trae Young.

Yet despite those facts, and despite what the highlight reel might suggest, the Nets aren’t completely lost on defense. They have actually done a decent job of protecting the rim and the free throw line, funneling opponents into lower-efficiency areas to shoot. Granular shot data suggests the Nets have been unlucky here; since the trade, opponents have hit 50 percent of their midrange jumpers, the league’s highest mark.

For what it’s worth—and, again, small sample—the Nets’ closing five has allowed just 106.1 points per 100 possessions. Only the Lakers have a stingier defense on a team level.

That’s not sufficient, of course, and the Nets are looking for answers in the 43 minutes before clutch time. They signed Iman Shumpert and Norvel Pelle over the weekend, and they will certainly be active on the buyout market midseason. They really need a depth player like Brown or Luwawu-Cabarrot—a prime 3-and-D candidate, shooting 36 percent from deep—to break out (or at least exhibit enough promise to entice another team in a trade).

We will learn a lot more about the Nets’ two-way outlook this month, both as the roster jells and the team faces a brutal schedule: Clippers, Raptors, and 76ers this week; Warriors, Suns, Lakers, and Clippers again on an upcoming road trip. But in general, the early returns point to a solid foundation from which to grow.

If the first step to optimize this potential superteam was player buy-in, Harden’s altered numbers are a promising sign. If the second step was deft player management—which wouldn’t be easy with a roster like this in any season, let alone one with frequent player absences and scheduling flux—then Nash’s rotation decisions check the necessary boxes.

Staggering stars properly and going small with Durant at the end of games are not earth-shattering decisions, but with this much talent on the roster, Nash doesn’t need to move mountains. A coach’s job is to put his players in the best position to succeed, and Harden, Irving, and Durant are already in the positions they fit best.

Stats through Sunday’s games.