Now that the Brooklyn Nets have had their James Harden-Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving Big Three for four weeks, I think it’s time we put the league’s most interesting team under the microscope.
You can’t really say that it was an obvious decision to go after Harden after word came out during the offseason that he wanted the Houston Rockets to trade him to Brooklyn. Nets General Manager Sean Marks gave up every asset he had to pair Harden with Durant and Irving. And I mean every asset: This team won’t be making a first-round pick until like 2150 and what was once a deep bench is now kiddy-pool shallow. Head Coach Steve Nash should probably be giving himself a few minutes a night.
And yet, three of the 15 or 20 best basketball players on the planet are now on one team. What are you supposed to do when that kind of opportunity presents itself? Say “no thanks, we really don’t want to part with Taurean Prince and a 2026 draft pick to make that happen?”
But now there are a lot of questions with the Big Three that the Brooklyn Nets now need to answer, and they have three-and-a-half months until the playoffs to do so. What lineups work best? Are there enough touches to go around to keep all three happy? Will defense become a thing at some point?
Let’s look at how we got here, what the product has looked like so far, and what we can expect come May and June.
The Pre-Harden Nets
When Harden made his Brooklyn debut on January 16, the Nets were 7-6 and sitting at fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Not exactly a blistering start. This team was one of the title favorites to open the season, and after nearly a month, they weren’t even on track to get homecourt to open the playoffs.
When Irving and Durant decided to link up in Brooklyn in 2019, they knew they were at least a year away while Durant recovered from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Even Kyrie dealt with a slew of injuries last season. But with both of them healthy for this season, the Nets now had two stars with experience winning championships on superteams and a strong supporting cast around them, even after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a torn ACL. Those are all the ingredients to make a legitimate title run.
No, that statement doesn’t do the situation justice. The man wanted to be a Net so bad, he spent his final days in Houston in a fat suit and called everyone else on the Rockets a bunch of bums. That’s the regular-person equivalent of “I can’t quit my job because then I won’t be able to file for unemployment, so I’ll act out until they fire me.” Who says stars aren’t like the rest of us?
Well, it worked. And now here we are.
The Big Three Era
The Durant Effect
The Brooklyn Nets have played 14 games since forming their big three, and thus far, the results have been…eh. Granted, their 15-12 record has moved them up to third in the East, but everyone’s pissed about something. We’ve even gotten press-conference shit-talking already. The Nets haven’t even had it tough. Their opponents so far have a combined winning percentage of .489, giving Brooklyn the fifth-easiest slate in the league. Even after Wednesday’s win against the Pacers, the Nets are 8-11 against teams with sub-.500 records.
A common theme among those off nights is a “DNP” next to Durant’s name. Even though the Brooklyn Nets are rocking a Big Three, right now it’s actually more like a Big One with a 2a and b. This team has only gotten as far as Durant (who’s playing like an MVP candidate) has taken them. When he’s been in, the Nets have outscored opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, they’re outscored by 3.8 per 100. That’s the difference between being the best team in the league and one of the 10 worst. If you include the Toronto contest where Durant was pulled from the game twice due to COVID protocols, the Nets are 4-6 without him.
Obviously, you’d like to see Irving and Harden picking up more of the slack, but that’s passing judgment based on the obstacles they’ve had to overcome and not what they’re capable of. That’s what we ought to focus on at this point. And when we have seen them with the full arsenal of weapons, holy shit there’s a lot of fire power.
The Lineup of Death
The best version of this team features Joe Harris (shooting a billion percent from three) and Jeff Green (remember him?!) around the Big Three. That five-man group has a +16.2 net rating in 73 minutes of play. They stretch out the floor with great shooters everywhere and give ball-handlers wide-open lanes to drive to the basket. They score enough to (mostly) compensate for some piss-poor defense. Hey, what were you expecting?
Right now, they’re switching everything because it means guys don’t have to work as hard on that end of the floor. They have the league’s fifth-worst defensive rating, and quite honestly, I was kind of surprised they’re that high up. I thought for sure they would be bottom-three wire-to-wire. A lot of that has to do with effort though, and they’ll get serious about it come playoff time. The downside to this grouping, which has Durant at center, is that rebounding and interior defense aren’t strong suits. It’s funny to watch this team rebound. You’ll often see four Nets stick around after shots to make sure they grab the board. Then this happens:
The Nets are 3.5 games back of the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers. Not an insurmountable gap by any means, but given their lack of bench depth, securing the top seed may not be in the cards. And even though Brooklyn likely prefers a healthy, rested squad over an extra home game or two, it feels like there’s a pretty sizeable gap between them and the Sixers and Bucks, let alone the juggernauts out west. It’s still early days, but there’s work to do.
The Road Ahead
I think the sound bites from coaches and players alike show that there’s already a sense of urgency. It’s apparent they’re not going to be able to coast through the winter. There’s going to need to be a mid-season grind to get a top-three seed in the playoffs.
I doubt they even feel content with the current roster. The bench is a problem. Nash can stagger Irving’s and Harden’s minutes so that at least one of them is there to take ball-handling duties, but they could still use more shooting on the second unit. The interior defense problem is also going to become more pronounced in the playoffs, where some brutes are waiting for them. And let me stop you before you say anything because no, more of DeAndre Jordan isn’t it. Giving him the starting nod over Jeff Green is an overall downgrade. At the same time, those Durant-at-center lineups aren’t going to look pretty in May when Joel Embiid ragdolls KD in the post for 40 minutes.
Finding someone who can anchor them down low while still fitting their switch-everything defense is going to be a tough find with the pantry of assets down to crumbs. Maybe a ring-chaser comes up on the buy-out market.
Of course, the big concern is avoiding any major injuries. Keyword: major. Aches and pains often follow high-usage veterans around, but a third star cushions them against short-term losses. Just as long as all three are ready to go for the postseason. All other issues pale in comparison.
To be sure, a lot of the negativity is being borne out of high expectations. The product hasn’t looked perfect so far, and the Brooklyn Nets have their weaknesses, to be sure. But Irving, Durant, and Harden have only played in five games together (I’m not including Durant’s Protocol Game). Once they get more time together playing live-action ball, chemistry will build. Winning will breed comradery and maybe even a little humbleness on all their parts to do the little things that make the team better. Things like moving when off the ball and getting more motion in the offense rather than trying to set up isos all the time. They’re still in the building phase. All they’ve done right now is finished pouring in the foundation.
As for the “defense,” we’ve seen the “score so much there won’t be anything the other team can do” strategy work in the regular season. Just ask Brooklyn’s Head Coach Steve Nash. In the playoffs though? It’s been less successful. Just ask Brooklyn’s Head Coach Steve Nash.
But unlike those Mark D’Antoni “seven seconds or less” Suns teams, there’s potential here. Harden and Irving can be plus defenders when they commit. Durant has been elite on defense in the past. They’ll come alive when they need to. That strategy worked for the Cavs during the 2016 Finals and I imagine it will for these Nets.
Ok, that was a lot to digest, especially when the question was a simple “how are the Nets doing?” So, let me put all that together into a straightforward answer.
Sike, I’m copping out. It’s still too early to make any sweeping declarations about Brooklyn, especially because we haven’t seen the Nets’ Big Three on the court together all too much. And if anything, the biggest takeaway from the three-alpha experiment is that they’re 4-1 in the five games when all three have played together. One of those wins includes a victory against a full-strength Clippers squad. Look at some highlights from that game. This is what the Nets can bring:
Now imagine that offense with just a decent amount of defensive effort, which you will get during the important games. That’s the version of the Nets that will generate tweets like “Here lie the other 29 teams in the league. They never stood a chance.”
If I have to answer the question I asked in the title, I’d say they’re not doing so well. There have been some good moments, to be sure, since the Brooklyn Nets formed their Big Three. At other times though, they’ve been “Jerami Grant and the basement-dwelling Detroit Pistons just made you call them daddy” bad. But am I worried about them? No. This is the NBA. Having more talent than every other team bodes well for your championship odds. The Nets are my title favorites until further notice.
And even if they don’t win the title, at least strippers in Brooklyn will come out as winners from the Harden trade.