Nets Dash Down a Familiar Path, Hoping for a Different Outcome

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The Brooklyn Nets have taken a big swing, dealing away a bundle of young players and future draft picks to piece together a star-driven team that has the potential to win a championship.

Sound familiar?

“My first reaction?” asked Billy King in a telephone interview. “Wow.”

King, of course, was the Nets top exec in 2013, when Brooklyn shipped five players, three picks and three swap rights to Boston for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The Nets made two playoff appearances after that deal, advancing past the first round once. The Celtics used two of the picks to draft Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, cornerstones of one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

Is this deal different?

Yes.

Are the risks just as high?

Absolutely.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden reacts

Harden got what he wanted, a reunion with Durant, 32, a spot on a championship contender. But how he got there will be a stain that never comes off. Harden, 31, reported to camp late, out of shape and, if the parade of Rockets personnel that has publicly thrashed him the last two days is an indication, disrespected everyone in the locker room along the way. After contributing to Houston’s slide in recent years (a soured relationship with Chris Paul, an inability to co-exist with Russell Westbrook) Harden sabotaged his way out of town, verbally drop kicking the Rockets (“We’re just not good enough,” Harden said after sleepwalking through a loss the Lakers on Tuesday) on his way out the door.

Harden is a Net now, and what does that mean? Understand, any forecast of Brooklyn needs to be viewed through a Kyrie Irving-shaped prism. Irving, 29, remains away from the team due to personal reasons, with no one in Brooklyn sure when he will be back. Recently surfaced video of Irving at a birthday party further complicates his situation; if the NBA finds that Irving violated health and safety protocols—and, if the video is recent, it seems a safe bet that he did—he will likely face a lengthy quarantine when he returns.

Still: With Irving, the Nets have the potential to be lethal offensively. You want to scheme to stop two ex-MVP’s and arguably the NBA’s top scoring point guard? Throw in Joe Harris’s long range shooting and the Nets can claim the best starting lineup in the NBA.

And, perhaps, its most volatile. You have to believe Harden had a grasp on the sacrifices he would need to make to team up with Durant and Irving when his people softened the ground by leaking Harden’s desire to play in Brooklyn. But understanding a new role and accepting it are two different things. Harden is one of the highest usage rate players in NBA history. But this is Durant’s team. And Irving is ball dominant. Harden will have to find a way to fit in.

It’s fair to wonder: Would the Nets have pulled the trigger a few weeks ago when Spencer Dinwiddie was healthy and Irving was in uniform? The loss of Dinwiddie, who will miss the rest of the season with an ACL injury, and the uncertainty around Irving undoubtedly influenced Brooklyn’s thinking.

Was it worth the risk? Yes, King said, when you consider Brooklyn’s position. Both Durant and Irving can opt out of their contracts after next season. “If they didn’t do anything and didn’t win the next two years, KD could say, ‘It’s not working,’” King said. “He still could. But at least you have added another star to the mix.”

Houston is counting on the Nets to crumble, with a war chest now loaded with Brooklyn picks and swap rights. But before you gleefully point to the Rockets' draft capital, remember—Victor Oladipo was the best player Houston pulled from this deal, and he could be little more than a rental. Swap rights are great when a team craters like King’s Nets did, allowing Boston to fortify a playoff team with lottery picks. But if the Nets succeed, those swaps are useless, and there’s a scenario here where all the Rockets could have to show for Harden are a handful of picks in the 20’s.

It’s unclear how far down the road Houston was with Philadelphia, but did the Rockets really pass on Ben Simmons? Simmons is a 24-year old All-Star whose flaws (perimeter shooting) pale in comparison to his strengths (defense, playmaking). A Simmons-John Wall backcourt isn’t a seamless fit, but Houston could play at a blurring pace while controlling a franchise player through 2025. The trade struck some executives as being as much about offloading money—the Rockets are now under the luxury tax, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks—as value.

“I would have made a deal for Simmons,” said a rival team executive. “He’s a star. And even if you don’t get a bunch of picks with him, if Simmons doesn’t work out, you can always trade him.”

The clear winners are Indiana and Cleveland, two teams that happily engaged as facilitators for this blockbuster. The Pacers, lukewarm on the idea of paying Oladipo next summer, add a budding All-Star in Caris LeVert, who is under contract for the next three seasons. Cleveland forked over a first-round pick—Milwaukee’s, in 2022—but in return get Jarrett Allen, a 22-year old center averaging a double-double this season.

All eyes, though, will be on the Nets, to see if the Durant/Harden/Irving trio will mesh, to see if Steve Nash can manage three supersized personalities, to see if a suddenly thin bench can support a loaded starting lineup. Durant’s exit from Oakland in 2019 seemed to end the Big Three era. It has been reconstituted in Brooklyn. Nearly a decade after whiffing on a mega deal, the Nets are back, taking another big cut. 

More on the James Harden blockbuster:

Rockets trade Harden to Nets

Trade grades: Nets earn B mark

Rockets hit reset button with Harden trade

Harden has earned a new level of scrutiny