Does James Harden make the Nets favorites to win the NBA title? The Crossover staff answers.
Without the new trio playing a single game, without knowing exactly what is going on with Kyrie Irving, without any clear idea how Steve Nash will handle his new roster, I’m going to say … heck yes, the Nets are the favorite to win the East. Look—Harden’s exit from Houston was ugly, and his Costanza act is a stain that won’t wash off easily. But he got exactly what he wanted: a reunion with Kevin Durant, his former teammate in Oklahoma City, and a chance to win a championship. You really think we won’t see shades of the ex-MVP quickly? Irving’s situation is grating—and he has a lot of explaining to do when he returns—but do you really want to be the coaching staff that has to scheme for a team with Irving as the third option? There are a lot of potential pitfalls here (see defense, bad). But the ceiling for a team with this kind of firepower is sky high, and if it can cobble together any kind of chemistry, Brooklyn is going to be a force in the playoffs.
Can I answer a question with a question? Or several? Because I have a bunch.
Is Harden ready to sacrifice some scoring? Is Durant willing to give up some clutch-time shots? Is Kyrie Irving willing to sacrifice some control? (And when is Kyrie returning? Is he still invested in this team? Is he O.K.?) How long will it take for Harden to get in playing shape? Can Nash manage three notoriously headstrong, eccentric stars? Who’s guarding the rim now that Jarrett Allen is gone? Who’s playing defense, period? Can GM Sean Marks find a few hidden gems in the G League and buyout market to patch all these roster holes?
Let’s be clear: The Nets were contenders even before acquiring Harden, based on the supreme talents of Irving and Durant and their enviable depth (even after losing Spencer Dinwiddie). Adding Harden makes the Nets more dangerous—heck, practically unguardable—but it cost them a lot of depth, and losing Allen weakened an already-suspect defense.
The favorite to win it all? That’s still the Lakers, whose Big 2 of LeBron and AD trumps nearly any Big 3, because of their two-way dominance. And because, well, LeBron is LeBron. But the Nets are absolutely in the mix to win the East, and certainly have a chance to win it all—depending on the answers to the questions above.
I desperately want to say yes, as a fan. After mortgaging their future yet again (anyone remember 2013?), the Nets damn well better win the title not just this year, but next year, too. But despite my former colleague Zach Kram's astute attempt to talk me off the ledge, I just don't see the trade working out. As Sports Illustrated's Jeremy Woo noted Wednesday in giving the Nets a B- for this deal, alas, there's only one ball for Durant, Harden and Irving (if/when he returns) to somehow share. While I'd love to be wrong, I don't think there's enough on- or off-court chemistry to overpower LeBron & Co. I genuinely think the Nets had better odds with my beloved Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince and [checks notes] Rodions Kurucs. So yes, I'm resigned to the Nets losing to the Lakers in the Finals, should they get through the Celtics or Bucks first. Now, excuse me, I'm off to buy a powder-blue Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot 1990–91 throwback jersey.
I don’t think we can say that until we know what the deal is with Kyrie Irving and have a chance to see the Nets at full strength. They need to fill out their rotation, and I’d expect them to dominate whatever buyout market materializes. But Jarrett Allen was their best defender. I really don’t know what to expect from DeAndre Jordan. They’ll need to add around the fringes of the roster creatively. I’m less worried about the three stars sharing the ball than I am about their ability to patch together a workable defense and get stops.
Still, the Nets are going to be impossible to defend. Even when the ball stagnates and you’re forced to have your best guys take turns—a problem that’s done in many a starry team—it’s much less of an issue when James Harden and Kevin Durant are those guys. Irving is the third wheel, whether he likes it or not. That doesn’t have to be a negative thing, but it could be.
With Giannis, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Donte DiVincenzo, Milwaukee is probably the team best suited to try and stop Brooklyn, at least personnel-wise. I still don’t think we need to rush to crown the Nets, and don’t see the point until they actually play together. But optically, anything less than winning the East would probably be disappointing.
No. They have way too many question marks—primarily rooted on the defensive end—to justify being the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference, let alone win the championship. The chemistry between James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving may be even more fickle than Irving’s availability on a night-to-night basis. This doesn’t mean they can’t win the championship. Betting against a team with such an unprecedented amount of artillery at the top wouldn’t be wise. Durant looks like an MVP candidate, and once Harden gets in shape he probably will too. They’ll have the best two players in almost every playoff series they enter—the Lakers, Clippers and (debatably) Bucks will have something to say about that. But as presently constructed, there are holes in this roster that are traditionally too difficult to overcome for any contender, let alone one that has redefined the phrase “championship or bust.”
Brooklyn has the star power to finish atop the East, but having the pieces to contend for a title is a bit more complicated.
The Nets' offense is obviously expected to be the team's strength after the addition of Harden, but the subtractions of Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen only highlight what has been a major weakness for Brooklyn during the early part of its 7–6 season: defense. The Nets have struggled to contain teams thus far, allowing an average of 112.9 points through the team's first 13 games.
This is where Allen's departure may truly hurt Brooklyn in their hunt for a title. Opposing teams have especially taken advantage of Brooklyn in the paint this season, scoring 49.7 points per game inside, and now the Nets will be without the player who had emerged as their starting center in Allen.
As the Nets stand now, the Lakers would hold the edge in a potential Finals matchup due to their size and defensive strengths. The offense is not expected to be a worry for Brooklyn, but the subtractions of LeVert and Allen only emphasize the team's defensive weaknesses, leaving questions in naming the Nets as favorites to win the 2020–21 title as they are currently constructed.
As part of our preseason predictions, I was the lone member of our NBA staff to pick the Nets to beat the Lakers in the Finals. One of the main reasons I picked Brooklyn to top the Lakers (who still remain the safer of the two picks) was its deep roster. That depth has obviously taken a hit in the wake of the James Harden trade, but the Nets made such a move because they believe that Harden increases their title odds in the short-term, whether that be this year or in the coming two years. Kyrie Irving’s status clearly remains a question, but Kevin Durant has seemingly returned to his prior form (I also picked Durant to win MVP, and with Harden’s arrival that feels less likely). The Nets still have a few bench pieces capable of contributing (Landry Shamet, Luwawu-Cabarrot and Jeff Green being the notable three), though one additional front-court piece—ideally someone who can bang with Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol—will go a long way in deciding Brooklyn’s fate. In all, I still believe that general manager Marks will be able to bolster Brooklyn’s bench and the Harden-Durant-Irving trio is too difficult for L.A. to stop. After a trade like this—one that I think made the Nets better—it would be almost foolish to back off of a preseason Nets title prediction.
I’d hesitate to take the Nets over the Lakers in a potential Finals showdown at the moment. Los Angeles is cruising early in its title defense, integrating new pieces with ease as LeBron James and Anthony Davis continue to play at an All-NBA level. If healthy, the Lakers remain the team to beat.
Yet it’s perfectly fair to place the Nets atop the Eastern Conference hierarchy after acquiring Jane’s Harden. This isn’t a newsflash, but Harden and Kevin Durant are likely the top two scorers in the league at the moment. The offensive possibilities are endless in Brooklyn, and while there are legitimate defensive concerns, the offensive firepower may ultimately be overwhelming. Harden was one win away from the Finals in 2018. Durant is a two-time Finals MVP. Let’s not overthink this, even amid a turbulent season for Kyrie Irving. The Bucks have the best case aside from the Nets for the Eastern Conference crown, though I’m inclined to take the Finals pedigree in Brooklyn. Outside of LeBron and Co. there’s no team I’d rather take to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
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