What If the Nets Don’t Need a Good Defense?

If there’s any team that can break the trend of needing a strong defense to win a championship, it has to be this Brooklyn squad.
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After defying mammoth odds in a mind-bending loss to the Wizards, the Nets rebounded with an impressive 124–120 win against the Clippers on Tuesday. While the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving has been mostly thrilling to watch, it's also given up some absolutely whackadoodle scoring numbers—125 points to the Thunder, 149 points to the Wizards, 124 points to the Heat. Defense is the No. 1 talking point when it comes to Brooklyn, and improvement on that end is something coach Steve Nash and the players have answered questions about after nearly every game and practice. And yet, after watching the Nets’ shot-making down the stretch against the Clippers, I think it’s much more fun to wonder whether Brooklyn can win a championship without slowing anybody down.

You’ve by now almost certainly heard the phrase “defense wins championships.” It’s mostly true! From 2010–20, only two teams won titles with a defensive rating outside of the top 10—the 2016 Cavaliers and the 2018 Warriors. Both squads just barely missed the mark—they were less than one point per possession outside of the top 10 in their respective seasons. The former also had to overcome a 3–1 deficit to win, and the latter was a team that could not have had less use for the regular season. It also should be noted that Irving performed spectacularly for the Cavs down the stretch of the ‘16 Finals—including hitting the series-clinching three, while Durant was the MVP of the ‘18 Finals, which ended in a sweep.

kyrie-irving-nets-clippers

After the win against the Clippers, the Nets have the 25th-best defense in the NBA. Teams like that typically don’t even make the Finals let alone have a chance of winning them. (The 2018 Cavs are a notable exception—they were the recipient of that Durant sweeping, courtesy of the league’s second-worst defense that year.) The Durant-Harden-Irving trio has played 155 minutes in five games together, and Brooklyn has a 118.2 defensive rating with those three on the floor, and only a 0.5 net. There is some hope for the closing group, at least. When the Nets’ star trio is flanked by Joe Harris and Jeff Green, they have a 108.7 defensive rating, an above-average mark.

However, if there’s any team that can break the trend of needing a stingy defense to win a championship, it has to be this Nets squad. The shot-making display Brooklyn put up against the Clippers, who have two of the best perimeter defenders in the league in addition to heavily switchable lineups, was absurd. There was a five-minute stretch in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game which the Nets began trailing by five then leading by 10 thanks to a 21–6 run. 21 points! In five minutes! In that stretch, Brooklyn scored thanks to a KD pull-up, a Kyrie three, an absurd Kyrie layup, a Kyrie three, a Harden stepback three, a KD long two, three free throws for Harden and then a KD three for good measure.

The brilliance of the Nets, and what separates them from great offenses of the past, is they have three scorers with specific skills second to none: Kyrie’s handles and finishing package, KD’s ability to shoot over anyone and Harden’s isolation game. If you were building a team that needed to have an atypical yet historic offense to overcome a massive defensive shortcoming, you would be hard-pressed to build a better one than Brooklyn’s, especially when you add Harris’s three-point shooting to the mix. The absence of Patrick Beverley in Tuesday’s game was not insignificant, but it was remarkable to see Brooklyn’s best players still dominate even when facing two All-Universe defenders. Not only can the Nets render a great team defense irrelevant because of their collective talent, they can make life hell for the best individual defenders as well.

Kevin Durant drives against the Clippers

I think all this means we should be rooting for the Nets to never fix their defense. It would mean doing something that’s never happened before, and it would require the trio of Durant, Harden and Irving to perform a high-wire act for an entire postseason. It would require all three of them to be the best at what they do best for an entire run to even have a chance. Sure, getting stops is cool, but watching three of the most gifted scorers having to bucket for bucket with every opponent they face sounds thoroughly more entertaining to watch.

There is going to be a lot of proverbial ink spilled from now through the summer about the Nets’ defense. They definitely shouldn’t ignore that end of the floor entirely. (Last year’s Clippers would appear to have learned the hard way about not respecting the regular season.) But if Durant, Harden and Irving can get their shots off against anyone who has ever picked up a basketball, maybe the team’s one-of-a-kind strength would mean more than a one-of-a-kind weakness.