Skip to main content

The Harden-Era Nets Instantly Become One of NBA’s Strangest Cautionary Tales

Why Brooklyn's Big Three experiment is over before it really got started.

When taking stock of the Brooklyn Nets and whatever the hell has taken place within the organization over the last 31 months, it feels fair to invoke the poem “Ozymandias,” which became a part of broader pop culture after Breaking Bad gave a key episode that same name back in 2013.

The poem itself, an 1818 work by Percy Bysshe Shelley, describes a wrecked statue in a vast desert, and is meant to illustrate the downfall of an overly arrogant, once-powerful juggernaut. But forcing that poetic fit—much like the Nets forced their on-court one between Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden—overlooks the fact that Brooklyn never managed to win it all. (Hell, the club never even won the Eastern Conference.) That Big Three was as fleeting as it was dominant; an otherworldly talented group that absolutely shined when it played together—but also one that was unnecessary from the jump, as the Nets already had boatloads of talent and drama prior to bringing Harden to Brooklyn.

Through the first 13 games of last season, which predated Harden’s time as a Net, the club already ranked sixth in offensive efficiency. And that was with Irving having missed six of those contests. Durant was an elite offense by himself, while Durant and Irving were a basketball version of Bonnie and Clyde. Harden was supposed to add a layer of inevitability; someone who could give Brooklyn a solid chance even if the Big Three suddenly became a Big Two due to a significant injury. (The Nets almost pulled this off last postseason, nearly beating eventual NBA champion Milwaukee after Irving got injured and Harden played through a bad hamstring tweak.)

Yet beyond the depth questions Harden’s addition created—and ones that have been exacerbated by sharpshooter Joe Harris’s lengthy absence—there was always the more fundamental issue of whether these players were solid enough to tether the entire franchise to them. Not in terms of talent, but in terms of their resolve. Not only to win at all costs, but to put their minds together to figure things out if and when they hit a rough patch, as just about all teams do.

In Boston, Irving had told Celtics fans he’d stick around, only to then leave months later. And that was after he demanded to be moved out of a contending situation alongside LeBron James in Cleveland, where he’d already won a title. Harden ended up with the Nets after shooting flares into the sky to have someone save him from Houston, where his effort dipped to an embarrassingly low level. (Some may levy that accusation in this instance, too, as he left with Brooklyn in the midst of a nine-game losing skid—one that now stands at 10 games, the longest in the league currently.)

It’s here that the Nets organization deserves a solid degree of blame. Brooklyn couldn’t force Irving, who’s decided against being vaccinated for COVID-19, to get the shot. Yet while the club initially said it wouldn’t allow Irving to be a part-time player by allowing him to play in just road games, the Nets later reversed course and said they’d play Irving on the road as the virus wreaked havoc on the NBA.

To what degree Harden was annoyed by this is unclear. But as we wrote months ago, when Irving expressed his stance on the vaccine, refusing to get it went beyond being merely a personal issue because—aside from public health—that made it a team issue as well. Players like Harden would have to shoulder more burden because of Irving’s choice. Perhaps Durant, a close friend of Irving’s who more or less decided to join the Nets as a package deal with him, could live with his friend’s decision. But Harden didn’t necessarily sign up for that. And perhaps those frustrations come to light even further when Durant is out with injury, like he is now, necessitating that Harden run the offense all by himself during home games.

The need to trade Harden, who could’ve left as a free agent this summer, is stunning nonetheless. It illustrates just how far removed the Nets are from where they were a couple years ago, when they’d established a playoff club with coach Kenny Atkinson and talented players like Jarrett Allen, D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, who’d jelled while operating in a highly efficient system.

But those younger players moved on. And so did Atkinson, who mutually parted ways with the Nets just months into his first season with Irving and Durant on the roster. Then, upon the Nets hiring Steve Nash into that role, Irving said he thought of the coaching situation as collaborative. “I don’t really see us having a head coach,” he said. “KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.” Irving also missed seven games in a row at one point last season due to personal reasons, a stretch in which Nash said he hadn’t heard from his point guard about why he was sitting out.

To be fair, these gambles are ones plenty of NBA clubs would have made if they’d been in position to pull it off. And on truth serum, Nets general Sean Marks might even tell you that he’d still make the same choices if Irving’s vaccination status had been different, which would have balanced Brooklyn’s situation out in a number of ways. The data, while incredibly scant, was always clear: The Nets were close to unstoppable when all three stars played together.

Durant, Harden and Irving played just 365 minutes total over 16 games; 10 regular-season ones and six playoff matchups. The Nets logged 119 points per 100 possessions—an offensive efficiency rate that would shatter the NBA record—with those three on the court during regular-season contests. (Even with those three not playing much together, last year’s Nets hold that record.)

But get this: they scored far more in the playoffs, notching an insane 137.2 points per 100 possessions. As a club, Brooklyn had an effective field-goal rate of 65.1% and a true-shooting percentage of 70.7%—Nikola Jokić-type numbers, except better, and on a team scale instead—in the 130 postseason minutes the trio spent on the floor, according to data from Stats Perform.

Watch NBA games online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!

The stars had a chance to be worth all the headaches. With Durant on the way back from injury, Irving and Harden simply didn’t prioritize the notion of winning over everything else.

That’s not to suggest Brooklyn can't accomplish anything now that it’s moved on from Harden. It may not be fair to assume anything about Ben Simmons and his game (or his mindset) after having gone this long without playing. But he immediately becomes the Nets’ most valuable, versatile defender, and gives them a pace-setting, playmaking presence—things they can use when Irving isn’t playing, and qualities that should work just fine even when Brooklyn is whole again.

Things move quickly in the ever-changing NBA. We often come to revere the all-time winners, and we have ways of remembering the most tragic teams, and the most unthinkable misses that fall just short. The Harden-era Nets—fantastic, fleeting and ultimately flawed—will fall in the middle of the Venn diagram as one of the strangest experiments the league has ever seen. One that saw greatness tumble and shatter before it was ever fully assembled in the first place.

More NBA Coverage:

Trade Grades: 76ers Acquire Harden From Nets for Simmons
Questions Around Ben Simmons Remain Despite Trade
Winners and Losers From the NBA's Trade Deadline

Sports Illustrated may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.