The biggest news of the young NBA season – besides the raging pandemic postponing several games – is Wednesday’s blockbuster trade creating a juggernaut in the Eastern Conference. The Brooklyn Nets finally acquired James Harden, letting go of control over their next seven first-round draft picks in the process. In doing so, they’ve created the next Big Three in Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving.
Anytime a major acquisition like this happens, the general thought process is that the team in question has vaulted into contendership or title favorite status. The Nets are no different; fans and pundits immediately licked their chops at the firepower of their roster with three of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league, two of whom have won MVP’s and scoring titles.
So should the Los Angeles Lakers, who were widely considered the title favorites before the trade, be worried about the Nets serving as a hurdle too tall to vault over in their quest to repeat as NBA champions?
The short answer may be a no, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
The Nets certainly pose a risk and have the firepower to beat anyone handily. But as the Lakers learned last year, you have to prove it in the playoffs before anyone truly sees you as a clear favorite.
The Nets, in particular, have a lot of question marks of their own. Irving’s commitment to the team has come into question with the point guard missing games for mysterious “personal reasons” and rumors about his unhappiness with Brooklyn’s front office. If he does return to the squad, as most would expect, will he be content to work alongside Harden in the backcourt? Will he be happy to be the Nets’ third-best player?
Besides the psychological aspects of the trio of alpha dogs playing together, there is also the actual physical factors as well. All three of Irving, Harden, and Durant are better with the ball in their hands. That’s not to say they cannot still be factors off the ball; in fact, all three pose unique risks in doing so. Still, there are not enough possessions in a game for each to get their regular number of isolation and pick-and-roll touches.
One would expect three talented players to figure that side of the ball out though, even if there may be some clunky issues especially at the beginning of their marriage. Defensively, however, there are some real issues. Look up and down the Nets’ roster and it’s hard to find too many players who positively impact them on the defensive end. Irving, Harden, and Durant can theoretically work harder defensively with less offensive burden on each of them but none of them – not even Durant – have shown the ability to consistently be a net positive on the defensive end of the floor.
When perimeter players get beat, opponents will now be met by DeAndre Jordan rather than Jarrett Allen. Jordan is nowhere near the shot-blocking phenom he was as a Clipper and his backup is the undersized Jeff Green who we all saw play in the same role with much difficulty against the Lakers in the postseason. One would expect the Nets to make another move, be it a trade or buyout signing, to balance their roster but as it stands, they are incredibly thin in the frontcourt and it could lead to Durant being overworked against teams like LA who pound the opposition in the paint.
These questions don’t mean that the Nets aren’t good or should not be expected to reach the Finals and put up a fight against the Lakers. They just serve to show that success in the NBA is predicated on myriad factors and one mistake here or there can snowball into something disastrous.
The role of chemistry on the Lakers’ championship last season might be overstated; at the end of the day, the Lakers mainly won because their two top-five superstars each played at an MVP level over the course of 21 games. Still, the balance of a team that could shapeshift into a different kind of contender depending on the opponent and get contributions on both ends of the floor from every rotation piece without any of them truly being a liability goes a long way.
The Nets will have to navigate the regular season with a brand new roster and rookie head coach with the weight of championship expectations on them. They have to build chemistry between three number one options, find ways to optimize their role players, and build at least a solid defensive team and then prove they can carry all of that into the playoffs.
The Lakers, meanwhile, can sit back and enjoy the media storm carry into Brooklyn instead. A team that has (to an extent) sleepwalked its way to the top record in the NBA now has the added motivation of not being the sole favorite to win the title again. That motivation could be manufactured – plenty still consider the path to a championship to go through the Lakers – but that doesn’t matter in the minds of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It only serves to get the best out of them and their deep collection of teammates.
So yes, the Nets are a danger, as are the Clippers, Bucks, Celtics, 76ers, Nuggets, Heat and whoever else you want to throw into the mix. But until they have their backs against the wall in a seven-game series, the Lakers have no one to fear but their own health.