The alliance of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to a Brooklyn Nets roster that was already a playoff team already made them a strong contender to win the NBA Eastern Conference. Yet when they traded for James Harden earlier in the season to form a “Big Three” of superstars, it was understandable when many observers thought this team was destined to win the NBA championship this season. The later additions of stars like LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin elevated their collection of players into a super team. However, any coronation of this team is premature.
As the month of May begins just a few weeks away from the start of the NBA playoffs, the questions that have dogged this team remain unanswered.
First, will the chemistry of this group of players work? The Los Angeles Clippers were considered the super team of destiny last season. Their former head coach Doc Rivers later revealed that the lack of cohesion that never developed between Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with each other and the rest of the team played a big role in their early exit in the Western Conference playoffs to the Denver Nuggets. Developing chemistry on the fly in the playoffs is easier said than done. Yet the Nets’ Big Three of Durant, Harden, and Irving has only played together in seven games this season. Can all three share the ball? Will Harden and Irving defer to Durant as the presumptive alpha of the group? Should Durant be considered the alpha? Will Harden be content being a ball distributing point guard? Will Irving take more personal days?
These stars have all said the right things up to this point. They seem to be on the same page of all wanting to just win a championship. But the platitudes of January are not under the same weight of pressure as the urgency these players will encounter if they happen to fall behind, 2-1, in a seven-game playoff series. That is when the chemistry of this group will be tested. The regular season should be building the foundation for this group of players to prepare for the inevitable adversity coming in the playoffs. Instead, this group has dealt with injuries and load management as they await the playoffs.
Second, can this team simply outscore their opponents without playing at least decent play on defense? The offense numbers are quite impressive. Brooklyn averages 118.9 points per game. They make 49.4% of their shots and 38.9% of their 3-pointers. They lead the league in offensive efficiency, scoring 118.9 points per 100 possessions. These are numbers with the Big Three playing only seven games together so the ceiling could be even higher.
But the defense is an eyesore. Opponents make 46.2% of their shots which is resulting in 114.1 points per game. The Nets have the sixth-worst defensive efficiency in the NBA, with opponents scoring 113.2 points per 100 possessions. Can a defense this suspect survive in the playoffs against the very best teams? Mike D’Antoni’s coaching career has attempted to have his great offensive teams score their way past defensive liabilities, including his time in Houston with Harden. This approach never won a championship. Coincidentally or not, D’Antoni is an assistant coach with this team.
Steve Nash is the head coach of this group. He was the point guard for D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams that never reached an NBA Finals. Nash’s strengths were never defensive basketball. He is a rookie head coach, handling a large collection of big egos. It simply does not take much to imagine these circumstances taking a bad turn.
Third, will the superstars stay healthy? Proclamations of teams of destiny never take into account the prospect of injuries. Given the recent histories of Durant and Irving, and with Harden’s hamstring issues this season, it may be unrealistic to expect these three players to remain healthy throughout the postseason.
On paper, Brooklyn looks formidable. They have looked spectacular at times this season. Yet the challenge of the NBA playoffs is different than the regular season. Those are untraveled waters for the 2021 Nets.
Good luck - TDG.