January 21, 2021
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NBA Title Or Bust, Again: James Harden Trade Another Massive Gamble For Brooklyn Nets

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The Brooklyn Nets have the NBA’s newest Big Three: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

Or do they?

“I mean, there’s supposed to be three guys,” one league source said with a laugh, referring to Irving, who has been MIA.

It’s a familiar gamble for Brooklyn – one that could end in a title parade down Flatbush Ave. or set the franchise ablaze and onto yet another asset-replete, five-year rebuild.

Harden wanted to be traded to the Nets – so badly they he turned down a $103 million extension with Houston during the offseason and ultimately forced his way out after taking a national party tour and finally making his demands public. He got his wish on Wednesday in an all-time blockbuster trade that quickly became the No. 1 story in sports.

Brooklyn gutted its roster to get Harden, sending Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs and a whooping seven future first-round picks — including swaps — away in a four-way deal with the Rockets, Cavaliers and Pacers.

The “Culture Nets” are now the “Talent and Ego Nets.” Sure, it’s a new regime, but Brooklyn is once again going all-in. And it’s really championship or bust in the Durant-Irving-Harden Era. Similarly, in many ways, to the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce blockbuster in 2013.

“They did it again,” the source said. “But these guys are younger and have a lot more gas in the tank. It’s a big deal. It’s a heckuva deal. Granted, you’ve got all the picks involved and a rookie coach.”

Maybe Steve Nash should call his good friend and fellow Hall of Fame point guard, Jason Kidd, and ask for advice.

This win-now, worry-later move seems to boil down to two factors: Durant looking like a top-five player in the league — if not higher — and Irving going AWOL. KD had always wanted his close friend Harden — remember, the two talked about playing together while working out in Los Angeles, and that was 100 percent true. But it’s worth wondering whether Harden would be a member of the 76ers right now if there wasn’t so much dysfunction going on in Brooklyn.

Over the last couple days, sources around the league – and talking heads – have all wondered about the possibility of Irving retiring. The bar had been set so low that Durant simply wanting to play and loving basketball was worthy of praise. And the Nets still have to figure out whether Irving is fully invested. After all, as sources confirmed, they’re still upset at his recent actions — including going to a family party in the pandemic. Harden, a model of consistency and durability, still needs to get in better shape, too. He looked like he’d stop trying in Houston, so hopefully this move will reinvigorate him as a superstar scorer and more dependable option — simply by showing up to work. He’s also hungry to win a title and join Durant and Irving with a ring.

Nash is going to be in for even more of a trio of load, ego and ball management. DeAndre Jordan is also now a starter again, in case anyone noticed. And the Nash-Irving dynamic didn’t exactly get off to the best start. There is only one ball, after all. But with seven of the last 11 scoring champions at his disposal, Nash and offensive guru Mike D’Antoni have the potential to reach historic heights in terms of efficiency if their three stars are willing to share shots and sacrifice stats. There are going to be isolation plays, but there also needs to be ball and man movement.

Causes for concern also include a lack of defense and depth. It seems unfortunate the Nets couldn’t get PJ Tucker – who seemed just as fed up with Houston as Harden – in the deal. Last season, Durant had called the fellow Texas Longhorn the best 1-on-1 defender in the league. It also seems unfortunate they couldn’t have made this deal during free agency, when Durant was trying to recruit ex-Thunder teammate Serge Ibaka. Maybe a reunion with Durant and Harden could’ve convinced Ibaka to pass up a reunion with Kawhi Leonard and the LA weather.

In any case, Jordan — who had fallen behind Allen in the pecking order again — is going to be asked to play a big role and protect the paint. His mobility hasn’t been great. Joe Harris, the $75 million man, is going to get a ton of open 3-point shots. Bruce Brown should continue to play given his ability to lock up on defense. Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot is going to be counted on. Landry Shamet finally needs to start hitting shots.

Small lineups will be all the rage with Jeff Green and Durant playing center at times. Rookie big man Reggie Perry may suddenly find himself some minutes. The Nets still have Spencer Dinwiddie’s expiring contract to add some frontcourt depth. Otherwise, they’re going to have to be on the buyout market, hoping role-playing veterans want to go ring chasing with their insanely talented yet potentially combustible core.

The better move always felt like Harden for Irving – and Houston was believed to be interested in that concept before the season started – but then everything went thermonuclear pretty quick. Ben Simmons always seemed like the trump card for Philly, but the Sixers reportedly didn’t want to give up the trio of Simmons, Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle plus a boatload of picks. Now the Rockets will root for a Brooklyn implosion, hoping to cash in the way Boston did in the form of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

Sean Marks cleaned up Billy King’s mess to get this opportunity to swing from the fences, drafting the likes of LeVert and Allen in the second-half of the first round and seeing them develop into core pieces and ultimately trade assets. King promised a two-year window which was really one-and-done. Marks needs to reach extensions with Durant and Harden, who both have player options for 2022-23. Without total control over any of their firsts through 2027, the Nets need to keep this core intact for as long as possible to make sure they don’t fall in the lottery. Just ask the previous regime about it.

The Nets have pushed all their chips into the middle. They need to get clarity from Irving on whether he’s in or out. If he’s not in now, he’ll never get there.

It’s time to get a championship trophy or two. Anything less is unacceptable. The talent is there. So is the dynamite for a potential blowup. In any case, buckle up. It’s going to be quite a ride. Brooklyn fans just hope it’s not deja vu all over again.