James Harden gamble would be breathtaking Nets experiment
The Nets have spent the past 15 months taking victory lap after victory lap, praised as visionaries, extolled for building in Brooklyn what has eluded Manhattan for more than two decades: hope, ambition, expectation.
They have done this in the absence of many actual victories of course. There were only 35 of them last season. There were zero of them in the playoffs, inside the Florida bubble, the Raptors making their last championship stand in a four-game whitewash.
Now, yes: There are reasons aplenty for that. The Nets knew they would play all of 2019-20 without Kevin Durant. They wound up playing most of the season without Kyrie Irving. The team that showed up in Lake Buena Vista was vastly depleted.
But there is also this unshakeable truth:
The Nets are built almost entirely on spec.
They have created in Brooklyn something that sure seems like it could be interesting but is, in fact, propped up by some vast unknowns, chief among them:
- Will Durant come back at 95 percent of his old self? Ninety percent? Seventy-five? Less?
- What version of Irving — Good Kyrie or Destructive Kyrie — will the Nets get for 60 percent of the 2020-21 season?
- Is Steve Nash as coach an inspired choice or a fiasco in waiting?
There is nothing certain about the Nets. This is no sure thing. This isn’t a program slowly and carefully crafted from dust. It was, until Durant and Irving became available; then all the smart pieces that formed the core (Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris) became footnotes and Sean Marks’ alleged visionary partner, Kenny Atkinson, became an ex-coach.
So the question shouldn’t be: Why would the Nets ever want to acquire James Harden?
The question is: What possible reason would you not?
Yes: There is a very real chance this could become the basketball equivalent of a “train wreck,” which is the way Hall of Famer Ray Allen described the potential troika on SiriusXM’s “The Starting Lineup” Monday.
“When you look at [Harden coming to Brooklyn], it could be extremely difficult to get along together,” Allen said. “Personality-wise it could be great, but then on the court it could cause trouble or problems, which ultimately could affect their relationship if they don’t decide they want to win, [that] having the ball in their hands does not matter to them.”
Allen was part of the first modern three-man partnership when he joined Kevin Garnett and headed to Boston to team with Paul Pierce in 2007. Less than a year later those three hung the 17th Celtics banner and essentially laid the groundwork for all the on-the-fly mergers that followed in Miami (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh), Golden State (Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson) and L.A. (LeBron and Anthony Davis). When it works, it can work out gloriously.
Would this work?
Sure. It could. It could also wind up entirely off the rails, with players who’ve spent the entirety of their careers dominating the ball, with Harden costing the Nets assets (certainly Dinwiddie or Caris LeVert, if not both), sparking the dramas that so often ruin NBA seasons. Adding Harden to this stew might be like shaking cayenne pepper into a banana split.
Or it might be something else. Maybe even something great.
It would certainly be something impossible to keep your eyes off of and when you are the Nets — eternally No. 2 in your own market regardless of whether you call Brooklyn, East Rutherford, Piscataway or Uniondale home, regardless of how deplorable and dysfunctional the Knicks are — that matters. It just does.
And again: As they are now, it is entirely possible that for all the fun nights a strictly Durant/Irving partnership might yield, the Nets are likely a consensus fourth choice in the East behind Milwaukee (assuming Giannis Antetokounmpo stays), Boston and Miami. And before you know it, half of your Durant window is closed.
Add Harden? Look, he isn’t the most enjoyable superstar to watch, which means he’s probably not always a joy to play with either. But Durant loves him, and as we learned with Nash, that’s a helpful skillset. Harden is probably tired of being known as a playoff paper tiger, in the same way Durant was when he fled Oklahoma City for Oakland.
And look: These things require adjustments. All three Celtics subjugated their games to make Boston work. Wade ceded the spotlight to LeBron, as Curry did to a degree with Durant. Maybe that happens here. And if it does … well, that would be glorious.
If it doesn’t? There’d be a reason to watch the Nets every single night, win or lose, and to go to Barclays Center (whenever that’s allowed again), and when is the last time you ever said that about the Nets? Ever?
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