If the NBA is a star-driven league, the Brooklyn Nets might be the supernova of basketball. In Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, the Nets have a pedigree of a combined two MVP awards, seven scoring titles, 18 All-NBA selections and many, many more opposing players’ broken ankles. Rarely in the sport’s history has one side accumulated such an embarrassment of offensive riches, perfectly suited to make defensive challengers look silly.
And for much of the season, other suitors for the 2021 Larry O’Brien trophy have been made well aware of Brooklyn’s championship expectations. The Nets started the season with the third-best title odds according to Vegas, and though they possessed only the 13th-best preseason odds (1 percent chance to win the title) in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based model, their odds rose steeply after they acquired Harden from the Houston Rockets in a January megatrade. Now, after tearing through the Eastern Conference and earning the second seed, they’re the title favorites according to Vegas, and they have the fourth-best odds according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.
There’s just one catch for the Nets: Their top-scoring trio — the one that has generated all the hype — has spent barely any time together on the court. The three-man lineup of Durant, Irving and Harden has played just eight games together and has been on the court for only 5.8 percent of the Nets’ regular-season minutes. Just how uncommon is the Brooklyn stars’ relative absence? If the Nets live up to their season-long promise and actually win it all, each of those numbers will be the lowest for any champion’s Big Three1 in at least the past 25 years, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
|2020-21||Nets||Durant • Harden • Irving||8||202.3||5.8%|
|2019-20||Lakers||Davis • James • Kuzma||48||286.1||8.4|
|2018-19||Raptors||Ibaka • Leonard • Siakam||51||918.0||23.1|
|2017-18||Warriors||Curry • Durant • Thompson||43||936.7||23.7|
|2016-17||Warriors||Curry • Durant • Thompson||57||1124.6||28.4|
|2015-16||Cavaliers||Irving • James • Love||45||909.4||22.9|
|2014-15||Warriors||Curry • Green • Thompson||73||1730.9||43.9|
|2013-14||Spurs||Duncan • Leonard • Parker||52||1155.4||29.2|
|2012-13||Heat||Bosh • James • Wade||65||1628.0||41.0|
|2011-12||Heat||Bosh • James • Wade||44||1074.3||33.5|
|2010-11||Mavericks||Butler • Nowitzki • Terry||24||231.2||5.9|
|2009-10||Lakers||Bryant • Bynum • Gasol||47||843.1||21.3|
|2008-09||Lakers||Bryant • Bynum • Gasol||49||868.3||22.0|
|2007-08||Celtics||Allen • Garnett • Pierce||65||1689.4||42.8|
|2006-07||Spurs||Duncan • Ginóbili • Parker||71||1094.2||27.7|
|2005-06||Heat||O’Neal • Wade • Williams||37||729.7||18.5|
|2004-05||Spurs||Duncan • Ginóbili • Parker||60||1065.9||26.9|
|2003-04||Pistons||Billups • Hamilton • Wallace||17||364.9||9.2|
|2002-03||Spurs||Duncan • Jackson • Parker||79||1489.9||37.6|
|2001-02||Lakers||Bryant • Fisher • O’Neal||52||896.6||22.7|
|2000-01||Lakers||Bryant • Fisher • O’Neal||10||256.5||6.4|
|1999-00||Lakers||Bryant • O’Neal • Rice||62||1521.9||38.4|
|1998-99||Spurs||Duncan • Elliott • Robinson||49||1026.4||42.5|
|1997-98||Bulls||Jordan • Kukoč • Pippen||35||631.1||15.9|
|1996-97||Bulls||Jordan • Kukoč • Pippen||57||872.9||22.1|
Even when you focus on just the four other teams with less than a 15 percent playing-time rate for their top scorers during the regular season, there are few parallels for the Nets’ particular type of star no-shows. Last year’s Lakers brought Kyle Kuzma, the team’s third-leading scorer, off the bench, usually choosing to pair him with just one of LeBron James or Anthony Davis instead of both stars. The title-winning Mavericks of exactly one decade ago lost third-leading scorer Caron Butler to a midseason knee injury and filled his role with less prolific scorers. The 2000-01 Lakers’ core of Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher and Shaquille O’Neal played just 10 regular-season games together, but as ESPN’s Kevin Pelton recently pointed out, they had the benefit of four prior seasons as teammates — including one title-winning campaign. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons come closest to resembling these Nets, in that sense: They traded at the deadline for a top contributor (Rasheed Wallace), who needed just 22 regular-season games — and 17 with Detroit’s two other top scorers — to star on a championship run with his new team.
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The Nets’ roster management this season has often resembled a bizarre juggling act, and to Brooklyn’s credit it has fared remarkably well amid all the turmoil. In a 23-game stretch from Feb. 15 to April 5, Durant sat with a hamstring strain, Irving missed six games and Harden missed three, yet the Nets went 19-4 with the league’s sixth-best net rating. Just as Durant was about to return from that absence, Harden went down with a hamstring strain of his own, missing 18 consecutive games before returning to action just last week. The Nets managed to tread water in his absence, going 10-8 with a net rating of +3.2 points per 100 possessions. True to form, Irving missed Harden’s first game back from injury on May 12 with a face contusion, and Harden missed the Nets’ Sunday season finale resting that same hamstring.
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But for all the regular-season juggling, the true test for the Nets’ Big Three is yet to come. Teams typically tighten their rotations in the postseason to maximize their minutes with their best players — often their best scorers. Of the past 23 champions to play their Big Three during the postseason,2 20 played their Big Three lineups for a greater share of minutes during the postseason than during the regular season. That increase in minutes was also typically accompanied by a drop in efficiency: Sixteen of the 23 teams saw drops in their net rating with their top three scorers on the floor together.
|Season||Team||Reg. Season||Playoffs||Diff||Change in Net Rating|
That tightening is likely imminent, and there’s a good chance that it will be quite disruptive to the regular-season rhythm the Nets have built while surviving without their stars. Though it’s a small sample size, in their eight games together, Durant, Harden and Irving have averaged 25.3 minutes on the floor, which would be third-most among top-scoring title trios since at least 1996-97. That’s a gigantic footprint on offense. In much the same way that the Nets’ identity changed when the team acquired Harden, the team’s regular-season-to-postseason shift in makeup could alter the fabric of the team. The Nets earned the No. 2 seed in the East not just on the backs of its star scorers, but with key contributions from its role players, who are almost certain to see their minutes decline.
The Nets’ 2021 postseason will be a natural experiment in the limits of super-teaming. In a game that prides itself on the importance of chemistry, Brooklyn’s collage of pure hoops talent might even strike some as hubristic — anything short of a championship would delight traditionalists. But if there ever were a group tailor-made to upend the narrative, it would be a collection of three of the greatest offensive threats to ever play the game.
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