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The Nets Go All-In With James Harden, But The Move Has Risks

After a month of drama and no shortage of trade speculation, the Houston Rockets finally dealt disgruntled superstar James Harden on Wednesday, shipping him to the Brooklyn Nets in a four-team megatrade that also involved the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers. The haul for Harden? Three players (headlined by Caris LeVert, whom Houston sent to Indiana for Victor Oladipo), four first-round picks and four other pick swaps headed to the Rockets, with Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince on the move to Cleveland in the trade.


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This is nothing if not a blockbuster deal, with plenty of aftereffects that are sure to reverberate across the league. According to our NBA forecast (based on our RAPTOR player ratings), Wednesday’s moves made Brooklyn the favorite to win the Eastern Conference and the second-most-likely team to win the 2020-21 NBA title, with a 16 percent probability that trails only the Los Angeles Lakers. (Before the deal, the Nets’ chances were at only 2 percent, which trailed eight other teams.) In that sense, the Nets and Rockets are both winners here — Brooklyn enhanced its status as a championship contender, while Houston gathered a boatload of players and picks in return for its erstwhile star.1

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It had become quite obvious why the Rockets needed to unload Harden. After he showed up late to training camp amid reports that he wanted out of Houston, Harden all but said to the organization, “It’s not me; it’s you.” During a Tuesday night press conference, Harden said, “We’re just not good enough. … I’ve literally done everything that I can. … It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed.” (Teammate DeMarcus Cousins said Harden’s antics and lack of effort — even prior to that interview — had been disrespectful to the Rockets.)

Brooklyn swinging a deal of this nature — giving up not just LeVert and Allen but also all those picks — is a bit tougher to understand, especially given the franchise’s history of big — and ultimately bad — trades. But it makes more sense when thinking about the Los Angeles Clippers’ move to get Paul George in the summer of 2019: Though they parted ways with a historic number of first-rounders, they saw it as a trade to land both George and Kawhi Leonard. In this case, Brooklyn decided to push all its chips in, knowing that this move would help its chances to retain Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving after next season, when the two stars can opt out and become unrestricted free agents. Harden can also opt out of his contract after the 2021-22 campaign.

That doesn’t mean the deal isn’t without its risks. It can be a slow process for three players of this caliber to learn how to play off one another, given how much they’re all used to having the ball in their hands. Sometimes players have the same sweet spots on the court. And even when players are a good fit in both theory and practice — for instance, Durant in Golden State, where he won two NBA titles — the stylistic differences can create media narratives that fray the egos and relationships involved.2

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But there’s a case to be made that, with this much elite offensive talent, none of that matters. By adding Harden, the Nets have now assembled the second-, seventh- and eighth-best offensive players in the league since 2015 according to our RAPTOR metric.3

The Nets are hoarding elite offensive talent

Best offensive NBA players since 2014-15 with a minimum of 10,000 minutes played, according to RAPTOR plus-minus

RAPTOR +/-
Player Minutes Offense Defense Total WAR
Stephen Curry 16,010 +8.7 +0.9 +9.6 104.62
James Harden 22,904 +8.0 +0.6 +8.6 133.79
Chris Paul 17,932 +6.5 +0.5 +7.0 89.91
LeBron James 22,834 +6.3 +0.6 +6.9 113.37
Damian Lillard 20,989 +6.1 -1.6 +4.6 78.82
Kawhi Leonard 16,124 +5.7 +3.1 +8.8 95.14
Kevin Durant 13,374 +5.7 +0.1 +5.8 59.57
Kyrie Irving 14,835 +5.4 -1.8 +3.6 48.58
Nikola Jokić 15,720 +5.3 +1.4 +6.7 75.94
Kemba Walker 18,342 +4.3 +0.4 +4.7 69.68

Includes playoffs.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

When that trio plays together, the Nets could be a truly unstoppable offensive force. All three stars are phenomenal scorers, of course, averaging more than 33 points per 100 possessions in their careers. But they’re also all elite shooters and playmakers; the career assist rates of Harden and Irving are both north of 30 percent, and Durant’s has crept up toward that mark in recent seasons. So can they coexist on the Nets? With shooters like Joe Harris and Landry Shamet on the court, spacing won’t be an issue; ball movement shouldn’t be, either. And during his time with the Warriors’ dynasty, KD showed he can pick his spots and fit seamlessly into an offensive superteam, so he clearly can thrive alongside players as ball-dominant as Harden and Irving (even if playing that way wasn’t always his preference).

But there are downsides to Brooklyn’s ever-expanding experiment. Led by a number of coaches who excelled on the offensive side — like Steve Nash, Mike D’Antoni and Amar’e Stoudemire — the Nets have looked questionable at times on the defensive end. Though it ranks 12th in defensive efficiency to this point, Brooklyn has logged an 0-5 mark when it scores fewer than 120 points this season, a seemingly unsustainable way to win big in the NBA.4 Losing Allen, the team’s best rim protector, won’t help in that regard. He’s a bit undersized against the biggest centers, but at the time of the deal, he was holding opponents nearly 9 percentage points below their average marks at the basket. On the other hand, DeAndre Jordan — 10 years older, and no longer the athlete he once was — is allowing players to shoot a few points better than their average so far.

According to RAPTOR, both LeVert and Allen were each more than a point of defensive efficiency better than the NBA average per 100 possessions. Although Harden’s defensive RAPTOR is usually better than his reputation might suggest, he won’t exactly help the Nets replace the lost defensive contributions. The best the Nets can hope for is that some part of Harden’s awful -5.8 defensive RAPTOR this season was tied up in his desire to no longer be a Houston Rocket. And they’ll have to hope the likes of Jordan and Bruce Brown can step up and fill the necessary minutes with at least decent defensive performances in what figure to be enhanced roles on the post-trade roster. Also, look for the Nets to add defensive help via minimum-salary pickups when filling their myriad empty roster spots.

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But Brooklyn already had depth issues before the deal, with the NBA’s second-largest split in efficiency differential between that of its starters (+8.7, second-best in the league behind Milwaukee) and its bench (-2.8, ninth-worst).5 Now the Nets have sent away their second- and third-biggest minute-earners in LeVert and Allen, along with Prince, who was in the rotation with 18.2 minutes per game. Notably, the team had been playing much better with LeVert and Allen on the court than off early this season. It will have to make do with an even thinner rotation after the trade, along with the reality that Durant is still just eight games into his comeback from a very serious injury and Irving is maybe the sport’s ultimate wild card in terms of his availability on any given night. This team was always going to spend plenty of time during the regular season playing at something less than its full potential; now that might be doubly so.

That potential is what continues to make the Nets such a tantalizing team, though, especially now that Harden is in the mix. The Nets were already under tremendous pressure to capitalize on the Durant-Irving tandem, and they only leaned into that further on Wednesday. But in many ways, that’s what the modern NBA is about — building a trio of superstars and taking your shot while you have the chance. If nothing else, Brooklyn’s version of that plan should be spellbinding to watch play out.

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Footnotes

  1. The wheeling and dealing also took Houston under the luxury-tax threshold by $3.7 million.

  2. Cases in point: the debate about “whose team” it was in Golden State, between Durant and Steph Curry … or the heated argument between KD and Draymond Green that helped pave the way for Durant’s eventual exit.

  3. With a minimum of 10,000 minutes played.

  4. But perhaps more sustainable when you have Durant, Irving and Harden?

  5. Only the Clippers’ split (12.5 points per 100) is larger than the Nets’ 11.5-point difference.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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