The NBA season begins on October 18, which means we’re closing in on another year of one of sport’s most interesting leagues. Can the Bucks defend their title? Can LeBron and AD rekindle their magic with a brand new Lakers roster? Can the Nets turn their paper supremacy into a real-life championship? Will the Bulls find the playoff spot they seek after a summer full of moves? Will the Clippers stay afloat while Kawhi recovers from his ACL injury? Which teams are ready to take the next step? Which teams are about to fall off the inevitable cliff? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at various questions facing NBA teams this season. The 2022 season is on the way. Let’s get ready for it.
Expectations are high in Brooklyn. It’s the inevitable result of such a great collection of talent. Recent super teams – from LeBron’s Heat to the Warriors to Alabama football to the Patriots to the Dodgers – have delivered the clear message that anything short of a championship (and preferably the plural of the term) is a disappointment when so much star power is assembled in one place. Seeing a team with three of the most gifted offensive players in the league fall short of the ultimate goal for the second year in a row would be a massive disappointment…actually, it’d be a bit like watching the Dodgers…but you get the idea. Gifted teams attract lofty goals. And gifted the Nets are.
Kevin Durant is arguably the most unstoppable scorer of all-time. His shot is as smooth as it gets, and his height allows him to release at a point that almost no one can reach. In last year’s playoffs, PJ Tucker played the kind of defense on him that literally brought security out onto the floor mid-game, and if there’s a better way to do it, no one has that answer. Michael Jordan holds the per game scoring record, but Durant isn’t far behind in fifth. No active players average more points per appearance, and only two (LeBron and Carmelo) have scored more points total across their careers. He is eleventh all-time in true shooting percentage, eighth in player efficiency rating, and fourth in offensive box +/-. He is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons the game has ever seen.
Of course, so is James Harden. There are players who succeed in isolation, and then there’s the guy who scored more points through isolation in 2019 (1,415) than any other player has in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 combined. It’s not particularly close either; I believe Russ Westbrook would be your leader (of sorts) with 1,285 isolation points across those four seasons. This chart of 2019 isolation totals, via NBA.com, is just absurd –
Harden is an offensive factory all by himself. He’s a three-time scoring champ who ranks tenth all-time in points per game, a one-time assist champ who is one of just seventeen players to top 10 assists per game in more than one season, the active leader in career three-point attempts, a seven-time league leader in free throw attempts, a six-time league leader in turnovers, the tenth-best ever in PER, the eighth-best ever in win shares per 48 minutes (ahead of KD), the sixth-best ever in box +/- (also ahead of KD), the fifth-best ever in offensive box +/-, and the producer of two of the eleven highest single season usage rates in league history. He can do just about everything offensively, and the Nets don’t even need him to do it all (his 2021 usage rate was his lowest since 2014).
Then there’s Kyrie Irving. And when your team setup allows you to say “then there’s Kyrie”, you’re probably in pretty good shape. Off-court shenanigans aside, Irving is a fantastic offensive player. He’s simply not on the historic level of a KD or a Harden (though one could make a case for his dribbling ability), but sitting there as just one of the better offensive talents of your decade isn’t exactly a bad spot to be in. Kyrie has averaged at least 20 points and 5 assists per game in eight of the last nine seasons. Only LeBron, Harden, Russ, and Steph (who technically did it in his 2020 mini season) have done it in all nine, and only Dame joins Irving at eight, with both players coming a few tenths here or there away from making it nine. No one else has done it more than five times (KD) across that span. Irving is top fifteen among active players in both points and assists per game, free throw percentage, PER, offensive and overall box +/-, and usage rate. He is a ridiculously good player to have as your third best.
Now that we’ve set the scenario up, let’s go back to our title question. Are the Nets better with this Big 3 intact? The seemingly obvious answer – and one that’s not at all incorrect – is yes. The Nets are a better team when they have all of their stars. Of course they are. It might seem like a relatively unnecessary question, but it’s one we need to ask after they spent so little time on the court together last season.
Irving missed eighteen regular season games. Harden missed twenty-eight (give or take a few with the early drama and the Houston-Brooklyn transition). Durant missed thirty-seven. All told, those three played just eight regular season games together, combining for only 202 total minutes. For a good comparison, Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday played 50 games together, totaling more than 900 minutes. You’ll notice that Steve Nash clearly did what he could to put his Big 3 together as often as possible when all three were healthy (they averaged over 25 minutes per game as an on-court trio during the regular season while the Bucks’ Big 3 played about 18.5 minutes per game together), and for good reason. It’s unbelievably hard to win the NBA Finals. Nash knows this as well as anyone. It’s even harder when your development of on-court chemistry is limited to a few spot starts here and there.
It turns out that it’s also very difficult to win a ring when you can’t stay healthy during the playoffs either. Out of a possible thirty-six combined playoff games, Durant, Harden, and Irving only combined to play thirty, as both Harden and Irving missed three second round games. Even that number is likely somewhat elevated given how Harden looked in his return.
For just about all of last season, the Nets were incredibly injury-bitten at the top of their rotation, and yet they still managed to be a good regular season team – 7th in net rating, expected record, and SRS – that took the eventual champions to the brink in the playoffs. This is why it’s important to look at how they played with one, two, or three members of their Big 3 available. If health is on their side this year, can we expect Brooklyn to take a step forward? Let’s run through some numbers.
As I mentioned above, most overall team stats painted the Nets as the seventh best regular season team in the league. They were a little better by record (fourth), but there are always teams that win a little more or lose a little more than they really should during the regular season. Now let’s look at offensive rating, defensive rating, and net rating, which we’ll be able to track across various lineups, combinations, etc., and use as a decent enough gauge of playoff performance. We’ll use NBA.com for consistency’s sake, as different sites will have slightly different numbers (but the same rough outlook as far as general place in the league goes).
Regular Season Offensive Rating: 117.3 (1st)
Regular Season Defensive Rating: 113.1 (22nd)
Regular Season Net Rating: 4.2 (7th)
I’ll note here before we look at the playoffs that most playoff metrics should be taken with some degree of skepticism. The sample size is small, and numbers can be easily swung by the tone of different series. Bucks-Nets, for example, was often a grind. There is still some value in looking at how the Nets fared with different players on the court throughout the playoffs, but making statements like “the Nets’ defense dramatically improved in the playoffs and thus should be much better next year” isn’t a particularly safe road to go down, even if it should offer some degree of optimism.
Playoffs Offensive Rating: 115.9 (6th)
Playoffs Defensive Rating: 109.3 (4th)
Playoffs Net Rating: 6.6 (2nd)
So, the Nets were a great offensive team that struggled more often than not defensively. That left them as a good but not great overall team during the regular season. However, a clear shift in the right direction defensively during the playoffs did lift their overall performance. How do these numbers change based on who was available?
Nets with Durant
From here on out, the place in parentheses will reflect where Brooklyn would have finished with a full season of that rating.
Regular Season Offensive Rating: 121.7 (1st)
Regular Season Defensive Rating: 111.1 (11th)
Regular Season Net Rating: 10.7 (1st)
The defensive rating pretty clearly stands out here. When Durant played, the Nets went from a pretty poor defensive unit to a relatively decent one. That bodes well for the repeatability of their playoff performance and for their overall outlook moving forward into this season. Simply put, the Nets with Durant on the floor were about as good as it gets. That said, take the +10.7 net rating with a grain of salt. It’s a fantastic number, but it’s also one that the Sixers beat by over a point in Joel Embiid’s minutes. In other words, it’s not quite as groundbreaking as it might seem. However, Durant’s general unavailability last year does suggest that a more healthy year could lead to a Nets defense that is at least mediocre rather than bad.
Playoffs Offensive Rating: 115.1 (7th)
Playoffs Defensive Rating: 111.3 (7th)
Playoffs Net Rating: 3.8 (5th)
These are actually kind of interesting. You would think that the Nets would be a little worse off offensively in Durant-specific minutes just because he had to shoulder the load for an inferior offense while Harden and Irving struggled with injury issues. Instead, they’re relatively similar there with the more severe drop-off coming defensively. What that suggests is that the offensive burdens Durant had to carry as the clear top dog hurt his ability to contribute defensively. It’s a theory, but it’s one that makes a decent amount of sense. With all due respect to the work Harden has put in to become a solid team defender, neither he nor Irving bring anything that is particularly difficult to replace on that end of the court, as we’ll see as we continue along here.
Nets with Irving
Regular Season Offensive Rating: 119.4 (1st)
Regular Season Defensive Rating: 113.8 (25th)
Regular Season Net Rating: 5.6 (5th)
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Irving’s offensive boost was a little stronger than the defensive drop that took place with him on the floor. The Nets weren’t stopping much of anything in his minutes, but their offense was dangerous enough to keep things moving in the right direction.
Playoffs Offensive Rating: 123.2 (1st)
Playoffs Defensive Rating: 107.3 (2nd)
Playoffs Net Rating: 15.9 (1st)
This is where we bang the sample size drum. It’s worth noting that Irving participated in two games where the Bucks scored just 86 points and another game where the Celtics managed just 93. When you only play nine games, having three of those feature abysmal offensive performances by the other team is going to help the bottom line. It’s fair to suggest that Irving’s presence made the Nets a nearly unstoppable offensive force in the postseason (an idea that is likely elevated beyond realistic expectations here but still makes general sense based on far more than those nine games), but I wouldn’t read too much into the defense. After all, you only have to look back to 2019 to find the Celtics allowing 17.1 (17.1!!!) more points per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor versus off of it in that nine-game playoff run.
Nets with Harden
Regular Season Offensive Rating: 118.7 (1st)
Regular Season Defensive Rating: 113.7 (25th)
Regular Season Net Rating: 5.0 (6th)
There are some small differences, but this is pretty much the same theme as Irving. Some offensive improvement, some defensive drop-off, and a bit of an overall improvement with Harden on the floor.
Playoffs Offensive Rating: 123.9 (1st)
Playoffs Defensive Rating: 115.5 (9th)
Playoffs Net Rating: 8.4 (1st)
The Nets were exceptional offensively in Harden’s playoff minutes, but they really weren’t good defensively. This is the general theme, and one that will be very interesting to watch this upcoming season. With Durant, Irving, and Harden available, the Nets are just unbelievable offensively, but can Durant do enough on the other side of the court to gain the edge over other elite teams?
The basic idea here is that Durant as an individual is likely very good for the Nets defensively while Kyrie and Harden aren’t particularly impactful (and potentially even harmful). On the other side of things, all three provided an offensive boost over the larger regular season sample. Now let’s look at how Brooklyn played with two or all three of them on the court.
I’ll hold off on playoff numbers until we get to the trio. I think we have enough already to get the idea, and the sample size gets even smaller when you break into specific lineup pairings.
Nets with Durant and Irving
Regular Season Offensive Rating: 120.6 (1st)
Regular Season Defensive Rating: 111.8 (T-13th)
Regular Season Net Rating: 8.8 (2nd)
Again, there is some risk in getting too caught up in the rankings here. Almost every team would have a loftier net rating if you took only the minutes where two of their top three players were on the court. That tends to be how it works. The more useful thing here is the comparison with the Nets overall, and here we see that Durant’s defensive impact wasn’t blunted much by the presence of Irving. That’s a good sign. We can also see that the Nets were more lethal offensively with these two on the court than they were overall.
Nets with Durant and Harden
Regular Season Offensive Rating: 122.1 (1st)
Regular Season Defensive Rating: 110.9 (11th)
Regular Season Net Rating: 11.2 (1st)
This is basically the exact same as Durant’s individual minutes outlook, which is interesting, and if we go back above for a second we can see that the Nets were actually better in Durant’s overall minutes than in the ones he specifically shared with Irving. What does that mean? The relatively small amount of time Durant shared the court with four players other than Harden or Kyrie saw the Nets at their most effective. While that’s far from a calamity considering just how good the Nets were in Durant’s minutes regardless of who he shared them with, it does suggest that there is some sort of ceiling here. Don’t expect Brooklyn to go nuclear and win playoff games by an average of 20 points per. They can only fly so high. The correct takeaway is less about the Nets being better without Kyrie and Harden out there with Durant (that’s likely as much due to single season variation as anything), and more about the simple fact that winning basketball games is far from a guarantee no matter who they have out there, especially when your team is so unbalanced offensively vs. defensively.
Nets with Irving and Harden
Regular Season Offensive Rating: 118.9 (1st)
Regular Season Defensive Rating: 114.6 (28th)
Regular Season Net Rating: 4.3 (7th)
The defensive number here is something to monitor moving forward. Will it improve as Harden and Irving grow more comfortable with each other on the court? The bottom line is that 114.6 is an abysmal defensive rating, and it’s a relatively clear sign, again, of who holds the defensive potential in his hands here (it’s KD guys). The worries over this team’s defense are very legitimate, and the Irving/Harden duo will have something to prove in that regard. Remember that this includes all the minutes Irving and Harden played – including those with Durant – so this is a wide-scale issue in Brooklyn.
Nets with Durant, Irving, and Harden
Regular Season Offensive Rating: 119.6 (1st)
Regular Season Defensive Rating: 112.5 (22nd)
Regular Season Net Rating: 7.1 (2nd)
It’s pretty simple here – no defensive change from the overall team number but an offense that’s even more effective. The defense is going to be something to watch next year. Will Durant’s impact win out over a more extended period of time? Or are these brief minutes with all three on the court a better sign of the simple reality of building a team on offensive stars? In other words, will the healthy Nets need to rely on their ability to win a shootout?
The bottom line is that there’s no reason to believe that the 2022 Nets, if they stay healthy, can’t be even better offensively. That’s not exactly a shocker of a statement. The more interesting question revolves around the defense because that’s what’s holding the Nets back from world domination. Based on the numbers, there’s little (though not zero) hope that a healthy Brooklyn team will be any better on that side of the ball. They’ll likely have to rely on the offense being too overwhelming for the defense to matter.
Playoffs Offensive Rating: 135.4 (1st)
Playoffs Defensive Rating: 113.3 (7th)
Playoffs Net Rating: 22.1 (1st)
I’ll say it again – take this with a grain of salt. These numbers came only against a beat-up Celtics team that wasn’t great defensively to begin with. But, good lord, look at that offensive rating (and then look at the regular season offensive rating to remember what scale of improvement is more likely). There are defensive questions to be asked, and those won’t go away. But if the Nets can stay healthy, the numbers show that they can improve upon what was already a really, really good offense. That’s a good sign for Nets fans, and a scary thought for the rest of the league. If only the defense could cooperate.