I mean the original trade. Yes, the one that brought James Harden to Brooklyn the-longest-year-ever ago. When the Nets had to give up, among other pieces, the man who will be replacing Harden in this year’s All-Star Game (Jarrett Allen, still finding ways to make Nets fans smile). I know this seems like an odd time to re-litigate trading for the man who just dramatically up and left Brooklyn after dropping a stink bomb all over the organization.
Especially after the Nets, driven by two of the three players they acquired for Harden, cleansed some of that smell with a feel-good win vs. the Sacramento Kings. The 11-game losing streak that felt in danger of lasting forever is now over. The All-Star break beckons, and Brooklyn awaits the arrival of a 25-year-old all-NBA talent, and also Kevin Durant. Even if just briefly, we can exhale. I’ll get to all that in a moment.
But with that win kicking off the acceptance stage of the Harden break-up for Nets fans, it now seems like a good time to close the book on the past, then look to the future.
The “Big Three” era (or, more accurately, moment) fit the Nets and their fans perfectly. I’m sure fanbases outside of Jersey and converted patches of Brooklyn would have a different answer to this question. But ask yourself this: If there was ever going to be a super-team that could cement itself as one of the most dominant ever — driven by three of the game’s most awesome talents — that ultimately fell apart not due in the slightest to on-court malfunctioning, but rather ... whatever that was, what organization would they represent? Sure sounds like the Nets to me. Those almost-Kobe, almost-Swamp-Dragon, worst-trade-ever, often-forgotten-about Nets. It would have been too easy, too cheap if the best team they’d ever built immediately waltzed to a title. Can we not laugh at ourselves?
That cosmic (mis)fortune is no reason to rewrite history, though. Nor was it inevitable. Bringing James Harden to Brooklyn was a Dunk Contest-level move, a perfect 50. And what followed on the court was, too. Such as the West Coast road trip that ended up being the group’s shining moment, or dominating the Celtics, something no Nets fan took lightly. The list of spectacular moments that will never be spoken of again go on. There were still signs of it this year: The Bulls game stands out, sure, but remember the game in Indiana a week before? The Nets, armed with the complete trio, put up an offensive rating of 127 despite shooting just 24 percent from deep, per Cleaning the Glass.
When it happened, (and for most part, when just 67 percent of it happened) Nets basketball was flawless after trading Harden. Of course, that doesn’t erase the fact that the overall experience was close to a 0th percentile outcome. Less than 20 real games with the three-headed monster. Vaccination questions (please, let it end). An injury toll that would have been unbearable even if most Nets fans weren’t also Yankees or Mets fans (please, let it end).
And yet, look where we are now. Barely one year after a franchise-altering trade went rotten years before its expiration date, things seem...okay, right? Relatively. Forget Joe Harris’ potentially season-ending injury, which would be a huge blow to Brooklyn’s title hopes but is also wholly unrelated to the Harden saga. Forget that the Nets are currently the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference. Their odds of missing the playoffs are still slim, and one win, against the Kings, no less, should be enough to see the bigger picture.
The Nets’ odds of winning the 2022 NBA Championship are lower than many of us thought they would be all season, sure. How on Earth are they going to line up all these moving pieces, from Kyrie Irving’s possible-but-not-even-close-to-guaranteed return to full-time basketball to incorporating the uniqueness of Ben Simmons into their rotation with about 20 regular-season games left. Again, what about Harris? Perhaps Sean Marks sitting on his hands in the 90 minutes of Deadline Day after trading Harden away was a sign that he intends to re-tool the roster again this offseason and let this year play out as it may. When you have Kevin Durant on your team, anything is possible, sure. But maybe focusing on the 2023 season, no matter how much it hurts to watch a year of KD’s prime pass, is more practical. It would be surprising if Irving is not fully reinstated by next winter. The Nets, from the Harris contract to Nic Claxton, to promising rookies and a couple of recouped first-round picks, have trading ammo. And a full summer to think, plan, and prep this new iteration of the team.
But maybe all that is too conservative. James Harden is still an unbelievable basketball player, which is why he brought back such valuable assets for the Nets. Andre Drummond did his thing vs. the Kings and immediately improved the vibes in Brooklyn. One look at him warming up tells you he is the most threatening combination of size and athleticism adorned in Nets gear since...Buck Williams?
It shows up immediately in the pick-n-roll game, where his movement skills, passing ability, and subpar catching mitts make him a bit more dangerous on the ground then in the air, though that’s not a bad thing with ball-handlers that can’t get as far downhill as, say, a James Harden:
And sure, you will be left wondering why he is not a better drop defender, considering the size, mobility, and ability to deflect passes and careless dribbling. Drummond elicits many- “what?”s from viewers. But also many-”wow”s. This is what the Nets added at the trade deadline:
They also added Seth Curry, and while the Patty Mills comparisons are reasonable and fair, Seth has a much easier time getting and staying in rhythm as a scorer due to some calmer pace with the ball and, thus, more comfortable pull-up shooting. Here’s a sampling of his third-quarter barrage that effectively put the Kings away for the night, notice how much dribbling there is:
Unlike Drummond, who we might end up saying peaked at age 24, the younger Curry brother is currently at his finest at 31 and high on attributes the Nets have been missing with Joe Harris out. It’s been a career-long journey into that confident beast we saw on Monday night, someone who not only understood that every shot he took was probably the best Brooklyn’s offense could do, but also how to get to those shots.
The combination of Drummond and Curry provides some immediate relief to a Nets team where their skillsets fit like a glove, particularly when 7/11 is closed. On this possession, the Kings do a solid job stopping a Drummond-Curry handoff from going anywhere, but Curry is still able to get ten toes in the paint before swinging it to the other side. Brooklyn immediately flows into that same action on the second side for an open three, now able to play two movement shooters and two handoff hubs at once. A godsend!
Of course, we haven't even talked about the addition of Simmons yet, which hopefully comes right after the All-Star break. His fit with the Nets may be less obvious at first, but that’s largely because his talent level is on another level. Again, this is a player who made All-NBA Third Team in just his age-23 season and was runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year in his age-24 season. It may not look how you expect, but this guy is extremely good (and equally motivated).
Yes, the range of outcomes for this season include some stinkers. It is not impossible the Nets miss the playoffs, sure, but slightly more likely, the team never figures out this complicated game of Jenga in time to get to the level of a fully operational Milwaukee or Miami or, worse, Philadelphia team. We could also see Irving re-join the team full-time, alongside a healthy Durant, a tenacious Simmons, a rejuvenated Joe Harris, and a now sturdy, diverse center rotation with extra shooting off the bench. Would anybody be shocked if that is a title team? Somewhere in between, we could witness an unsatisfying playoff exit that leads to a fairly transformative offseason, a calmer 2022 pre-season, and another season of huge expectations. Not a terrible range of outcomes in a season that included trading away a superstar. Just ask the Rockets.
You could say the Harden experience didn’t work out; you’d probably be right. But the next time things “don’t work out” for me in my personal life, I hope they end like this.