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Brooklyn Nets: Are They Championship Contenders?

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In mid January a blockbuster four team trade took place with all star shooting guard James Harden the key piece. Harden had been unhappy in Houston during his last year with the Rockets. After eight years of failure to win a championship he was looking for a new start with a contender. He landed in New York with the Brooklyn Nets. The Houston Rockets received a huge package of players and first round draft picks from the trade in return for Harden as they begin a rebuild. Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers also benefited from Brooklyn’s need to move players to take on Harden’s contract.

Speculation had been swirling around the NBA about Harden’s possible destination for a few months. Joining the Brooklyn Nets and a reunion with Kevin Durant was his first choice. The two had played together for the Oklahoma City Thunder and 2012 USA Olympic basketball team. Some publications believed a trade to Brooklyn was a bad idea.  “Harden’s preferred destination is probably the worst option he’s given himself.”

A month after the trade are the Brooklyn Nets looking like NBA Championship contenders? A lot will depend on their three main men who earn $114 million dollars a season between them. Within the NBA this is the highest for any three players on a team and, in a sport with a salary cap, seriously restricts the money Brooklyn can spend on a supporting cast to help win the title.  

 

Brooklyn’s Big Three

James Harden

James Harden has linked up on offense with Brooklyn’s two other superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to form a formidable scoring tandem. After Harden joined the team they have regularly scored 120 points a game. The Nets are closing in on points per game leaders Milwaukee Bucks and at the current rate will overtake them by the end of the season.  

In the three previous seasons with Houston, Harden averaged over thirty points a game. Since arriving in New York he has averaged only 23.3 points a game but his 11.3 assists per game are almost double a career average of 6.4. James Harden is also putting up career best numbers in rebounding and free throw percentage in this first 13 games as a Net. The trade has made him into more of an all round playmaker creating opportunities for teammates especially Durant and Irving. 

A third overall pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009, Harden mostly played off the bench for the team before being traded to Huston in 2012. In 2011-12 the Thunder reached the NBA Finals where they lost to the Miami Heat. James Harden was awarded the Sixth Man award for the best non starting player in the league for his performances during their NBA Finals season. With the Rockets Harden was immediately a team leader and became a regular all star winning the league MVP honours in 2018.  

 

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant is the most talented player on the Brooklyn roster and one of the most feared in the NBA. He has played at a superstar level for over a decade and was NBA Most Valuable Player in 2014. After signing with the Golden State Warriors from Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016 he won back to back NBA Championships in 2017 and 2018. As MVP of both series Durant led the Warriors superteam to victory. Durant joined the Nets in 2019 but missed the whole of the 2019-20 season through an injury sustained in the 2018-19 NBA Finals. 

Kevin Durant has repeatedly fallen foul of Covid-19 protocols and on February 5th was at the centre of a crazy situation regarding participation in a games against the Toronto Raptors. Chaos reigned as Durant was originally unable to start the game as a contact had an inconclusive test. After three negative tests Durant joined the game. In the third quarter he was withdrawn after the contact tested positive. NBA Spokesman Tim Frank said. “During the game, a positive result was returned for the person Durant interacted with. … Once that test was confirmed positive, out of an abundance of caution, Durant was removed from the game.” After a week in isolation Durant returns to the lineup on Saturday February 13th against his old team Golden State Warriors. 

 

Kyrie Irving

Twenty eight year old Kyrie Irving is the final member of the Brooklyn Nets big 3. A first overall draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011, he won the NBA Championship with the team in 2016. After requesting a trade in 2017 the team agreed to send Irving to the Boston Celtics for a package of players and draft picks. After two years in Boston Kyrie Irving left as a free agent to sign with the Brooklyn Nets.

Last season despite frequent injuries he led the Nets to the playoffs with a career high of over 27 points per game. A shoulder injury prevented Irving taking part in the playoffs and their season ended in the first round as the team lost 4-0 to defending champions Toronto Raptors. Irving was a team mate of Durant at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and despite his injury problems, remains a consistent elite scorer in the NBA.

 

Can The Nets Play Defense?

Since the start of the season the Nets have been allowing the highest number of points in the NBA. After trading for Harden this record became worse with the team on track to be the worst of all time in this category. This run included a 149-146 loss to the Washington Wizards, who won despite the being behind by 5 points in the last ten seconds of the game. 

After an 111-122 defeat against the Detroit Pistons Irving called out his teammates for their effort. He recognised the worst performances came against the teams with the poorest records. The Pistons had a league worst win record of 5-18 coming into the game.  

“The Nets are somehow simultaneously the best offensive team in the NBA and worst defensive team in the NBA. Many figured this might be the case when they went out and acquired Harden, but nobody expected it to be quite this bad.”

Following the loss to the Pistons the Nets were much improved in their next outing as they beat the Indiana Pacers 104-94. 

 

Is The Nets Supporting Cast Too Thin?

The cocktail of departures from Brooklyn to acquire James Harden has left the Nets short on quality backups. Irving, Durant and Harden can’t play every minute and need support from the bench. Since the trade each of the stars has missed at least one game. They have only played together on 6 out of a possible 13 games. This has put pressure on the supporting cast who are struggling to cope with increased minutes on the floor, especially defensively.

The Nets have been looking to sign free agents but need a centre to help DeAndre Jordan. Jordan has fallen away this year and is only blocking 7 shots per game compared to his career average of 10.7. Noah Vonleh has signed to help with the defense and add a little offense. Vonleh is a former 9th overall draft pick who has bounced around the league looking for a permanent home. He averages over 11 rebounds per 36 minutes and can defend effectively using his athleticism. Vonleh will be representing his seventh NBA team and played for both Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves last season.

In his first two games with the Nets Vonleh has only played 5 minutes. In his limited time on the court he has no points, one turnover and has committed two fouls. Brooklyn are hoping he can make a positive impact when up to match fitness. 

 

Factors to consider

When you can regularly score over 120 points and have superstars like Durant, Irving and Harden in your team anything can happen. Can they continue the production when the playoffs come round and points are harder to come by? The Brooklyn Nets need to prove the old saying ‘defense wins championships’ wrong, if they want to win it all. Can every game be a Harlem Globetrotters style shootout? There is still time for the team to gel together more succinctly, to improve in this aspect of the game. 

Player availability has slowed down the settling in process between the team’s superstars. They have played less than 50% of the games together. Irving and Durant only played together a handful of times before Harden arrived. As naturally gifted points machines this hasn’t slowed the team much in the points scored category but it has been more difficult to practice on defensive schemes. A healthy few weeks should see their all round game improve. 

With the trade deadline approaching the team have roster spots available and could find more assets to trade. A complementary centre with rebounding and blocking abilities must be at the top of the Nets trade list. Finding a player who can fit within the salary cap constraints and come at the right price could be difficult. 

 

Are The Brooklyn Nets Championship Contenders?

Despite the ongoing concerns about the team their record is 15-12, good enough for second place in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference. The Nets are almost certain to make the playoffs but then what happens? I’m going to sit on the fence and say ask me again at the end of March. By then we should be able to answer the question are the Nets championship contenders? 

 

We hope you enjoyed the article ‘Brooklyn Nets: Are They Championship Contenders?’ Will the Nets challenge for the title? Let us know!

 

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I enjoy watching and writing about sport. In the sport of Athletics I’m a runner, a coach and a million other things. I'm the race organiser of the Aykley Heads Cross Country in Durham City and another couple of events. I follow the NHL and NFL. Closer to home I support Durham County Cricket Club and Sunderland A.F.C. My photograph is a smiling Mark on a fabulous day for a run at the top of Dale Head in the Lake District.

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