Having a Big Three is great.
That is, if those players want it to be great.
And that’s the challenge in Brooklyn now, after agreeing to the trade that landed three-time reigning scoring champion James Harden from Houston: Getting Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, all individually great, to want to be great together.
A lot of futures and a lot of legacies depend on what happens.
Durant found a way to make it happen in Golden State when he played alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the way to a pair of NBA titles. It worked there because Curry and Thompson, more than happily, checked their egos at the door and made it seem like a seamless incorporation.
Harden never made the NBA Finals in Houston with big-time backcourt partners like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, plus didn’t even give it a chance this season alongside John Wall. He wanted a trade, stars who want trades almost always get their way, and after what amounted to a resignation speech on Tuesday night after a loss to the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers it was clear that he was never wearing a Rockets jersey again.
Irving won a title in Cleveland with LeBron James, but that relationship never was what it could have been — and nobody knows where Irving’s mind is at after now a week and counting of personal leave away from the Nets. He reportedly left for family birthday parties and a Zoom call to help organize a candidate’s campaign for district attorney in Manhattan. Oh, and that Zoom happened on a night that the Nets were playing.
At this point, it’s unclear when — or if — Irving will return to the Nets.
But give the Nets credit. They went all-in with this trade. They dealt away a rising standout in Caris LeVert and bet most of their foreseeable draft future — three first-round picks, at minimum — on the hope that Harden is the last piece needed on the way to a championship. He’s now reunited with not just Durant, another former teammate in Oklahoma City when they were starting out and still found their way to the 2012 NBA Finals, but also former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni as well.
D’Antoni is a Brooklyn assistant under first-year coach Steve Nash and isn’t shy about grabbing a clipboard and offering opinions in timeouts.
That said, turning a Big Three into the big trophy isn’t automatic.
And doing it during a pandemic with limited practices and seemingly inevitable breaks, makes it a stiff challenge.
James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were the trio that led Miami past those Thunder in the 2012 finals, getting a ring in their second year together (and one the next year, too). They lost the finals to Dallas in 2011 and needed to win two elimination games against Boston just to get out of the Eastern Conference on the way to that 2012 title.
While it took time for Miami to jell, it worked because Wade, the best player the Heat had ever known, stepped aside so James could be the first option. It worked because Bosh accepted playing third fiddle behind a pair of fellow future Hall of Famers. If any of those three balked at their respective roles, the Heat wouldn’t have those two titles.
The only way Brooklyn wins a title or two with this group is if Durant, Harden and Irving accept their roles now.
On paper, the infusion of talent could be astoundingly good.
— There are nine men in the history of the NBA with three or more scoring titles — and two of them now play for the Nets, with Durant’s four and Harden’s three.
— There are nine active players who have played more than 500 games and averaged at least 22.5 points; Durant, Harden and Irving are three of them.
But, and it’s a big but: All three are used to having the ball in their hands at an absurd rate; unless the NBA changes the rules and allows for multiple basketballs at once, that’ll obviously have to change. And unless the NBA allows six defenders, guarding them will be a problem as well.
“You can’t double-team all three of them,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.
Durant and Harden were great together, but that was nearly a decade ago and Harden wasn’t even a starter for those Thunder teams. Durant is a much bigger star now than he was then, and Harden’s rise has been meteoric since those days.
Harden should be happy; he got what he wanted. Durant should be happy; the Nets are better now than they were when he got there, without question.
But now they must wait and see if Irving wants to be part of this.
If he comes back and handles it the way someone like Bosh did in Miami, the Nets could be championship-caliber, quite possibly the favorites in a loaded Eastern Conference.
If not, maybe he should just remain on leave.
Because if one of the Nets’ new Big Three doesn’t buy in now, this could be a disaster.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org