James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving return to action when the Brooklyn Nets host the Miami Heat live on Sky Sports Main Event and Arena from 12.30am in the early hours of Sunday morning.
By Cameron Hogwood
“We can sit here and talk about who has the best matchup, okay I had the best matchup but I was going to give that ball to Michael Jordan,” said three-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls, BJ Armstrong.
A relatively straight-forward decision over who the Chicago Bulls would hand the ball to with the game on the line in the 90s is anything but that for the 2021 Brooklyn Nets. Not with James Harden’s recent arrival combining three of the NBA’s most dominant ball-handlers in one system.
There were promising early signs for Harden’s production alongside Kevin Durant as the pair inspired the Nets to victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, before Collin Sexton and the Cleveland Cavaliers overshadowed a first look at the trio’s synergy upon Kyrie Irving’s eagerly-anticipated return.
For Armstrong, first-year head coach Steve Nash has a defining dilemma on his hands.
“Without question we’re all being seduced by the talent, as we should,” said Armstrong on Heatcheck. “These are three very talented young men, they’re incredible players. We’re all talking about the offensive side of the ball.
“Now when you put this talent together you’re talking about a team. And when I look at this team I go ‘okay if you’re a team, there has to be a leader, the distributor, the rebounder and so on’ and in the last moment of the game, who’s going to get this ball?
“Here’s the thing that can mess up this team. If coach Nash has an opportunity to give the ball to one player win, lose or draw, what will the other two think?”
Harden became the first player in NBA history to record a 30-point triple-double on his debut for a team as he also put up 12 rebounds and 14 assists against the Orlando Magic. In his second game against the Bucks, he managed 34 points, six rebounds and 12 assists, producing excellent hustle to collect the rebound from his own missed three-pointer before teeing up Durant for a clutch game-winning triple with 36.8 seconds remaining.
Discussion over Nash’s job of harnessing their egos becomes even more interesting when considering all three of Harden, Durant and Irving sit in the top 20 of career usage rate, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
They also account for three of the four highest usage rates in clutch time over the past 10 seasons, with Irving leading the way on 42.5.
He marked his return to action with 37 points in Wednesday night’s 147-135 defeat to the Cavaliers, alongside Durant’s 38-point, 12-rebound double-double and Harden’s 21-point, 10-rebound and 12-assist triple-double as Sexton stole the show with 42 points, including 20 straight in overtime.
Irving followed up with a game-high 38 points alongside 19 points and 11 assists from Harden as the Nets fell to the Cavs again on Friday night, losing 125-113 in the absence of the rested Durant.
“There is an unwritten rule in this league, you better get that ball to your best player and live with the results, that’s a fact.,” continued Armstrong.
“We can sit here and talk about who has the best matchup, okay I had the best matchup but I was going to give that ball to Michael Jordan.
“Here’s another concern I have, they are playing in a system that has never won before. The difference between LeBron James and other teams is LeBron James has established leadership and when they do win they all defend. They play in a system where there’s no doubt he’s going to handle that ball, even with Kyrie on that team (with the Cleveland Cavaliers).”
Brooklyn parted ways with center Jarrett Allen, guard Caris LeVert and forwards Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs, along with three first-round draft picks and four first-round pick swaps.
Besides winning the ball with the ball in their hands, between them the Nets trio must decide who will sacrifice themselves for the defensive good of the team. Not one of them could come up with an answer to Sexton’s dominance in mid-week.
“The most important thing, somebody is going to have to defend,” said Armstrong. “At some point here the game is going to come down to a defensive stop.
“I’m not sure right now where that’s going to come from, let alone if there is an injury, especially to their bigs. They only really have one big right now in DeAndre Jordan. There are a lot of questions.
“Do I like the team? I like the potential. The thing about watching this team is there is one word that really comes to mind with this trade – they have hope now. They really do. I like what it could be, but is it there? No. Is it a finished product? No.”
For all they gave up to bring Harden onboard, Los Angeles Lakers legend Shaquille O’Neal recently described the Nets as being in a ‘Championship-or-bust’ situation.
But with their only opportunity to gel right now coming at game time, Armstrong believes expectations should be lowered for the time being.
“I think in the modern era we are infatuated now with stats, infatuated with usage rates and all of these things,” he said. “But here we have a different situation. This is a very unique situation that these three men are in.
“We understand individually what they have done and what they can do individually on the court. All three of them currently are in a situation where they’ve got to figure this out and figure it out on the fly. They won’t practice, there’s no time for them to really develop any chemistry and the most important thing now in the NBA is depth.
“That’s what I’m really concerned about for this team, because when you have players and you’re just going to play them extended minutes, 35/36/37 minutes, okay you can do that in the playoffs.
“But if you’re going to do that in the regular season, especially in this type of environment that we’re currently in and then we’re going to have to say ‘let’s go and play and play at the highest level and let’s not practice’ while we have another guy who hasn’t played or been with the team and we don’t even know why, so I think in fantasy basketball that may work but in the real game they’re going to have to figure this out.”