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James Harden to the Nets, but Was It Worth It?

On January 13, ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted, “Brooklyn [is] acquiring James Harden in a three-way deal with [the] Cleveland [Cavaliers]. Caris LeVert, Dante Exum, Rodions Kurucs, four 1st round picks – including the Cavs’ 2022 first via [the Milwaukee] Bucks — and 4 Nets pick swaps to [the Houston] Rockets. Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince to Cavs.”

This trade shook the entire NBA, and many people immediately assumed that the Brooklyn Nets acquiring the one-time Most Valuable Player had made the team the favorite to come out of the Eastern Conference and earn a place in the NBA Finals. While on paper, the Nets having Kyrie Irving who is averaging 27 points per game this season, Kevin Durant who is averaging 30 points a game, and James Harden who is averaging 24 points per game may make it seem like they are unbeatable, the situation is much more complicated than that. 

On the day of the trade, the Nets’ record stood at 7-6, and the team was in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Considering how good the team was expected to be after adding Irving and Durant who, combined, have sixteen all-star game appearances and have both won NBA titles, this was quite an underwhelming start to the season.

Nets’ general manager Sean Marks knew a change had to be made if the team was going to be a championship-contender in the 2021 NBA season, and he certainly made one. By trading away Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince to the Cavs, as well as Caris Levert (later traded to the Indiana Pacers), Rodion Kurucs, three first-round draft picks (2022, 2024, and 2026), and four first-round swap picks (2021, 2023, 2025, and 2027) to the Houston Rockets, the Nets made a trade that will end up affecting them for the next seven years. Not only did the Nets practically give up their entire bench in Allen, Prince, and Levert, but the team has also traded away its future by giving away up to seven years worth of draft picks.

I believe that giving up three players who have had very promising starts to their seasons (Allen, Prince, and Levert) all for James Harden is ridiculous. While there is no doubt that Harden is one of the league’s best players—having eight all-star game appearances and being named the league’s best player in the 2017-2018 NBA season— it is very difficult to tell whether or not he will be able to gel with Irving and Durant. While James Harden’s stats have hovered around an incredible 35 points per game, his turnover stats have been abysmal. By averaging just under five turnovers per game in the past two seasons, Harden demonstrates that he is not taking care of the ball and that there is a lack of chemistry between himself and his teammates. With Irving averaging over two turnovers per game, and Durant over three per game, the Nets’ new big three alone is averaging around ten turnovers per game. If the Nets are to win more games, taking care of the ball is something that Head Coach Steve Nash is going to have to pay very close attention to. 

Even if the big three are able to complement each other on the court and take care of the basketball, the Nets have completely lost their depth and will likely struggle to find points from others. With Allen, Prince, and Levert, the Nets could score and defend without Irving and Durant on the court. Allen is averaging ten points, 11 rebounds, and over one block a game, Prince is averaging eight points and is a decent 3-Point shooter (35.1%), and Levert is averaging 18 points and six assists per game this season. These are all players that the Nets could rely on during the game—deciding possessions, whereas now the team must rely on its three superstars alone to carry them to an NBA championship. 

Since adding James Harden to the team, the Nets’ offensive stats have been incredible, yet their defense has been their Achilles’ heel. The Nets’ offensive efficiency rating (points scored per 100 possessions) since acquiring Harden leads the entire NBA at 122.6. While scoring has proved to be no issue for the Nets, the team has been losing games due to its poor defense. Once James Harden joined the team, its defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) sits at rock bottom in the NBA at 119.9. 

This past Sunday, the Nets lost to the Washington Wizards, the team with the worst record in the league. To no surprise, the game was high-scoring, and the Nets had a 146-141 lead with 13 seconds remaining in the game. Having a two-possession lead, the Nets simply needed to run the clock out and make free throws. 

However, with ten seconds left, Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal connected on a 3-point shot cutting the Nets lead to two. With Durant inbounding the ball, there was a miscommunication between him and fellow Nets player Joe Harris, and the Nets ended up turning the ball over, allowing Russell Westbrook to sink the game-leading 3-point shot for the Wizards. The Nets eventually lost the game 146-149. The Nets’ lack of defense and frequent turnovers are aspects of their play that they cannot afford in playoff games. Without fixes to those issues, I do not see the team getting very far.

Overall, I think the Nets transitioned from an Eastern Conference contender to a team that will lack consistency throughout the rest of the season. Whether it is an injury, or sickness, if one of the Nets’ big three is unable to play, the Nets will find it very difficult to win. Only the future will tell if this trade was worth it, but for now, I am deeming the James Harden trade as a mistake by Sean Marks.