When all cylinders were firing for every team involved in this new, ugly NBA season, arguably no team looked and played better than the Brooklyn Nets.
Kevin Durant was back – and not just playing basketball – but playing basketball the way he used to play it, showing no signs that his Achilles tear in the 2019 NBA Finals was going to slow him down. Kyrie Irving was a sorcerer, scoring in his usual variety of ways while making defenses pay for focusing too much attention toward Durant.
Caris LeVert was playing perhaps the best basketball of his career. He’d tied his career-high field goal percentage while handling an uptick in usage and raising his assist total from last season by 1.6 a game. He had limited his turnovers while handling the ball at a greater clip thanks a new, exciting role as a sixth man.
All of that action on the Nets court left Joe Harris completely wide open, where he’s cashed in threes at a 51.7% mark this season on 5.7 attempts per game. His number of shots could double and the same percent of them would likely go in.
The Nets – even at just 6-6 and seventh in the Eastern Conference – were killing it. They ranked fourth in offensive rating and 12th defensively – the latter more impressive as Brooklyn has been without its two stars for a majority of the season and has the character of a team that’d mail in on that side of the ball. They also lost Spencer Dinwiddie for the year – a key rotation player whose minutes and production fell into the laps of a struggling Landry Shamet and an inexperienced Bruce Brown. Plus, a first-time head coach in Steve Nash was charged with navigating all of this.
Now, the sailing through potentially tough times with little expectations turns into the opposite of that. The Nets now have James Harden instead of Caris LeVert, and thing are great. But the pressure is on.
The package it took for Brooklyn to land Harden is massive and unprecedented. For the third time in two years, we’ve seen the biggest draft pick package in NBA history moved along for a superstar (Anthony Davis, Paul George/Kawhi Leonard, and now Harden). Houston’s control of Brooklyn’s next eight picks represents the exact type of deal the Rockets wanted in exchange for its former MVP’s services, and like the Lakers’ deal for Davis did in 2019, makes up for the lack of a true star or young player coming back from Brooklyn (Houston was able to get that star though, as we’ll address soon).
For the Nets, Harden, those picks, LeVert and Jarrett Allen is all a risk worth taking. There’s few excuses for them to win the title now. Harden’s replacement of LeVert gives Brooklyn more reliable shooting, upgrades the its No. 1 ball-handling role and affects winning to a much higher degree (Harden’s not the best player on a championship team despite his definite status as a top 7-8 player in this league, but he doesn’t need to be that on this team).
Most fascinating about Harden’s move to Brooklyn is whether he or Irving is the point guard. That doesn’t mean one has to necessarily take a backseat, but these are both players that we’ve haggled with in the past about what their true position is. Harden’s been paired with multiple point guards in the past, only for those duos to result in failure. It would be interesting to see what Harden can do solely as a shooting guard, where he’s focused on purely scoring and not running an offense. Brooklyn offers him the opportunity to return to his Oklahoma City-like role, but then it’s Irving – a less gifted passer and perhaps more selfish player – deciding who gets the ball.
Flip things the other way around and the same problem emerges. Irving might be better suited just getting his own buckets rather than facilitating them out. Harden’s fantastic passing skills make him at the 1 work, but his historic usage rates and built-in habits of initiating possessions could lead to a clogging of the Nets offense, and fizzle Durant and Irving completely out of the scheme.
These scenarios are scary. Perhaps its the result of overthinking though. Brooklyn now has two of the seven best guys in the league, and three of the top 15 or so, with Irving able to elevate to Harden’s level with a sense of unselfishness. Those three guys can get any shot they want at any time.
There’s also a chance Brooklyn doesn’t have all of those three guys, and that the trade for Harden serves as insurance for that. Irving remains away from the team for personal reasons, with not only us but the Nets uncertain of when his return will be. That’s concerning – for Irving and for Brooklyn – and might have been the catalyst for the Harden deal. Durant’s playing at a level high enough to carry Brooklyn without Irving – though Dinwiddie’s absence would have meant a large ball-handling load for the forward coming off Achilles surgery.
Harden serves as a fall-back for that deathly scenario, and pairs Durant with his former OKC teammate to form perhaps the most potent guard-forward combo in the league.
If Irving’s absence is prolonged, the loss of LeVert may prove larger than expected. Brooklyn was getting by with its two stars and its sixth man. In a world without Irving, its down to just two stars and… Jeff Green.
The sending off of Jarrett Allen wasn’t shocking but also shows the true colors of Brooklyn’s intentions. They’re a star-based team now, and such means appeasing those stars as well. That means DeAndre Jordan plays, starts and closes, a laughable load considering Allen’s presence on the team prior to Wednesday. At least Brooklyn has eliminated controversy, but Allen’s youth and athleticism is a stark contrast from the low effort and washed look of Jordan. In addition, only receiving a second round pick from Cleveland in exchange for Allen is majorly selling low.
Brooklyn rid itself of literally all depth it possessed in Wednesday’s deal. The Rockets also got Rodions Kurucs – who’d get more shine if Harris wasn’t on the Nets and needs more minutes to show off his shooting stroke. At 22, he’s a rare young player on Houston’s roster that Brooklyn probably could have gotten away with keeping.
The Nets need the trade for Harden to work. Like, really need for it to work. Riding on its success is only eight first round picks and two young pieces sent away. For a team to make a deal like that, it has to be sure, have no second guesses and no questions about whether it was worth it.
Brooklyn is paying for its team to have a higher ceiling here. While the roster the Nets have is guaranteed on paper to a win a title, nothing in this league ever is exactly that. However, with Harden in hand, Brooklyn has more of a guarantee than it did previously. Issues and questions exist – violating the rules set above – but finding a team more talented and scary throughout basketball is tough. Nothing was guaranteed with Brooklyn’s prior roster construction, but the same adjectives could have been used on Tuesday – or any day before.
For as contentious as the situation got and as subordinated as the Rockets were, their dumping of Harden to the Nets resulted in one of the biggest returns ever for a star player, and gave Houston a rare mix of present and future value that keeps both timelines afloat.
First, Houston landed the star player they coveted in a Harden trade in Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who while likely not an All-NBA talent, is just outside that range and could elevate to it with health on his side. They chose Oladipo over LeVert, which is a purely win-now, upside-focused move with Oladipo’s impending free agency. While it won’t make Houston a contender this year, it at least gives Oladipo a familiarity with the city and team, which could make him more likely to stay next summer.
At that point, Houston could be an intriguing bunch. John Wall, Oladipo, Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker and Christian Wood certainly isn’t a bad team and would figure to be a solid playoff bunch with proper acquaintance. Wall’s renaissance this season has been a great story, and Oladipo’s shown his potential in the past. Wood is a monster, and Houston’s impressive and surprising youth (Jae’Sean Tate, Sterling Brown and Mason Jones) gives them more to work with than previously thought (That’s not accounting for Kurucs and Dante Exum, who’s suitable as a fourth guard).
If Oladipo doesn’t work out and leaves, Houston takes a swing at raising its stock for this season and potentially next while losing out on LeVert. As much as we’d like for LeVert to be that guy, he doesn’t have the ceiling Oladipo does.
The picks received from Brooklyn aren’t only incredible in a vacuum, but are massive for a Houston team that owes Oklahoma City at least two first round picks and potentially four depending on whether the Thunder want to swap spots this draft and in 2025. With this surplus, it gives Houston the flexibility to dump some of them into a trade for another star player someday – whether that be to maximize a roster hampered by Wall’s contract or well into the future. Either way, Houston now joins only two other teams in the league with a war chest this deep – New Orleans and OKC being the other two. That’s a rare class, and neither of those teams are currently better than Houston is right now.
After a slow start to the season on the Harden front, things blew up Tuesday night and quickly manifested. Despite what was a rapid escalation of talks, the Rockets miraculously talked themselves out of a negative leverage situation and set up its present and future in a matter of hours. Any doubts cast about the new front office in Houston headed by Rafael Stone were eliminated Wednesday, as a toxic situation stunningly turned into one of the league’s best.
The Indiana Pacers saw an opportunity as the Harden trade developed.
Oladipo has wavered on his commitment to the franchise ever since returning from his quad injury suffered in 2019. The summer and subsequent Bubble was marred by trade rumors, questions about opting in or out of Orlando and struggles with his play on the court.
Wednesday suggested that Indiana couldn’t trust Oladipo, and understandably so. With free agency upcoming, the Pacers couldn’t afford to lose him for nothing. Him bolting had to be their inkling, because a team as good as Indiana is – with as much promise and potential, too – doesn’t trade their potential best player like this without real cause.
But the Pacers did what they had to do, and made out quite well. While Oladipo might reduce their ceiling thanks to his perimeter shot creation and gamer attitude on both ends, LeVert brings a similar offensive prowess even if it’s a tad less impactful. The defense isn’t there with him, but a lack of LeVert on the roster leaves Indiana with just Malcolm Brogdon outside the paint to create shots for himself and others.
Contract situation aside, Oladipo could have been a bit expendable thanks to Domantas Sabonis’ emergence as a shot creator for himself. The nifty passer has thinned out, added explosiveness and gotten to the rim with ease so far this season, giving Indiana another weapon to deploy late in games. Sabonis’ games just continues to evolve, and the Pacers are reaping the benefits of it.
The questions for LeVert entering Indiana revolve around what’s likely to be another change in role. He was thriving off the bench as Brooklyn’s sixth man – where he was given freedom to play his way, create and run the show. The Pacers are an organized team, with a sets revolving around Sabonis and Brogdon handling the ball. LeVert could emerge as the team’s go-to scorer if they need it, but how far does that ultimately get the Pacers?
LeVert’s likely going to be adjusting once again, which could lead to a decrease in performance. His high volume scoring will help mitigate the loss of TJ Warren, who figures to be out a “significant portion of the season,” according to ESPN. When Warren is back, Indiana has significant firepower between him, LeVert, Brogdon and Sabonis. In the meantime, Aaron Holiday likely slides into the starting lineup, balancing out efficiency issues LeVert may bring to the table.
Indiana sold high on Oladipo, and got out of losing him for nothing. The Pacers operated similarly to Houston, and acquired value out of a low-leveraged position. A lot of front offices justified themselves Wednesday, but the biggest surprise might be the group below.
The idea of the Cleveland Cavaliers acquiring yet another big man was silly.
Swamped with Andre Drummond, JaVale McGee, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., Thon Maker and the unanticipated Dean Wade, the last thing Cleveland needed was another front court presence.
But Jarrett Allen is different.
The Cavaliers had been operating two different timelines with their roster: the youthful backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland and the aging front-court with seemingly washed up veterans.
It had worked. Cleveland has been playing way better ball than expected this season, mostly thanks to the tenacious defense of rookie wing Isaac Okoro and the dynamism of Sexton and Garland. Drummond is also partially responsible, turning himself into player that could find himself on a contender by the trade deadline.
Still, the ceiling on that squad was low. Cleveland has routinely played lineups with three or four of the players listed above together, with Nance Jr. playing at the 3 or even the 2.
Now, the Cavaliers have a lineup of the future in place, with Allen’s 22-year-old frame at the center of it. By the time Love’s contract is up, Drummond is moved and McGee is gone, Cleveland will have a young, solid eight man rotation – with one more wing being the missing piece.
The trade was a no-brainer for the Cavaliers, as Allen was acquired for the price of a second round pick. Allen’s capable of being the starting center on a Finals contender as a 22-year-old, and Cleveland got him essentially for free.