First half summary: Just 13 games into the season, not satisfied with having two superstars, the Brooklyn Nets traded for a third, sacrificing depth and a bevy of future Draft picks to bring together the greatest trio of offensive talent that this league has ever seen. James Harden arrived and fit right in, averaging 25.5 points (on an effective field goal percentage of 59.7%), 8.7 rebounds and 11.4 assists in his 23 games with the Nets prior to the All-Star break. Though Kevin Durant has missed 18 (including 12 of the last 13) games, Brooklyn leads the league in offensive efficiency (118.2 points scored per 100 possessions), with the highest effective field goal percentage (58.8%) in NBA history.
Defense has been a work in progress. A lack of effort and cohesion on that end of the floor was holding the Nets back as they lost 10 games to Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Washington. On Dec. 10, they were a disappointing 14-12. But a loss in Detroit seemed to be a wake-up call and the Nets won 10 of their last 11 games before the break, beating the Warriors, Suns, Lakers and Clippers on a 5-0 West Coast trip. The defense was improved (to a certain degree) and they also cut down on turnovers.
Biggest question going into the second half: How good can they be defensively? With how overpowering the Nets’ offense is — in addition to Harden, Durant and Kyrie Irving, they also have the league’s best high-volume 3-point shooter — they probably don’t need have a top-10 defense. But they will need to be better than they are right now (26th in defensive efficiency, 18th over their 10-1 stretch to close the first half).
They’ve settled on a switch-everything scheme, which is less taxing on their stars and can flatten out opposing offenses. But it requires great communication and concentration from everybody on the floor. The Nets have another 35 games to get sharper on that side of the ball and just how much they can reduce mistakes in their switching could be the thing to watch over the next 10 weeks.
Playoffs or lottery?: The Nets are in a three-team battle for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, with three games remaining (all on the road) against the Milwaukee Bucks (2) and Philadelphia 76ers. Given the top-flight talent on the roster and the level that this team has played at in already beating every other elite team in the league, the goal is a championship. Seven weeks into the Brooklyn Big Three era, there have been no issues in regard to sharing the ball or the spotlight. And while Durant was dealing with a hamstring issue before the break, he seems fully recovered from the Achilles tear that kept him out last season.
Irving and Durant have rings, but Harden has not reached The Finals since 2012 and Steve Nash has yet to coach a playoff game. There will be tests along the way, and both the Bucks and Sixers are serious threats. But it’s fair to believe that the Nets will only get better, with Harden, Irving and Durant having played just 186 total minutes together. They have lineup versatility and could be a top destination for players who are bought out after the trade deadline. No matter what, they’ll remain the most fascinating team in the league.
— John Schuhmann