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One Basketball Might Not Be Enough for the New-Look Nets

With James Harden, the Nets now have an elite trio of ball-dominant playmakers. Yet there are key differences in how Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving thrive that could allow this grand experiment to work.

The Nets’ jaw-dropping trade for James Harden has initiated a grand experiment never before tried at this scale: Can three ball-dominant playmakers coexist after spending most of their careers in offenses tailored to their needs?

“Whenever you’re meshing personalities, we’ve got to wait and see how this all fits on the floor and so forth,” Sean Marks, the Nets general manager, told reporters Thursday. “I think these guys have given us the right answers. They’ve said, hey, they want to play together. They can see this fitting.”

Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving aren’t the Nets’ first starry trio, much less the N.B.A.’s: Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James won two championships in Miami; Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce won one in Boston.

But to give a sense of how unusual this new trio is, it’s useful to note just how much they have touched the basketball in their careers. A good measure of this is usage rate, which shows the percentage of a team’s plays taken up by a player’s shooting or turning the ball over. A-level stars are usually in the mid-to-high 20 percent range. Durant is at 30.2 percent, and Irving at 29.3 percent. But Harden is on another level: He is one of two players in N.B.A. history to reach 40 percent for a season, which he did in 2018-19 — 40.47 percent. The other was Russell Westbrook, Harden’s teammate last season, who did so in 2016-17.

In the 1980s era of superteams, the Los Angeles Lakers teammates Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar never came close to reaching 30 percent. Larry Bird did so once with the Boston Celtics, barely. His teammate Kevin McHale, one of the best post players ever, didn’t get to 25 percent. Michael Jordan, at 33.26 percent, is the leader in career usage rate. His sidekick, Scottie Pippen, was more of a facilitator than a scorer (22.52 percent).

The games of Harden, Irving and Durant overlap in many ways, but with key variations. All three are phenomenal ballhandlers, for example, but they get their points in different ways.

To break down how they may work together on the Nets, we are going to mostly use stats from Durant’s last full season in the league (2018-19), when he was playing with Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, another ball-dominant star. We will use last season’s numbers for Irving (20 games) and Harden.

The Nets’ stars have thrived on isolation basketball, meaning they take the ball and go against defenders one-on-one.

In Houston, under Coach Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets emphasized isolation as the rest of the league was moving away from it, often giving Harden the ball and having his teammates stand around waiting for him to create shots. Last season, 45 percent of Harden’s possessions were isolations, nearly twice that of Westbrook’s, the second most in the league.

It worked: Not only did Harden put up some of the best offensive numbers of any player ever, but the Rockets, during D’Antoni’s tenure from 2016-17 to 2019-20, were also a top offensive team. Now Harden will reunite with D’Antoni, who is an assistant under Nets Coach Steve Nash.

But instead of being the offensive engine, as he was for the Rockets offense, Harden will be one of three elite options. Even this season, without D’Antoni as the head coach, the Rockets have led the league in isolations, in part because of Harden. The Nets were ninth in that category going into Thursday’s play, though it’s reasonable to assume they would rank higher if Irving hadn’t been out for personal reasons (he hasn’t played since Jan. 5) and if Durant hadn’t missed three games because of coronavirus protocols.

Durant was in the N.B.A.’s top 20 in isolations, at 15.6 percent, in his last full season, still well behind Harden. This season, Durant is isolating less frequently than he was with Golden State (13.7 percent).

This is where the adjustment will be the biggest for all the players. Harden is used to not only receiving the ball — but also to holding it and being in full control.

Where Harden differentiates himself the most from Irving and Durant is in how much more likely he is to hunt for fouls and get to the line. Harden has averaged at least 10 free throws a game in seven out of the last eight seasons. He often frustrates opponents, sometimes by purposely locking their arms while making halfhearted shot attempts.

Irving is the opposite. He shies away from contact, opting to fade away rather than get hit. His career high in free throws per game came last season (5.1) when he played only 20 games. Durant has reached 10 per game just once in his career, but he has been better than Irving at getting to the line, averaging 7.7 foul shots a game in his career.

Harden is also the most likely of the three to attack the basket, increasing his chances of drawing fouls — 41 percent of Harden’s shots last year came from within 10 feet of the basket, compared with 27.9 percent for Durant and 34.9 percent for Irving, according to the N.B.A.’s tracking data.

The majority of all their shots tend to come from pull-up jumpers.

But Harden holds the ball the longest before shooting — 55.6 percent of his shots came after he held the ball for at least six seconds. For Durant, that figure was 28 percent, and it was 44.7 percent for Irving.

This was, in part, by design. In Golden State, Coach Steve Kerr insisted on constant ball movement, whereas in Houston, the system was set up for Harden to take his time and probe defenses. But even this season, Durant’s shots after six seconds have come at about the same rate as they did in Golden State.

After Durant left the Warriors to sign with the Nets, he publicly complained about the motion offense the Warriors ran, saying that it was limited.

Durant is the only one of the three who has much success posting up, or inclination to do so. Harden and Irving have spent their careers receiving the ball outside the 3-point line, whereas Durant, because of his height, has been able to make an impact in the paint. In the 2018-19 season, 10.6 percent of Durant’s shots came from post-ups, and he made half of them. This year, Durant is posting up slightly less (9.3 percent), but he has been more efficient, hitting 64.7 percent of these shots.

Harden likes to run in transition, more so than his new co-stars. In addition to isolations, fast-break scoring accounts for a good portion of Harden’s points. Last season, Harden was third in the league in fast-break possessions per game. Durant was ninth during his last season with the Warriors.

But Irving certainly has the ball-handling skills to move the ball in transition the way Harden and Durant do, but he has preferred to navigate in the half-court, using his crossover and spin moves to get around defenders rather than pushing the ball up the floor quickly.

Latest Posts

Tommy Gainey shoots 65, leads Puerto Rico Open

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico -- Tommy Gainey birdied five of the last seven holes at breezy Grand Reserve for a 7-under 65 and the...

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Webb Simpson, Matthew Fitzpatrick share lead at WGC-Workday Championship at The Concession

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