Brooklyn Magazine: James Harden and the Nets: Reason to celebrate or just bad déjà vu?

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Harden shoots over John Wall in 2016

The Brooklyn Nets received a late Christmas present this year (no doubt delayed by Covid) when it was announced Wednesday that superstar James Harden had been traded from the Houston Rockets to Brooklyn. The trade involved four teams—the Nets, Rockets, Pacers and Cavaliers—and catapulted the Nets to second place, just behind last year’s champion Los Angeles Lakers, as favorites to win the NBA championship, a feat they have never accomplished in the NBA.

On the surface the deal seems like a no-brainer. A former MVP, Harden is still relatively young at 31, and one of the best players in the game with a career average of 24.8 points per game. He’s a three time NBA scoring champion and while playing for the Rockets he has outscored every other player in the league, including Lebron James, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.

The Nets will give up some good players, including Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs and Taurean Prince, not to mention a boatload of draft picks, but conventional wisdom says when you have a chance to get a player of Harden’s caliber, it’s hard to pass up. The trade puts Harden back on the same team with Kevin Durant—the two were part of the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2009 to 2011—and gives the Nets two former MVPs. The combination, along with enigmatic player Kyrie Irving, gives them arguably the best starting three in the game right now.

But—there’s always a but!—before you go popping bubbly at Barclays Center, let us pop your bubble: The Nets tried this same thing before, and with disastrous results.

In 2013 the Nets traded some players and a bunch of draft picks to the Boston Celtics for aging superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The goal was to win a championship ASAP. It didn’t work. The Nets only made it to the second round of the playoffs before being beaten by a Miami Heat team that eventually went on to win the championship that year.

The Nets lost Pierce the next year, Garnett was never the player he was in the past and to add insult to injury Boston rebuilt their franchise with the draft picks they received from the Nets, including solid players Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and, ironically, trading one of the draft picks to acquire the aforementioned Kyrie Irving. Meanwhile, the Nets floundered once Pierce and Garnett left, and worse, they no longer had the draft picks to help them get back on their feet. The New York Daily News called it “The Worst Trade Ever.” And upon hearing the news the Celtics Wire had fun with the headline “Oops, They Did It Again” (From the Department of Great Ledes: “It’s almost like Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks channeled his inner Billy King and said, “hold my beer”)

“The situation in 2020 is … perhaps even more precarious,” writers USA Today’s Nick Schwartz . “The Eastern Conference is loaded with teams capable of making a run to the Finals, and the Nets just went from being one of the most well-rounded and deep teams considered among the elite to being top-heavy.”

There are some differences, however, between 2013 and 2021. Harden is five years younger than Pierce was when the Nets and Celtics made the trade in 2013, and Durant is five years younger than Garnett. The Nets still have Joe Harris and DeAndre Jordan on their roster. And there is no Miami Heat in the picture the way there was in 2013, when the team featured Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

The Nets were predicted to be among the top teams in the Eastern Conference before the trade and now, according to Vegas, they have become the favorite.

It could still be anyone’s jump ball. Kyrie Irving has taken some time for ‘personal reasons’ and his return is unclear. Durant missed the entire 2019-2020 season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Spencer Dinwiddie, who just underwent surgery to repair a partially torn ACL, is temporarily sidelined.

But as the Nets now boast three undeniable superstars, their biggest challenge may be getting each of these scorers ample opportunity to shoot. But it gives Nets fans solid reason to hope. And what could be better to wash away the bitter taste of 2020 with a first-time NBA Championship right here in Brooklyn?

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