As the situation with the Houston Rockets unraveled in the past few days, the Brooklyn Nets swooped in and pulled off an enormous trade to land James Harden. They gave up an enormous amount of draft capital, as well as paring the depth significantly by sending out Caris LeVert, Taurean Prince and Jarrett Allen.
Their hopes now will rest on their ability to make something magical out of three of the most unique and effective offensive players in NBA history.
What makes James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving such a unique combination?
The obvious question for the Nets is how to share the ball and divide offensive responsibility between three players who have all grown accustomed to working as the No. 1 (or at least No. 1A) option for their teams. All three rank within the 20 highest career usage rates, among players who have played at least 10,000 minutes since the 1977-78 season, the first for which it’s possible to calculate usage.
But to really put that fact in context and understand the implications, you kind of need to zoom out and compare their numbers to the entire sample of 631 players who have been on an NBA court for at least 10,000 minutes since 1978-79.
You probably need to click and expand the photo to even distinguish between Irving and Durant’s lines there. Obviously, the idea of a Big 3 is nothing new and these groupings, usually by their very nature, involve high-usage offensive stars used to carrying the load for their previous teams. But even the trios this Nets core will be compared to can’t approach their outlier usage.
The graphs below show the same sample of players with career usage numbers, comparing the new-look Nets to the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen Celtics, the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Heat, the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Love Cavaliers and the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Kevin Durant Warriors. In each case, I’m using the career usage rates of the player up to the point in which the Big 3 was fully assembled. I’ve also shrunk the view a bit to make the focus players a bit easier to distinguish.
As you can see, none of these trios are even close to the Nets in terms of the complete cluster of high-value usage. The 2010-11 Miami Heat might be the closest comparison with Wade and LeBron both carrying career usage rates above 30 into that first season together. The difference is Chris Bosh as a third wheel, compared to Kyrie Irving. Among the 631 players in this sample, Bosh’s pre-Heatles career usage rate of 25.0 ranks in the 83rd percentile. Irving’s 29.3 usage rate to this point in his career ranks in the 97th percentile.
There’s also the issue of each player’s adaptability to an off-ball role. In the case of the 2008 Celtics, Ray Allen joined the team as a primary perimeter scorer but a major part of his offensive skill set was running off screens and spotting up around the perimeter. The same is true of Steph and Klay. Both Bosh and Love were comfortable posting against mismatches, leveraging space in the pick-and-pop or just spotting up for kick-outs. In each case, the third star who ended up taking the largest reduction in offensive primacy was simply leaning into an ancillary part of their offensive skillset.
That’s not really the case for any of the players in the Nets’ Big 3. Each has, at times, operated as a secondary scorer and creator, deferring to another talented teammate. But they were still primarily operating in the role of on-ball creator, and none has ever really experienced moving into a tertiary role and figuring out how to leverage their skills in that scenario. Durant is arguably the best suited for that role but he’s also, arguably, the most talented and it’s not clear that asking him to sacrifice is actually in the best interest of the team’s offensive effectiveness.
Any pairing of elite talents like this is bound to unfold in unexpected ways but this Brooklyn Nets experiment is literally something we’ve never seen before.