When the Golden State Warriors replaced Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant, they probably became the most talented team that’s ever existed. There aren’t metrics for this kind of thing, but you were there, you get it: Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala. You can’t beat that lineup, and for two years, nobody did. Two titles, two Finals MVPs for Durant. They almost definitely would have won a third if both he and Klay hadn’t gone down with injury in the 2019 playoffs. And then that demi-era came to an end, in part because success was too easy, and Durant felt like he had to prove himself somewhere else.
Those Warriors teams and their dominance were boring as hell, and the only sort of interesting thing about them was that they didn’t ascend quite as high as you might’ve guessed considering they won 73 games, then swapped out a perfectly okay starting wing for the second-best player in the league. It turned out Golden State didn’t have all that much room to grow. It’s not that they didn’t improve—to be clear, no matter who you are, you want Kevin Durant on your team—but they didn’t explode. The offense stayed great; the defense got a little bit better. They handled their business in the regular season and then destroyed every opponent in the playoffs. (Save for that 2018 scare against the Houston Rockets.) It was some of the most awesome basketball anyone has ever played, if a little numbing, because the Warriors were already playing some of the most awesome basketball anyone has ever played, before Durant showed up.
This game has upper limits, is my point. There is a stratosphere in which more is not really more and the arithmetic begins to judder. So: Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden. It’s not as if the Nets were threatening the 2016 Warriors in terms of greatness, but they did already have two ball-dominant stars, one of which doesn’t play much defense, and they’ve now added the most ball-dominant star, who plays the least defense. There are only so many shots to go around and so much shot clock to chew while dribbling 30 feet from the basket. You might honestly feel better about the Nets’ title chances if they had added a lesser player who could fill in non-scoring gaps. Had Harden not landed in Brooklyn, he likely would have ended up in Philadelphia for a package that included Ben Simmons. I think I actually like the idea of Simmons on the Nets more than Harden. Burn this take if Brooklyn’s big three is averaging 90 combined points per game by mid-March.
The concentration of unpleasantness, at least, is spectacular. Harden’s deadpan robotics, Durant’s boundless capacity to feel wounded, and Kyrie’s supercilious starchild act is quite a combination. NBA friendships are hard to grasp from the outside. We simply cannot know how shallow or deep they run, what players think of each other as people versus what they make of them as fellow professionals. Is it telling that LeBron talked pretty regularly about playing with Carmelo but never made it happen, or just coincidence? James Harden demanded that the Rockets trade for Russell Westbrook last summer and that friendship almost immediately became a hostile working relationship. Whatever lobbying Durant was doing behind the scenes to get Harden to the Nets, whatever Kyrie thought of it, however serious either of them were about constructing this superbly strange trio of talents, it now exists and needs to function at a championship level. Harden is 31. Durant is 32. There’s not a long runway.
This is putting to one side whatever’s going on with Kyrie at the moment. He hasn’t played since last Tuesday, and as ever with Kyrie, his reasons are inscrutable. He has thrown a big old party for his sister’s 30th birthday (ugh) and appeared at a virtual campaign event for a progressive Manhattan prosecutor (cool, but you know, you can do that kind of thing on a night when the Nets aren’t playing). He’s floated through anonymous sources that he is prepared to sit out the entire season “if need be.” It’s unclear what… when did the concept of necessity enter the picture? So until further notice, Kyrie is (out — ???). Everything is on the table with him. He might miss the season; he might retire. He might be back this Saturday against the Magic. Measuring his intentions is impossible, in large part because he doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do, or what he’s trying to accomplish.
For the sake of simplifying an already complicated situation, let’s assume he comes back. That’s Kyrie, Durant, Harden, Joe Harris, and a bunch of replacement-level players. Jeff Green is in the mix. DeAndre Jordan got benched the other night. Perhaps you have strong feelings about Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, but you really shouldn’t. The Nets will inevitably attract a buyout guy or two later in the season, maybe figure out how to get a five besides DeAndre, but beyond those three stars and Harris, they’re going to holding the enterprise together with duct tape and paper clips. That’s fine as far as it goes. When you have topline players like Kyrie, Durant, and Harden, you don’t need much else. Just something from a handful of rotation-fillers, preferably some competent defense. You also need your topline players not to self-combust in a typhoon of neuroses, ego, bickering, and mental-emotional cataclysm but that much is obvious. Which isn’t to say that’s not exactly what’s going to happen.