Kyrie Irving is back. James Harden is three games into his tenure with the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant looks every bit like the top-three player he has been most of his career.
And so what, exactly, do we now know about this new-look, high-powered, utterly fascinating Brooklyn Nets team?
Not a damn thing.
The Nets’ thrilling double-overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night — their first game with the K.D.-Beard-Kyrie trio playing together — tells us absolutely nothing. Same for the two previous games that featured Harden and Durant winning games, including a huge one against the Milwaukee Bucks, as Irving remained out for personal reasons.
If, reasonably, you believe the Nets’ Big Three is too overwhelmingly talented to doubt, there’s plenty at hand to reinforce your position. Harden and K.D. started 2-0 together, Kyrie’s return and whatever wrinkles must still be ironed out still required double-overtime to soil, and those three were (mostly) phenomenal together.
Durant was 12 of 25 for 38 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Irving dropped 37. Harden notched another triple-double, logging a 21-10-12 night.
That’s 96 points between them. Scary stuff.
But if, like me, you have more doubt than confidence in how this brew of stars will ultimately mix together, you can squint your eyes and still see what worries you. Harden missing some big shots, on cue, down the stretch. That trio, Kyrie in particular, at times playing one-on-one basketball as if out there without two other world-beaters — effective thought it might have been, a sign of possible fissures to come. And, of course, a loss to a Cleveland Cavaliers team with a fraction of the Nets’ brimming talent.
Brooklyn is the most fascinating team in the NBA, and what it will ultimately become — and how it ultimately will be judged — in the playoffs months from now remains a Rorschach test. Three games into Harden’s Brooklyn tenure (2-1), one game into Irving’s return (0-1), and the Nets are still very much whatever you thought they were a week ago when the trade went down.
Their combined talent is beyond any doubt. At times, watching K.D. and Harden, K.D. and Irving, K.D. and Irving and Harden — all of the possible combinations — was mesmerizing basketball featuring a breathtakingly talented collection of stars. And yet the Nets’ defense, toughness and ability to win games the hard way remain open questions, those particularly underscored Wednesday night in that 147-135 loss by recently jettisoned former Net Jarrett Allen. Allen’s 12-11 double-double doesn’t tell the whole story. He hit big shots, pulled down crucial rebounds, and for large chunks of the fourth quarter and those overtimes was the most timely and important player on the floor this side of Colin Sexton.
He also underscored just who, in the frontcourt, can be an effective part of what the Nets need outside of their scoring threesome.
It is a long and difficult process to fold in multiple superstars to a single team, a fact reinforced when it happens in the midst of a season — especially with one of those stars exiting his former team via an ugly divorce, and another leaving for a long stretch for nebulous personal reasons that sure seem to include open dissent toward his coach.
Take the 2010-11 Miami Heat. When LeBron James and Chris Bosh arrived to join Dwyane Wade in that year, that Big Three — perhaps the best comparison talent-wise for this Big Three — started 9-8. I covered that team, and it was nothing but angst, turmoil and frustration for a huge chunk of that season. And yet the trio ended quite successfully in the years ahead.
Beginnings can be misleading. In both directions. Take Harden’s history with the stars he has insisted on playing with.
In 2017, he wanted Chris Paul with him in Houston, and as was almost always the case with the Rockets, he got what he wanted. Their start was marvelous. They won their first 14 games together. They were off and running and were feared. But the story did not end in glory, and it did not end harmoniously.
So Harden got what he wanted, again: CP3 out, old friend and fellow former MVP Russell Westbrook in. Again, a great beginning: This time an 11-3 start and a sense that all the doubters, weary that two high-usage rate stars could coexist successfully, needed to readjust their thinking. Yet that tale, too, ended poorly, and acrimoniously.
So here we are. Harden again has what he wants. He, K.D. and Irving are the most talented NBA trio since Miami’s Big Three, at least on paper, and as with many things in the NBA the exhilaration of a few games does now equate to any kind of surety of what’s to follow.
Losing to Cleveland is not proof we doubters of this version of the Brooklyn Nets know what we’re talking about. But, once they go on a torrid tear of wins — and they will — that fact will similarly not bestow surety of what’s to follow come the playoffs.
The Nets are talented. The Nets are full of stars who struggle to get along, or remain happy, or win — often all three — with other stars. The Nets are the most interesting team in basketball but present the largest question mark. And the Nets, whatever unfolds in the weeks and months ahead, are only starting to reveal themselves.