How exactly would a triumvirate of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden work?

·5-min read

Smack dab in the middle of the Brooklyn Nets’ logo is a basketball.

One basketball.

That’s the same number of basketballs used at one time in an official NBA game and, thus, the same number that Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden would have to share if Harden’s efforts to get Houston to trade him to Brooklyn were to actually work.

Yes, Harden to the retooled Nets is the NBA rumor du jour. At least that’s what Harden wants. And it’s also what Durant wants, or else this would have gone nowhere.

Durant has sway in Brooklyn. He wanted Steve Nash hired as head coach despite no coaching experience, and Steve Nash was hired as head coach. Considering the many years of futility associated with Nets basketball, listening to the council of KD isn’t necessarily a bad idea, mind you.

All of this is happening, of course, as Brooklyn is still patiently waiting to see (a) how Durant looks after his Achilles injury cost him an entire season and (b) how he jells with Irving. That already provided a lot of intrigue for the upcoming season.

Now this? Now we just toss in the NBA’s most prolific scorer the past three years into the mix?

It all looks good on a spreadsheet but there is that thing about one basketball … not to mention the question of why Houston would want to trade its star and what exactly Brooklyn even could send back to make it worth the Rockets’ while.

Let’s start with this: For Brooklyn, this would be an extremely bold roll of the dice and that’s before it would presumably deal away significant depth and draft picks to get James Harden. It would be an all-in push to win a championship in the next couple of seasons, an aggressive play to maximize the 32-year-old Durant while he’s still presumably in his prime.

Houston Rockets' James Harden, left, guards Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Could James Harden and Kevin Durant be teammates once again? (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The past three years Harden led the league in scoring with 30.4, 36.1 and 34.3 points per game. He also never shot better than 44.9% from the floor or 36.8% from three. Much of his game comes from isolation, the ball stopping in his hands and then Harden making a play. His usage rate was the highest in the league in 2018 and 2019, and third in 2020.

That can be fine if you’re the undeniable first option on an offense — the two players that had higher usage rates last season were Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

Neither had a Durant or an Irving on his team, though. Each ranked in the top 20 in the league in usage rate in 2019, the last year KD played.

Durant and Harden played together in Oklahoma City for three seasons, even reaching the NBA Finals before losing 4-1 to Miami in 2012. KD and Russell Westbrook were the stars though, and Harden was the sixth man. There was a pecking order. Harden averaged just 10.1 shots a game that year in the Finals (Durant averaged 19.7) and his usage rate (21.6) was nearly half of what it was in 2018-19 in Houston (40.5).

Besides, all of them were young and trying to establish their identities.

After Harden was dealt to the Rockets in 2012, Durant and Westbrook could never quite make it work (although blowing a 3-1 Western Conference finals lead to Golden State in 2016 wasn’t a systemic failure). Durant then went on to coexist smoothly with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State.

Harden reunited with Westbrook last year in Houston, but a small-ball experiment petered out.

Could they figure out how to play together, with the mercurial Irving thrown into the mix? Would age be the great equalizer? Is anyone playing any ... defense?

Harden’s goal is to win an NBA championship. That’s pretty much it. He has already turned down a two-year contract extension offer from Houston that would have made him the league’s first $50 million-per-year player.

So this isn’t about the money. It’s about winning. And that can cause you to want to share the ball or commit to a team approach, especially when the other option is Durant.

Of course, even if the intentions are good, the reality may be different. Who is taking the shots? Can Harden get into one of those grooves without repeated isolations at the top of the key? Isn’t Durant better in a free-flowing offense like he enjoyed in Golden State? And Irving wants the ball in his hands and is never shy about either taking pressure shots or speaking his mind.

This goes badly and you get a winter of ESPN trying to analyze body language following some pathetic blown lead in Detroit or Charlotte on a random February night.

Then there is Nash, who has no track record as a coach but as a player was deft at making slow, smart decisions in the middle of a chaotic offense. Perhaps this slightly outside-the-box hire would be able to make this work smoothly.

If it does, Brooklyn would be a title contender. Perhaps a favorite. That’s a big if, though.

Even bigger is just getting this done. Harden is under contract in Houston for two more seasons. The Rockets don’t have to do anything right now, and it’s not like Brooklyn is sitting on some top-five draft picks or a young star they can dish away.

The market for Harden, if the Rockets were to shop him, would presumably get priced out of the Nets’ budget, unless they unloaded nearly everything in the cupboard and the future to ride or die with a triumvirate.

So who knows if it gets done, or if it works if it does.

Sure would be interesting to watch though, at least as long as there is still only one basketball used at a time.

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