Nets’ new formidable trio undercuts Nash’s loveable underdog style

Brad Fay is joined by ESPN's Kendrick Perkins to break down the blockbuster trade that sent James Harden from the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets.

Steve Nash’s basketball identity has always been the underdog – the undiscovered, underrated kid from the far reaches of the continent who exceeded everyone’s expectations.

His was the kind of sports story that could serve as an inspiration to young dream chasers of any stripe. There were even lessons to be learned which – if applied – could make you a better version of your adult self.

It was nice while it lasted. The gritty kid from Victoria, B.C. who made it to the Hall of Fame by doing more with less is now – in basketball terms -- the trust-fund dude who suddenly has to run the family business with shareholders breathing down his neck.

He’s been given every toy he could ever want, but now he’s got to fashion them into tools that work.

With his playing days behind him Nash decided to turn his passion for competition and his basketball genius to coaching and in short order has found himself at the heart of one of the NBA’s great soap operas – of which we’re spoiled for choice – as the ringleader for the basketball circus known as the Brooklyn Nets.

The latest drama will resonate for some time as on Wednesday Brooklyn became the winner in the race to acquire James Harden – the three-time defending scoring champion, former MVP and now likely the second-best player on his new team, behind his old pal Kevin Durant.

The Nets were in championship-or-bust mode the minute that holdovers Irving and Durant showed up to training camp in good health.

But now?

It’s championship or busted.

The Nets traded guard Caris Lavert and centre Jarret Allen -- two highly regarded members of no-stars the team that had made the playoffs the past two seasons – to Houston and Cleveland, respectively. The Nets also traded four future first-round picks in (their own picks 2022, ’24, 26, and the Bucks’ 2022 first) as well four first-round picks swaps, allowing the Rockets to change places with them in the 2021, ’23, ’25 and 27 drafts. All of the picks are unprotected.

If the Nets don’t win now, they won’t be winning in the future, seems a safe bet.

In Harden and Durant, Nash can call on players who have won three and four scoring titles, respectively, while Irving is averaging 27.3 points and 6.3 assists in the 27 games he’s suited up for Brooklyn this season and last.

Even by the standards of the ‘Big Three’ era, where teams have moved heaven and earth to bring three compatible stars together in pursuit of a championship, the Nets trio is formidable.

The Nets are so loaded there will be nights when Harden will be third on the pecking order, depending on if and when now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Irving ever returns to work.

But one casualty of the process is the feel-good element that always made Nash’s team’s easy to cheer for — the comradery he helped foster as the point guard who lived to share and the way his clubs in Dallas and Phoenix kept getting knocked down only to come back for more — is long gone.

The insta-contender Nets have become the NBA’s evil empire and Nash — who many felt jumped the line in being hard for one of the league’s plum jobs without a whiff of experience — its spokesman and leader.

There are worse problems to have, but Nash will have problems. Durant is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and looks to be in peak form again, but for all his on-floor brilliance the seven-footer with point guard skills is also known for leaving his team in Oklahoma City to join the Golden State Warriors juggernaut – after the Warriors eliminated the Thunder in seven games in the 2016 playoffs. Durant then left the Warriors in a pout in 2019 – even after leading them to two titles – in part, because he felt like the franchise would always be first identified with incumbent star Steph Curry.

Meanwhile, Irving has worked his way out of both Cleveland and Boston and is currently AWOL from the Nets with questions being raised about how committed he is to being an NBA player at all and Irving doing little to dispel them.

Harden ended up with the Nets because he essentially went on strike in Houston in order to force a trade from an organization that had tailored their team in his image for the past eight years. Yet for all his statistical prowess – he’s averaged 32.4 points, 8.8 assists and 6.7 rebounds over his past four seasons, having finished no worse than third in MVP voting over that run – he never led the Rockets past the Western Conference Finals and his record of post-season no-shows is almost as noteworthy as his regular-season stats chasing.

When it became evident that a title wasn’t in the cards in Houston Harden – who has is being paid $40.8 million for 2020-21and has $92.5 million guaranteed over the next two years to come – decided to pull the chute.

“We’re just not good enough,” he said after the Rockets were blown out by the Lakers Tuesday night. “Chemistry, talent-wise everything … this situation is crazy, I don’t think it can be fixed.”

Did we mention the career-high usage rates for Harden, Durant and Irving are 40.5, 33.0 and 32.6, respectively?

Clearly, someone is going to have to make a sacrifice somewhere, but that seems to be a skill none of the Nets stars is all that familiar with.

Nash remains an idealist in that respect, but those ideals might be tested.

“Basketball is about playing together and being the best you can be,” said Nash before the trade was made official. “No matter who you are it’s about finding that commitment and balance within the team and to be greater than the sum of your parts. That doesn’t change, no matter what your team looks like.”

There are worse problems than finding a way for three of the most talented players of their generation to share the ball and maybe play a smidgen of defence, but unless there’s a title at the end of the season Nash will have a target on his back.

It’s the coach’s job to make talent work, and Nash’s team is one of the most talented ever assembled, at the top end at least.

As Nash himself noted, the NBA is a “star’s league” and now it’s up to him to coax the Nets trio into alignment. He might be the man for the job, but for this chapter of Nash’s career don’t expect anyone outside of Brooklyn to be cheering them on.

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