Brooklyn Nets Beg the Question: If a Big 3 Never Plays Together, Is It Really a Big 3?

The Brooklyn Nets are still considered favorites to win the NBA title. The confidence in the Nets comes from their star power. Brooklyn’s Big Three of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving is unmatched. At least, that’s how it appears on paper. However, the reality of the Nets and their trio grande is rapidly becoming an existential question for the ages.

Is a Big Three real if it only exists in theory? There are theories suggesting time travel is possible. That doesn’t mean DeLoreans are popping in every 30 minutes from 1985. Or, as Rick Pitino might sagely observe, Marty McFly is not walking through that door. The problem for Brooklyn is that neither are Durant, Harden, and Irving, at least not at the same time.

Las Vegas still loves the Brooklyn Nets

Vegas Insider says the Brooklyn Nets are plus-250 to win the 2022 NBA championship. Those are the best odds on the board, ahead of the Golden State Warriors (plus-450), Milwaukee Bucks (plus-700), and Phoenix Suns (plus-800). Then again, the Los Angeles Lakers are still plus-1,200. Much like voters in college football polls, it’s tough to change the bookmakers’ minds.

Entering their Jan. 12 late-night show at Chicago, the Nets are 14–4 on the road. That’s tied with the Suns for the best in the NBA. Elite teams separate themselves from the pack by winning on the road (we’ll overlook the whole 11–10 at home thing for the moment).

The last time a team without a legitimate superstar won an NBA title was the Detroit Pistons in 2004. They had stars. Heck, they even had a Hall of Famer in Ben Wallace. But no one in that group could ever be classified as a superstar.

Brooklyn has three superstars. They just seldom have three superstars at the same time. Thursday marks the first anniversary of the Nets acquiring Harden from the Houston Rockets in a trade that seemed to include every NBA team (it was only four).

That created the Big Three. Trophies and accolades were supposed to line the road ahead for Brooklyn.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

The Big Three has seldom been together in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets added James Harden to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on Jan. 13, 2021. Yet one or more of them is nearly always in street clothes.
The Brooklyn Nets added James Harden to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on Jan. 13, 2021. Yet one or more of them is nearly always in street clothes. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Harden debuted for the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 16, 2021. However, that was not the debut for the new Big Three. Irving was in health and safety protocols and did not play in the 122–115 win over the Orlando Magic.

Instead, the Big Three’s debut was delayed until Jan. 20, a double-overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Injuries disrupted the route. Harden dealt with a hamstring injury, while hamstring and thigh injuries sidelined Durant for half the season.

Last season, the Big Three played eight games and 202 minutes together. The good news for Brooklyn was it was 6–2 with a plus-7.2 net rating with the trio intact.

The playoffs were more of the same. In 12 postseason games, the Harden-Durant-Irving combination was together for just six, totaling 130 minutes. They were plus-22.1 points per 100 possessions. Championships sprout from that level of performance.

But between Harden’s hamstring and Irving’s ankle, it wasn’t to be. In 71 regular-season and playoff games, the vaunted Big Three was together for 14.

The Brooklyn Nets haven’t been whole in 2021–22

Because of Irving’s resistance to getting vaccinated against coronavirus (COVID-19), the Brooklyn Nets kept him on the sidelines. The city of New York mandates vaccinations to use public gyms (which both Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden are classified).

Rather than have Irving part-time, they sent him home. That is until the team had a coronavirus outbreak in December. Of course, Irving tested positive on his intake exam and immediately joined the group in health and safety protocols. He debuted Jan. 5 against the Indiana Pacers and played 32 minutes.

As for the Big Three, it was together 17 minutes in that game. Their net rating was a ludicrous plus-45.7 (because small sample sizes are fun).

But when the team returned to the road on Jan. 10 in Portland, Harden sat out with a hyperextended knee. That means that in 39 games this season, Durant, Harden, and Irving have shared floor space in one of them. That’s it.

Adding injury to the mix, Irving sprained an ankle in the loss to the Trail Blazers. Both Harden and Irving were questionable entering their Jan. 12 game at Chicago.

Entering the game against the Bulls, the tally for the Big Three at 15 appearances in 110 regular-season and playoff games. With the group appearing in just 14% of the games the Brooklyn Nets have played since acquiring Harden, it’s a legitimate question: Is it a real Big Three or simply a theoretical one?

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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