The Nets dropped their sixth straight game Wednesday night, and in so doing fell to sixth in the Eastern Conference standings, a troubling game-and-a-half from the play-in zone. It was their seventh loss in nine games played since Kevin Durant was shelved two weeks ago with a knee injury. Most of those losses have been respectable—five have come on the road, and six have come against teams with records over .500—but the loss Wednesday night was to a Sacramento Kings team that could be described, generously, as puke. Brooklyn’s present losing streak is the NBA’s longest active one, which is not where you want to be with perhaps the league’s glossiest roster.
It’s possible and maybe even advisable to remain chill about things when you are getting carved up by a succession of quality opponents, while adjusting to life without your best player, and while reintegrating a ball-dominant, cosmic-brained, part-timer of a point guard. For one thing, injuries are chewing through what was expected to be the East’s most fearsome rotation, so naturally the team’s rhythm is all screwy. Durant is expected to be out for at least another few weeks. Sharpshooter Joe Harris has been out since way back in November, and recently suffered a reported setback in rehab following ankle surgery. James Harden missed two games—both losses—last week with an achy wrist, and LaMarcus Aldridge has missed Brooklyn’s last two games following an ankle injury suffered in Saturday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors. That’s four-fifths of Steve Nash’s preferred starting lineup missing time with overlapping injuries during a particularly tough stretch of games. The Nets were simply not going to play anything close to their best basketball under these circumstances.
Still I feel that I must present the contents of the dreaded Other Hand, for what it holds is a big delicious pile of schadenfreude. When, say, the brave and heroic Cleveland Cavaliers lose their top scorer and a couple key contributors to injury, well-meaning but low-wattage role-players like Cedi Osman and Dean Wade are pressed into larger roles, rotation spots are filled with true Guys like Lamar Stevens and Brandon Goodwin, and the team holds on for dear life until real reinforcements arrive, which may never happen. Brooklyn’s roster Wednesday night against the Kings was in rough shape—Kessler Edwards might be fab but he’s a long way from Nash’s first or second choice as a starter—but for the most part the rotation featured stable veterans. Importantly, those veterans were oriented around James Harden and Kyrie Irving, and the whole idea of a Big Three is if you lose any one of them, you still have a Big Two that most other teams—most notably the Sacramento Kings—would kill for.
Unfortunately, Harden and Irving were pure crud juice in the loss to the Kings, which at least on paper looked like a reprieve in an otherwise brutal stretch of schedule. Irving scored 14 points on 15 shots in 37 minutes; Harden, who may still be struggling with discomfort in the wrist, was held to a shocking four points on 11 total shots, in 37 minutes of his own. The duo combined for 10 turnovers against just seven made buckets, and the Nets posted an appalling 96.0 offensive rating with Harden on the floor. The strain of playing without Durant, playing like a bunch of bullcrap, and losing, is starting to show. Wednesday night Harden lamented the lack of consistency in Brooklyn’s performances, and identified rotation continuity as a significant culprit: “We just got a lot of different things internally—lineups, we haven’t had no continuity yet. So it’s just one of those things where you got to keep going. There’s nothing else to do but keep going, keep pushing forward.” You will note that Harden did not identify lack of star-power or seven-foot world-destroying basketball unicorns; what is upsetting Brooklyn’s qi, in his view, is a frustrating lack of continuity.
Harden was the one who stunk worse Wednesday night, but it’s worth remembering that he’s pulled some extremely unsexy lineups—and occasionally some downright grim ones—to really extraordinary heights during his career as a solo superstar. His four points Wednesday night leap off the page, but the more worrying number might be the 11 total shot attempts. Harden’s usage this season (27.7 percent) is the lowest it’s been since way back in 2014, and is a ridiculous 12 points lower than during his peak in Houston, when he was a perennial MVP contender. While Harden can absolutely make it work as a co-creator, shifting from a two-star system with an all-court multi-positional monster like Durant to a puny eccentric like Irving will necessarily require some major adjustments. But 11 shots on 20 percent usage in 37 minutes, in a loss, is glaring, and under normal circumstances if Harden chalked it up to a lack of lineup continuity, his team would simply focus all efforts on hammering out something like a stable rotation. Of course, here is where you will note that Brooklyn’s circumstances are a long, long way from normal, and not simply due to injuries.
Irving, whose refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to factor hugely in the continuity problem, said he “respect[s] James’s opinion,” but focused in on Harden’s growing frustration with continuing to talk about the problem: “The ‘get better’ jargon that we consistently use, whether it be here talking with you guys or in the locker room, it can get mundane. It’s just natural for a human being to get tired of that. So game-to-game we’re feeling like we’re coming out with some moral victories if we lose but we’re just tired of that. So I’m definitely on the same boat in terms of that.” It is Irving’s stated position that the Nets must work on “getting closer as a group,” that for them to overcome their troubles they’ve “just got to get closer as a group a little bit.” To me this is a funny thing to say when your own stubbornness is preventing you from being a full-time participant in team activities, but obviously what I must do instead of laughing derisively is simply respect an individual’s personal choice.
Here’s where this all gets darkly funny: Four of Brooklyn’s next five games are on the road, where they are 2–5 since Durant’s injury, and three of those road games are against teams well ahead of the Nets in the standings. Seems bad, yes? No! The closest the Nets will get to a full rotation between now and Durant’s return will come while they’re on the road, unless or until someone invents a vegan COVID-19 vaccine and Irving finally gets the jab. When they return to Brooklyn for a nationally televised tilt with the surging Boston Celtics on Feb. 8, Irving will be watching the game on TNT from the comfort of his couch, and Nash will be looking to rookie Cam Thomas for supplementary playmaking duties while Harden takes on an outrageous, Rockets-esque offensive burden that his trade from Houston was intended to eliminate. Most teams look forward to going home; for the Nets, returning to Brooklyn means more of the roster scrambling that is upsetting their rhythm and driving Harden into a state of frustrated grouchiness.
The East is deeper than it’s been in a while, but what it’s deep with is mediocrity, and the Nets are not yet in any real trouble, even if their current skid plunges them into play-in territory. Sooner or later, Durant will return, and he alone can solve an awful lot of problems. But he can’t solve Brooklyn’s continuity troubles. This is what it means to have a part-time superstar. Instead of enjoying the normal benefits of employing a Big Three, the Nets are enduring the torments of utilizing a Big Two-and-a-half.