So a lot for the NBA’s newest incarnation of the Big Three. At Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline, the Brooklyn Nets traded James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two draft picks. The Nets had hoped that adding Harden to a mix of players including fellow former MVP Kevin Durant and seven-time All-Star Kyrie Irving would make them title contenders. Instead, the band died out in just over a year.
That the mix didn’t work out, frankly, wasn’t shocking. Acquiring Harden, who arguably deserved to win more than one MVP award during his time with the Houston Rockets, was always a barely calculated risk. Harden is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, but he came to Brooklyn after exhausting his welcome in Houston. Irving, meanwhile, forced a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and had spent his time with the Boston Celtics secretly planning a move to Brooklyn alongside Durant.
The Nets had hoped the talent on the field would outweigh any potential personality clashes. It wasn’t a completely ridiculous notion, but the mix only worked occasionally. Harden’s arrival paid instant dividends for the Nets, but he was limited by hamstring issues during last year’s playoffs, where the team lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. Any hopes of the team reuniting this season were dashed when Irving’s refusal to get a Covid-19 shot ensured he couldn’t play any games at home.
According to Joe Vardon of The Athletic, Harden’s second forced trade was at least in part because he and Irving – literally most of the time – couldn’t play together. In the article, Vardon cited unnamed sources that there was tension between the two, in part because Irving’s vaccination status was indeed hurting the team. With Durant out with an MCL sprain, the Nets have now lost their last 10 games and are eighth in the Eastern Conference.
As a result, the Nets were forced to bite the bullet and do what no other team has been willing to do all season long: trade for Simmons. Simmons, an exceptionally gifted defender with an inexplicable disdain for shooting the ball, has spent the entire season so far after a disastrous performance in the playoffs last year ended all his chances of staying at Philadelphia. He’s still just 25, a three-time All-Star with plenty of upside, but the Nets may have just traded one headache for another.
But that’s what the Nets do. They play. It was a high-risk, high-reward strategy to bring Harden into the mix in the first place, but they did what they think NBA teams need to do to win a championship. That’s what you do in the league: you try to land multiple superstars by any means necessary, surround them with affordable talent, then hope everyone is healthy come playoff time.
The Big Three concept originated in Boston in the 1980s when Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish led the Celtics to three championships. For our purposes, the modern design dates back to a later Celtics team, the 2008 champions which included Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. They provided a blueprint for the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat teams, which made it to four consecutive NBA Finals between 2011 and 2014, winning twice.
James replicated that success with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he teamed with Irving and Kevin Love. The Golden State Warriors then went above and beyond, adding Durant to a roster that already included a local Big Three in Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. With the exception of the San Antonio Spurs victory over the Heat in 2014, the three franchises represented every championship from 2012 to 2018.
Winning championships by loading star players is not an NBA-centric concept. It has existed in American sports at least since the New York Yankees treated other MLB franchises as their own personal farm teams – and further, Real Madrid. Galacticos are perhaps the most famous example in football. It happens even in the NFL, as the Los Angeles Rams proved by making this Sunday’s Super Bowl thanks in part to a string of game-winning trades.
Still, the 2010s arms race in the NBA seems to have cemented the Big Three Concept as the league’s only viable model, even if that’s no longer the case. The Toronto Raptors, after all, ended the Warriors dynasty in 2019 on the back of Kawhi Leonard. Last season, as great as Khris Middleton was for the Bucks, the defending champions were heavily dependent on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s performance in the NBA Finals for ages.
Given the constraints of the NBA’s salary cap, it may actually be better to surround a single superstar with the right supporting cast than to gather big names and see what happens. The Harden-era Nets aren’t the first time a basketball team has failed a chemistry test and it won’t be the last.
There is even a case to be made that the success of the Big Three model was an illusion. The Miami Heat weren’t just dominant because they had three superstars, it helped that one of them was James, who is at worst the second-best player in league history. James carried even more of a load with the Cavaliers team that won in 2016. The Warriors built their juggernaut around Curry’s league-changing three-point shot. Even in the original Big Three, Bird was clearly above that pecking order.
For that reason, the Nets, who signed Durant to an extension last offseason, have reason to believe the Harden trade isn’t the end of their long-term title hopes, even if this season seems like a washout. . With a healthy Durant, the Nets know they can still compete for a championship if they surround him with the right plays. Who knows, if Irving and Simmons manage to appear in regular basketball games, it might even end up being them.