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NBA Daily: With Harden in Tow, it’s Championship or Bust for Brooklyn

Adding another former MVP to an already talented Nets team means higher expectations in Kings County. Drew Maresca identifies the major challenges remaining for the Brooklyn Nets.

Drew Maresca

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Unless you’re living under a rock, you already know that the Brooklyn Nets pulled off what will go down as the blockbuster deal of 2020-21. Just last week, the Nets added James Harden for Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and future draft swaps and picks. While the deal was more complicated than even that sounds, the fact of the matter is that the Nets added another superstar– and you know what they say, the team that gives up the star rarely wins the trade.

With Harden in tow, the Nets are now equipped to compete with anyone in the NBA thanks to its newly-minted big three. But there is a downside to the Harden deal, too. The Nets entered the season with incredible depth. But after losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a knee injury and trading away LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Allen, they’ve thinned out, probably too much, for their own comfort.

The Nets’ depth is an issue that will be challenging to solve. What’s more, how will they arrange Kyrie Irving and Harden to get the most production out of them? And how does rookie head coach Steve Nash respond to the first-time challenges of overseeing a championship-caliber team?

Regardless, our first look at the Nets was pretty darn impressive. Brooklyn beat the Orlando Magic on Saturday, getting 42 points from Kevin Durant and a 30-point triple-double from Harden that also included 14 assists. The Nets will boast one of the league’s most talented starting lineups once Irving returns– which could happen as soon as today – but don’t be fooled, there are still challenges on the horizon, and they’re all internal.

How do Irving and Harden fit together?

Harden might look like a shooting guard and Irving is obviously a point guard, but that doesn’t mean that they fit together. Harden is at his best initiating the offense, and since joining Houston in 2012-13, he hasn’t posted a usage rate lower than 27.8 but has gotten as high as 40.5 (2018-19). Further, he’s averaged 9.5 assists or more in each of the last five seasons, tallying at least 10 assists per game in three of the last five. While his style is clearly isolation-heavy, it looks like he’s finally willing to take a bit of a backseat now that he’s playing alongside his buddy and former-MVP in Durant.

Irving is another player high-usage player, with a usage rate of 30 or more in four of the past five seasons. While he looks more like a traditional point guard than Harden, his career totals don’t necessarily back that up. Unlike Harden, Irving has never averaged 10 assists per game. He averages only 5.7 assists per game for his career with a high of 6.9 in Boston during 2018-19.

Maybe the solution is letting Irving play off the ball. But there’s a problem with that initiative, will Irving accept it? Irving hasn’t been heard from since leaving the team for personal reasons following the Jan. 6 event in Washington D.C. Has his absence been a social commentary? Was it a power play forcing Brooklyn’s hand to trade for Harden? Or maybe it’s all enigmatic of a bigger personal problem with which Irving is dealing? Only time will tell, but Brooklyn can’t be too comfortable – unless they already know the answer.

Lack of depth is a problem

Obviously, the Nets are more than Durant, Harden and Irving. But do they have enough to get over the hump? After all, fair or not, it’s championship or bust. Yes, the Nets also have Joe Harris, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan. And, sure, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has been a great surprise, while lots will be expected of Landry Shamet. But that’s it.

There’s also Nic Claxton, but there are two main problems with expecting significant contributions from him – Nash said he isn’t expected back soon and he’s extremely untested. Sure, Claxton is talented, having drawn comparisons to Chris Bosh, but he only appeared in 15 games during his rookie season, averaging just 4.4 points and 2.9 rebounds over 12.5 minutes of action.

But the idea that the Nets are undermanned is about more than a missing piece. Firstly, the Nets don’t have a reliable scorer in the second unit. If Dinwiddie were healthy, they’d be in significantly better shape with him anchoring the second team. Granted, if managed correctly and everyone stays healthy, one of Irving, Durant and Harden will be on the floor at all times. But it’s impossible to ensure that health will prevail and Irving hasn’t even rejoined the team yet, so there is deeper uncertainty around their rotation and the fit for now.

Focusing on health for a moment, we’re still dead smack in the middle of a pandemic. And in 2020-21, teams can’t operate under traditional norms. Losing a player to COVID would do the Nets a huge disservice, losing two or three nearly renders them unable to play. But more importantly, losing any one of their big three hurts badly and changes the entire makeup of the team. The Nets are incredibly top-heavy and once they establish chemistry amongst their three stars, proceeding without one would of them will be a major hindrance. Losing two of them would be a death blow.

Nash’s first rodeo

On top of all of the team’s issues, Nash is in his first season as a head coach – or even being a part of any coaching staff whatsoever.

Throughout his 18-year career, Nash developed a reputation as an extremely high-IQ player – but how will that convert to leading a team from the sideline with such high expectations? Granted, he knew exactly what was expected of the Nets when he accepted the position – but the Harden trade comes even more pressure.

As of the deal, the Nets became easily the most polarizing team in the association. Even before adding another former MVP, the Nets did their best to better position Nash by adding two-tie Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni to their bench, which already featured an experienced assistant in Jacque Vaughn. But while the team may have a disproportionately accomplished coaching staff, all of the questions will be directed squarely at Nash come the playoffs and beyond.

For what it is worth, rookie coaches have fared pretty well of late. While it might not affect the Nets directly, three of the nine rookie coaches to go on to win a championship in their first season did so in the past six seasons –  Steve Kerr, Ty Lue and Nick Nurse. While no two coaches are the same, the fact that rookie coaches have been so successful of late speaks to the idea that teams are doing a better job of identifying raw coaching talent – and Nash is as raw as it comes.

It’s hard to find fault in Brooklyn’s desire to add Harden and the fact that they just added another top-five player to an already insanely-talented roster is flat-out unfair. But now the bar has forever changed: anything less than an NBA Finals’ appearance will be judged as a failure, even that could be deemed an underperformance. While greater expectations mean you’re closer to success in the NBA, the team also ponied up its future through 2026.

Good luck, Brooklyn, no pressure.

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NBA Daily: Should Toronto Add A Big?

The Raptors have started to thrive with their small-ball lineup. But, with some intriguing options available, should they look to add a traditional center?

Ariel Pacheco

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After a rough start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have hit their stride. They are now .500 and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve tinkered with their lineups for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to inconsistent play at the center position until coach Nick Nurse decided to just play small.

Aron Baynes’ play has been a huge disappointment. Brought in to be a serviceable replacement for Marc Gasol, but his play has dropped off after a career year with the Phoenix Suns last season. The starter to open the season, Baynes lost his job after failing to produce; his 35 percent three-point percentage from a season ago has dipped to an abysmal 23 percent in 2020-21. Alex Len was also signed to give the Raptors solid minutes but similarly disappointed, as he played just seven games in Toronto before he was released. Len’s defense was an issue and that left the Raptors with only one other candidate at center.

Enter Chris Boucher, who has easily been the best big on the roster. Despite his thin frame, Boucher has been an effective defender on the inside and, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to start him, Boucher has become one of the NBA’s best bench players, averaging 13 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He’s also shooting 44 percent from three despite the unique form of his jump shot.

That said, since Nurse won’t start Boucher, the Raptors have turned to a starting five of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. It’s turned their season around and was a group often turned to last postseason. Versatile and easily switchable, defensively, the lineup can also provide significant firepower on offense. Together, they’ve posted a net rating of plus-11.1 in 51 minutes, per NBA.com, Toronto’s best among groups with at least 50 minutes together.

Pascal Siakam, who struggled to start the season, has benefitted from the lineup in particular. Spending more time than ever this season at the center-spot, the Raptors’ versatility has ensured Siakam a favorable matchup in almost any situation, which has helped both his efficiency and overall production.

With that in mind, should Toronto look to add a more traditional center?

In short, yes — but only if the price is right. Boucher has been excellent and, while he’s struggled, Baynes can still impact the game in short spurts, especially on the defensive end. There are certainly some intriguing names available, such as DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond, but neither would seem to be a great match for Toronto. 

Cousins, once at least a passable defender, has become a huge liability. Injuries have sapped his ability and Cousins would not only struggle to stay in front of quicker guards but would provide little rim protection. Offensively, he’s shooting 33 percent from the three-point line, below the league average. Cousins has also struggled to finish around the rim this season, as he’s only made 44 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, per NBA.com.

Andre Drummond is a more intriguing option, but only if he were to buy-in. Drummond is an elite rebounder and the Raptors, dead last in rebounds per game, could certainly use help on the glass. The issue with Drummond, however, is that he’s always tried to do too much on offense, which isn’t his strength. If he could settle into a role, rather than try to be the focal point of the offense, he could be a great fit — that said, he has yet to do that in his nine NBA seasons, so there’s little reason to believe might now. Adding him after a potential buy out, rather than trading for him, might make a Drummond gamble worth it for Toronto.

Their best lineup will always be their small lineup and should give them a chance against just about anyone. But the Raptors, if only to eat minutes throughout the rest of the regular season, will likely need to acquire another center at some point. As for the postseason, being able to throw some size at players like Joel Embiid, Domantas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo could prove integral to Toronto’s success as well.

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The Future of ‘Sexland’ in Cleveland

The Cleveland Cavaliers young duo of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland started hot but now find themselves in the back of the Eastern Conference standings. What does this mean for the Cavs’ future and for the viability of ‘Sexland’ long-term?

Zach Dupont

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When the 2020-21 season began, the Cleveland Cavaliers were among the hot topics in the NBA. The Cavaliers burst out of the gate with a 3-0 record and even claimed a convincing 118-94 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. This hot-start was primarily due to the play of their young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Before long, teammate Larry Nance Jr.’s ‘Sexland’ moniker started catching on quicker nationwide.

Since then, and in part thanks to a brutal schedule, Cleveland has faltered, falling to 13th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 14-21. The Cavaliers’ direction has become clear during this challenging season; they’re trying to get younger and better suited for the future. Made evident through their actions this season, like sidelining Andre Drummond until they find a trade partner and acquiring Jarrett Allen from the Brooklyn Nets in the massive James Harden trade.

In terms of a successful rebuild, the first point of discussion has to be about star guard Collin Sexton. Now in his third season, Sexton leads the Cavaliers in scoring, putting up 23.8 points per game and doing so efficiently with a 58 true shooting percentage. Sexton has already proven that he’s a legit NBA starter, but can he lead a playoff-caliber team with his scoring? Sexton’s three-point shooting is already at a high level, hitting on 39.2 percent so far and 40 percent this season, but what he offers off the dribble is what will elevate him to superstar status.

Sexton is shooting 46 percent on pull-up jump shots this season and 48 percent on step-back jump shots, per NBA.com. Compared to the rest of the league, Sexton is 14th in the NBA in field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers, among those who shoot more than five per game. This scoring puts Sexton in elite company with the likes of the NBA’s best scorers, better even than Paul George, Jaylen Brown and Stephen Curry. Sexton is also a skilled finisher at the rim and, despite being just 6-foot-1, the guard has a field goal percentage of 60 from within five feet of the rim.

Sexton’s game is not without issues though, some of which hold him back from being an elite offensive engine. Perhaps Sexton’s biggest weakness on offense is his lack of passing skill. With Drummond – and his 30 percent usage rate – no longer playing, Sexton now has the greenest of lights and sports a 26.7 usage rate. Sexton’s offensive package of dribble pull-ups and attacking the rim naturally means he needs to have the ball in his hands, but his assist percentage of 20.3 is 107th league-wide. So far, Sexton isn’t a player who creates many shots for his teammates and that might hinder some of the overall development.

Sexton’s partner in crime is second-year guard Darius Garland. The Vanderbilt alum operates as the feature distributor, leading the team in assists per game at 5.9. Like Sexton, Garland is a shooting-oriented guard with 288 of his 398 shot attempts coming on jumpers. Further, Garland struggles to get offense generated at the basket. And worse, he’s only shot 107 layups all season and tallied a 53.2 percent field goal percentage from within five feet from the rim.

Incapable of reaching the free throw line, Garland only shoots 1.8 free throws per game, 123rd in the NBA. Of course, Garland is a more willing passer than Sexton but still has the same shoot-first mindset, which puts the Cavaliers in an odd spot.

If Garland improves to become a consistent 40+ percent three-point shooter and Sexton unlocks the ability to shoot from deep at a truly elite level, the pair could have a real dynamic shooting threat. On the flip side, running two undersized guards, neither of whom are elite offensive playmakers, could be a recipe for disaster… and that’s often been the case this season.

The Cavaliers have the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA at 105.4, beating out only the Oklahoma City Thunder. This inadequate offensive production isn’t all on Sexton and Garland, as Cleveland’s lack of depth –some due to long-term injuries – and poor shooting outside of their guards, has them 24th in field goal percentage and 27th in three-point percentage. While Sexton and Garland are both talented offensive weapons, the duo hasn’t thrived together as an offense. 

Playing the undersized backcourt has problems offensively, but defensively it’s been an issue as well. Garland and Sexton are both 6-foot-1 and sub-200 lbs, making them two of the smaller players in the league. In short, Cleveland has the 10th-worst defensive rating in the NBA at 113.7. This combination of lousy offense and lackluster defense gives them a net rating of -8.3, the worst league-wide. 

It’s safe to say that Sexland isn’t currently working down in Cleveland, but that doesn’t mean the franchise is destined for failure. The Cavaliers are a very young team and three of their everyday starters are younger than 22 years old – Sexton, Garland and newcomer Isaac Okoro. If you include Allen, that’s four, despite the massive payday he’s due this upcoming summer.

Kevin Love, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman and the currently-injured Larry Nance are all serviceable rotation players, but the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. Until their next high lottery selection, the likes of Dylan Windler, Okoro, Allen and Prince will be given every opportunity to grow and succeed.

While the ‘Sexland’ pair may not be a serious competitor right now, the former is a talented player with All-Star potential and the latter has dangerous sixth-man written all over him. Sexton took a huge leap this season compared to last and, if he continues to improve, it’s not unreasonable to think he could be competing for All-NBA awards and championships down the line.

Garland’s shooting potential and ability to pass would make him a quality option on any second unit. Of course, he owns the potential to be a reliable starter himself, just not on a team that already stars a different 6-foot-1 point guard.

Although ‘Sexland’ will struggle with many of these enduring factors moving forward,  Cleveland has managed to build an impressive group of young players and will only continue to add to this core over the coming years.

Cleveland is far from competing right now, but the groundwork has been set for a competitive team to emerge from this core one day in the future. 

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Where Can Dallas Go From Here?

The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?

Zach Dupont

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The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.

Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.

Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.

Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.

The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.

One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.   

Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.

Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.

This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.

Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.

Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.

A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.

Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.

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