yesor much for the NBA’s most recent incarnation of The Big Three. On Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline, the Brooklyn Nets shipped 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 that included another former MVP, Kevin Durant, and seven-time All-Star Kyrie Irving would make them title contenders. Instead, the group flamed out in little over a year.
That the mix didn’t work, frankly, was not 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 great scorers in NBA history, but he came to Brooklyn having worn out his welcome from him in Houston. Irving, meanwhile, forced a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and had spent his time with the Boston Celtics secretly plotting a move to Brooklyn alongside Durant.
The Nets had hoped that the talent on the floor would win out over any potential personality clashes. It wasn’t an utterly ridiculous notion, but the mix only occasionally worked. 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 hope that the team would come together this season was dashed when Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated for Covid-19 ensured that he wouldn’t be able to play any home games.
According to The Athletic’s Joe Vardon, Harden’s second-straight forced trade was at least partly because he and Irving – literally for much of the time – couldn’t play together. In the piece, Vardon quoted anonymous sources that there was tension between the two, partly because Irving’s vaccine status was effectively harming the team. With Durant out with a sprained MCL, 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 sat out the entire season so far after a disastrous performance in last year’s playoffs ended any chances of him staying in Philadelphia. He is still just 25, a three-time All-Star with plenty of upside, but the Nets may have merely traded one headache for another.
This is what the Nets do, however. They gamble. 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 all means necessary, surround them with affordable talent and then hope everybody’s healthy come playoff time.
The Big Three concept was born in Boston in the 1980s when Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish led the Celtics to three championships. For our purposes, the modern-day conception dates back to a later Celtics team, the 2008 champions that included Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. They provided a blueprint for the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat teams, who went to four straight NBA finals between 2011-14, winning twice.
James replicated that success with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he teamed up with Irving and Kevin Love. The Golden State Warriors then went above and beyond, adding Durant to a roster that already included a homegrown Big Three in Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Barring the San Antonio Spurs’ win over the Heat in 2014, the three franchises accounted for every championship from 2012 to 2018.
Winning championships by loading up on star players isn’t an NBA-centric concept. It’s been around in US sports at least since the New York Yankees were treating other MLB franchises as their own personal farm teams – and further afield Real Madrid’s Galactics are perhaps the most famous example in soccer. It even happens in the NFL, as the Los Angeles Rams have proven by making this Sunday’s Super Bowl in part through a series of win-now trades.
Still, the 2010s arms race in the NBA seems to have cemented the Big Three Concept as the only workable model in the league, even though 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 reigning champions were highly dependent on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s NBA finals performance for the ages.
Given the constraints of the NBA salary cap, it may actually be preferable to surround a single superstar with the right supporting cast rather than throw big names together and see what happens. The Harden-era Nets aren’t the first time a basketball team has flunked a chemistry test and it won’t be the last.
There’s 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 the load with the Cavaliers team that won in 2016. The Warriors built their juggernaut around Curry’s league-altering three-point shooting. Even in the Original Big Three, Bird was clearly on top of that pecking order.
For this reason, the Nets, who signed Durant to an extension last offseason, have reason to believe that the Harden trade isn’t the end of their long-term title hopes, even if this season seems a wash. With a healthy Durant, the Nets know that they can still compete for a championship if they surround him with the right pieces. Who knows, if Irving and Simmons actually manage to regularly appear in basketball games, it could even end up being them.