The Nets are in their most successful stretch of the young NBA season with wins in six of their past eight games and a 4-2 record since acquiring James Harden to go along with fellow superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But since trading away much of their depth to acquire Harden, the Nets have leaned so heavily on their Big 3 that their playing time has reached an untenable level that might have to be dialed back to preserve them for a title run.
In his six Nets games, Harden is the league leader in minutes played with an average of 40.2, and Durant is right behind at 40.1 in five games played with Harden. Irving has played just the past four with Harden but has averaged 38.8 minutes in that span. For the full season, Harden ranks first in minutes played (37.9), Durant is fifth (36.4) and Irving is 18th (35.1).
Asked following Tuesday’s practice if that level of playing time is sustainable or if it simply is necessary after trading away major contributors Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince, Nets coach Steve Nash said, "Long-term, I don’t like it. I would err on the side of saying it’s not sustainable. At the same time, we are where we are right now with a little bit of a depth or a second-unit synchronicity [issue]. We’re kind of caught in between. That’s a problem we are trying to solve."
The Nets have a reputation for restricting playing time for purposes of load management. They began this season paying particular attention to Durant, who returned from an 18-month layoff to recover from Achilles tendon surgery. But they lately have found themselves in a series of tight games, including a double overtime loss recently in Cleveland where Harden and Durant each topped 50 minutes and Irving logged more than 48.
"It’s difficult as we try to sort out our second unit and rotations because you get into the game and, if you have a chance to win, you want to win and you want to play the guys that are going to get you the win," Nash said after the Nets broke open a close game Monday night for their second straight victory over the Heat. "But I definitely don’t want to overdo it and play them too much, so that’s tricky.
"They’re competitive. When you take them out, they’re not happy. We need to win games, but we also need to preserve them to win at the end of the season. We’ve had an incredibly difficult stretch where we’ve played more games than anyone in the league. We’re trying to find that balance where we can get our rotations down, get that newness out of the way and, at the same time, not have to play those guys in the high 30s or 40 minutes a game."
The Nets (11-8) have played the most games in the NBA and also the most home games (9-4), but they begin a three-game road trip Wednesday night in Atlanta that starts a stretch in which they play 10 of their next 13 games on the road. That might lead to more close games, and Nash likely will face some hard choices. After all, he has three of the top four fourth-quarter scorers in the NBA in Irving (1st, 9.1 points), Durant (3rd, 8.6) and Harden (4th, 8.5).
"That’s the way this team is built," Nash said. "We went for it and have three great, great offensive players. Those guys also make each other and their teammates better by the attention they draw. On certain nights, our guys are so capable of getting hot. It could be any one of them."
So they play at winning time.