In order to acquire reigning three-time NBA scoring champion James Harden, the Nets not only gave up a boatload of draft picks, but they also sacrificed interior size and defense. Through the first 13 games without Harden and the first nine with him, the numbers make it clear they have gone from good to great at the offensive end by pairing him with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and have deteriorated from average to pathetic on the defensive end.
Harden sat out their shocking 149-146 regulation loss to the Wizards Sunday night, but losing to the team with the NBA’s worst record magnified the Nets’ defensive problems, especially on the interior, where the Wizards outscored them 72-34.
The most obvious absence is rim-protecting center Jarrett Allen and forward Taurean Prince, both of whom were shipped to the Cavaliers in the four-team deal. But they also miss the length of swing man Caris LeVert, who went to the Pacers via the Rockets, and even the hustle provided by rugged forward Rodions Kurucs, who wound up with the Rockets.
Now, the Nets are reliant on veteran center DeAndre Jordan, and small-ball center Jeff Green, who played the entire fourth quarter in Washington as the Nets allowed 48 points. They recently added center Norvel Pelle, who has been available for just one game, and defense-minded swing man Iman Shumpert isn’t available until he clears the COVID-19 protocol.
Asked if the Nets must address their lack of size in the paint, Irving said, "We’ll see. We have the group we have in our locker room, and I’m grateful every day playing with them. We’ll allow the outsiders to say that we’re undersized. We believe that we should be winning every single game based upon our effort and our offensive firepower.
"Obviously, the eye test — we’re not necessarily passing it in terms of having all the big guys in the league. But we’ve just got to match the other team’s effort. We’ve been doing that lately, [had] a successful road trip, and now we get back home and play against a Clippers team."
The Clippers (16-5) arrive Tuesday night at Barclays Center with the NBA’s best record behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and they certainly will test the championship ambitions of the Nets (13-9). Tyronn Lue’s coaching staff includes Kenny Atkinson, who was fired last March in the midst of his fourth season as Nets head coach, so there is that intangible element in play.
On Monday, Harden was named Eastern Conference player of the week, and even with the horrendous last-second loss to the Wizards, the Nets have gone 6-3 since his arrival while averaging a league-high 127.3 points per game but giving up 124.6 for a thin plus-2.7 points margin. The Nets have allowed opponents to score at least 120 points in seven of those nine games. In the previous 13, they only had a 7-6 record but averaged 118.6 points while giving up 112.9 for a plus-5.7 margin.
There is no questioning the Nets’ offensive firepower, including Joe Harris, who tied his career-high with 30 points, including a career-high eight three-pointers.
"I think we knew coming into the season even before we added James that we had a lot of offensive weapons," Harris said. "Then, you add James, who is easily one of the best offensive players in the game . . . to plug in with the guys that we have. We can score with the best of them.
"We could easily be sitting here at the end of the year and say we have one of the better offensive teams to play this game. But the defense has to follow suit. You can’t just always rely on the offense and nights like [the Wizards loss] are indicative of that."