Brooklyn's three-headed monster of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant hasn't exactly turned the Nets into the juggernaut that they expected to be. Through 26 games, Brooklyn is only 14-12. While they've managed to string together several impressive wins against top competition, they've also fallen to 7-11 against teams below .500. Tuesday was another such loss. The Nets allowed 122 points in a loss against the Detroit Pistons, owners of the NBA's No. 24-ranked offense.
It was yet another frustrating night for a team that has struggled to find any stability so far this season. The trio of Harden, Durant and Irving has played together only six times thus far, and now that Durant is out due to the league's health and safety protocols for the second time, the trio isn't expected to reunite until Friday.
That doesn't excuse Brooklyn's flaws thus far this season. Irving himself called the Nets average. But he also criticized the NBA and its officials for their handling of the Nets so this season, arguing that they have faced unique challenges since acquiring Harden.
"I don't think that we go out every single day of our lives and sacrifice the time in order to be average at anything. I know you don't wake up, I know that no one here on this call wakes up to be average at anything that they do. And we look very average. We have the talent that the eye test presents, that we should be dominating. We have the experience in terms of some of our guys that have been through certain things, circumstances to be able to battle through. And we're dealing with a lot of that of the reality that we're putting this together on the fly."
"We are the team that the NBA put the most games on. We're the team that gets someone taken out during COVID, during the games, we're the team that has to deal with the refs, we're the team that is literally battling against so many odds, that at this point, there's not even a reason to continue commenting on it. They are what they are. As a warrior that I am, and the energy that I have alongside my teammates, we just have to turn that corner, and we haven't done that, but we will, and I'm telling you, the league's gonna be on notice when that happens."
The league's enforcement of its COVID protocols on Durant warrants some amount of debate. He had COVID-19 last March, and if he still has antibodies, would theoretically lack the ability to spread the disease among teammates. But the league makes no distinction between those that have had COVID and those that have not. Given the number of players known to have tested positive at some point, it is almost a certainty that other players have been held out despite having antibodies. Durant is the only player to be pulled out of a game due to the protocols, though.
As for the refs, Irving's theory is a bit more subjective. The Nets entered Monday ranked eighth in the NBA in free-throw attempts per game despite rarely attacking the basket. They take the 17th most shots in the restricted area per game and the 19th most shots in the paint outside of the restricted area. This is a jump-shooting team, and while Irving and Harden are both averaging fewer free throws than they've averaged for their careers, that's largely explainable by role. They both handle the ball less than ever because they play with the other. Harden is leading the NBA in assists, and that emphasis on ball-movement has made him less prone to drawing fouls.
It should also be noted that the Nets lost two games when Irving left the team without explanation in early January. His seven-game absence coincided with the Harden trade, and he even missed Harden's first two games as a Net. It's not as though Kyrie is entirely to blame for what is happening in Brooklyn right now, but having one of their best players in the building all season likely would have made a difference in terms of chemistry and finding comfort in new coach Steve Nash's system.
The season hasn't even reached the halfway point. Eventually, Brooklyn is going to figure out how to maximize its wealth of talent, and with the trade deadline and buyout season more than a month away, Sean Marks has time to supplement the existing core with the right kind of role players. But Brooklyn's struggles aren't entirely external. This isn't as simple as the league enforcing its rules more strictly against them or the officials denying them whistles. The Nets are playing average basketball right now, and internal growth on defense is going to have to be the catalyst for any serious improvement.