When the Nets put their Big 3 together, they did so with the hope that their trademark characteristic would be winning.
Instead, their first full season together — especially what’s now left of it — has largely been defined by uncertainty.
There has been plenty of it lately, with the most recent dose coming Tuesday when a Bleacher Report story depicted an unhappy James Harden — frustrated with Kyrie Irving being a part-time player, disappointed with coach Steve Nash’s inconsistent rotations and “not enjoying” life in Brooklyn — which opened the door to him leaving in free agency this summer.
Harden, who sat out Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets with left hamstring tightness that was revealed after Tuesday’s loss to the Lakers, tried to shoot down the report because its contents did not come directly from his mouth. But he did acknowledge his frustration with the Nets not yet playing up to their roster’s high potential. So as much as the Nets might hope the story goes away, the issues described in it and Harden’s uncertain future with the team are sure to loom over the rest of the season.
“I think James is happy to be here, I just think it’s frustrating right now because we haven’t [played] great basketball, we’ve had a lot of injuries, a lot of illness, a lot of guys in and out of the lineup, a lot of chop and change,” Nash said Wednesday before the second half of a back-to-back. “So that can be frustrating for sure to not have that kind of consistency to build on. We haven’t had our best performances. We’ve had a few, but ever since the COVID return, it’s been very, let’s say average, basketball overall. We have higher expectations and it’s frustrating, but I think James is happy here for sure.”
Harden’s future is hardly the only bit of uncertainty surrounding the Nets these days, though, all of which has muddled the question of just how good they can be.
There is also the health of Kevin Durant and Joe Harris — Durant out with a sprained MCL and not expected back at least until sometime late next month, and Harris still sidelined by November ankle surgery, with a slow recovery that has faced some setbacks and led to getting a second opinion this week.
Then there is Irving, who is still only seven games in to life as a part-time player because of his refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine and inability to play home games because of local mandates. It requires adjustments both for him, adapting to a new role and schedule, and for the Nets as they try to balance rotations while having Irving in and out of the lineup.
“When we focus on process and the task at hand, it alleviates a lot of the distraction and alleviates wasting time thinking about who’s not available tonight or what the problems that we’re facing are,” Nash said.
The Nets entered Wednesday’s game against the Nuggets 2-3 in the five games since Durant went down with his knee injury. They will begin a challenging five-game road trip on Saturday, with Irving at their disposal, though Harden’s status now bears watching after he was a late addition to the injury report before being ruled out.
Harden has been leaned on for heavy minutes — he was second in the league averaging 37 minutes per game entering Wednesday — which Nash said he was conscious of.
“We would like to protect him more but he’s a competitor, he wants to be out there so we try to have our little tug of war,” Nash said. “I think that’s why at times we like to ask him to miss games so he can regenerate and be a little bit safer as far as being ready to go when the playoffs begin.”