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Will the Nets Be the First Team to Break the 'Defense Wins Championships' Mantra?

Liam McKeone
Kevin Durant goes up as James Harden watches
Kevin Durant goes up as James Harden watches / Sarah Stier/Getty Images
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I regret to inform you, reader, that the Brooklyn Nets really are that good. As much as we all would've liked to see the NBA's newest superteam at least stumble in the early goings of the new partnership they've formed with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, they really haven't. They've lost some games, to be sure, like when Collin Sexton went buck-wild and the bottom-feeder Cavs took them down.

But last night brought us the latest example of just how damn good this team is and will be. The Brooklyn Big 3 combined for 90 points against the lethal defensive duo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Down the stretch, they just alternated shots and not a force on Earth could stop them. A Durant pull-up followed by an Irving pull-up followed by three made foul shots from Harden. You'll find sequences like that all over the game log. Beautiful basketball was played.

Despite 90 points from three players, the Nets only won by four, 124-120, because they couldn't stop a nosebleed on defense. Or defend a stick, as Irving aptly put it a few days ago. This is not a surprise nor is it a new development. Irving and Harden both have deserved reputations as uninterested defenders in the best of times. Durant can be great on that end when he turns it on but isn't a "stopper" in the same way Leonard or George are; he uses his length and understanding of positioning to make things extremely difficult, but he won't stonewall a guy for an entire game.

This won't be a problem for a while, but the adage of "defense wins championships" has stuck around for a long time with good reason. It doesn't matter the sport, a good defense is the bare minimum requirement to win a ring. It is especially true in the NBA, where every championship team has ranked in the top-five for defensive rating every year since the 2004 Pistons proved to the world that one true superstar isn't necessarily needed to win the big one.

Of course, on the other hand, we haven't seen a collection of talent like the Nets have on one team. Even the Warriors at the peak of their dynasty can't hold a candle to the sheer level of shot creation the Nets can trot out every night. That isn't to say those Warriors would lose to these Nets, but Golden State had Klay Thompson as their third wheel. He's an excellent shooter but only an average to above-average creator when he has to put the ball on the floor and make plays. The Nets' third wheel is either Irving or Harden depending on the night and they both rank among the top-10 in terms of ability to create shots. It's lethal.

Since the Harden trade, the Nets have averaged 127 points per game. They start three offensive superstars in an era catered to exciting offensive play, high point totals, and shot-making ability. These three men are the best in the world at putting the ball in the basket, and creating the space to do so. No team has ever come close to that mark over a full season, and Brooklyn will probably fall off a bit. But even taking that into account, they're still on pace to shatter the single-season PPG record by a team, set by last year's Bucks, at 118 PPG.

They are also on track to set the record for giving up the most PPG by any team in history. Again, with the caveat that it won't be at 124 points given up per game as they play bad teams and have decent defensive nights, it is realistic they give up more than 119 points per game, the record mark set by last year's Atlanta Hawks. The Nets present an offensive juggernaut the likes of which we've never seen paired with a historically terrible defense worse than anything we have had the displeasure of watching.

The most points an eventual champion surrendered during the regular season was the 2017-18 Warriors, who gave up 107 points per game. They then flipped the switch and turned up the heat in the playoffs, giving up only 100 points per game en route to a second straight title. The Nets do not have that switch. Curry was the worst defender on those Golden State teams. Irving is at least as bad, if not worse, and so is Harden. Neither of them have the added benefit of a defensive genius named Draymond Green directing traffic and blocking shots when the perimeter defense breaks down. Instead they have DeAndre Jordan. Who is, uh, not good at either of those things.

We knew this was what the deal was gonna be. It's still jarring to see the differential after a handful of games. Small sample size and all, but this is how it's going to be all season. Basketball purists should avert their eyes for 50 percent of the game lest their fandom shatter into a million pieces watching another easy bucket for whoever the Nets are playing.

But if anybody can truly throw defense to the wind because they're so good it doesn't matter, it's this Nets team.

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