The Nets are in the middle of an identity crisis.
Their Big Three, already down one star in Kyrie Irving, had been whittled down to a Big One with Kevin Durant out resting a sprained shoulder during a game against the Orlando Magic on Friday. The major questions facing the team came into sharp relief.
Who are the Nets without Irving? What do they do best? When will they get the James Harden of old?
Despite these questions, the Nets (12-5) have figured out how to win enough to stay atop the Eastern Conference.
“It’s very early for this group,” Nets Coach Steve Nash said. “Seventeen games. We’ve had multiple guys injured. We have 10 new players. A lot of guys with different backgrounds, different histories, different habits trying to blend together.”
For the Nets, the early part of this season has been an exercise in figuring out who they are given their current circumstance. Irving has been barred from practicing or playing until he’s vaccinated for the coronavirus, and Harden and Durant have dealt with injuries. That has meant that sometimes the Nets don’t look like title contenders.
There were certainly moments like that during their 2-point win over the bottom-dwelling Magic. Without Durant, and without a key scorer in Joe Harris, they had a big deficit early after surrendering 41 points in the first quarter. They trailed by 19 in the second quarter.
This early in the season, the Nets aren’t terribly worried about struggling against subpar opponents — particularly on nights when they are as short-handed as they were Friday.
But there has been cause for concern as they take aim at a championship. Their five losses have been dramatic — all by double digits. And they have come against teams that might stand in their way during the playoffs.
They fell by 23 points to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and to the resurgent Chicago Bulls. Starting the season 2-3 by losing to the Bucks, Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat raised alarm bells, as did Harden’s lackluster play during that period.
“We got to find our identity,” Harden said Tuesday after an 18-point loss to Golden State. “We’re still a fairly new team. We got to find out what we’re good at, what we’re great at, what we can be great at.”
Harden has been slowly progressing after a hamstring injury hampered him toward the end of last season. He has said the injury was a Grade 2 sprain, and required constant rehabilitation during the off-season, a time when Harden otherwise could have been working on his game and conditioning.
To compound that, rule changes in officiating that have made it more difficult to draw fouls on 3-pointers have been particularly detrimental to Harden, whose ability to draw fouls has irritated opponents for years.
Harden’s struggle to get foul calls has begun to lift. It wasn’t until the sixth game of the season that he reached the free-throw line for double-digit attempts. Now he’s done so in four of his last five games. He averaged at least 10 free-throw attempts per game for six straight seasons before last year, when he missed dozens of games because of injury and his wait to be traded from Houston.
Harden shot 20 free throws on Friday night, making 19 of them.
“I just try and attack the basket,” Harden said afterward.
Nash attributed the change in part to officials better understanding how to call fouls within the parameters of the new rules.
The ability to draw fouls is, of course, not the only part of Harden’s game that has needed time to resurface. He hasn’t been shooting or moving as well as he normally does, either. That’s why late in Friday’s game, he deferred to LaMarcus Aldridge.
“I couldn’t finish,” Harden said. “I had plenty of opportunities. LA had it going. He got over 20,000 points, he can score the ball. So I took my time fed him.”
He made only 7 of 25 field-goal attempts for the night.
The Nets’ offensive plans coming into the season depended on having Irving, Harden and Durant play together. It is in part because that hasn’t happened that the Nets have found more success defensively.
“The defense has come earlier for us than the offense,” Nash said.
They rank 10th in defensive rating, which calculates points allowed per 100 possessions. They’ve allowed the ninth-fewest points per game and the third-lowest field goal percentage per game.
The bigger picture helps create a sense of calm around the organization.
“I think everybody’s trying to put a lot of pressure on us because they didn’t think we started the way we should,” Bruce Brown said the morning of the Magic game. “But I think we’re fine.”
They have a veteran-laden team, even beyond Harden and Durant, and those veterans remind them not to get too wrapped up in the ebbs and flows of the early part of the season. Patty Mills, Blake Griffin and Aldridge have a combined 38 years of N.B.A. experience.
“We know what’s at stake here,” said DeAndre’ Bembry, who started Friday in place of Durant. “We’ve been around. We know what’s going on and we want to win a championship, so that’s also the biggest thing for us because we’re looking forward to trying to do that.”
Nash made waves last week when he declared after the Golden State game that his team wasn’t yet among the top teams in the league.
His take on the team, though, is a bit more nuanced than that.
“I feel proud of the guys,” Nash said. “They’ve dealt with some things so far this year and continued to work for us.”
He added later: “For them to have 12 wins at this stage of the season is a credit to their professionalism and effort.”