Nets will be ultimate test of ‘defense wins championships’ theory

Phoenix’s Devin Booker guards Brooklyn’s James Harden in the Nets’ 128-124 come-from-behind victory Tuesday Night.
Phoenix’s Devin Booker guards Brooklyn’s James Harden in the Nets’ 128-124 come-from-behind victory Tuesday Night.
Image: Getty Images

At some point, the Brooklyn Nets will need to get stops. Simultaneously, when it matters, they’ll need to prove they’re healthy. But even without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, James Harden was able to turnaround what would’ve been a dispiriting loss to the Phoenix Suns — who led by as many as 24 points earlier in the game — into Brooklyn’s best win of the season less than 24 hours ago.


Brooklyn’s most significant obstacle is that they don’t seem to be one. As of their 128-124 victory over the Suns, they’re currently ranked first in offense but 28th in defense. Second in offensive rating but 26th in defensive rating. And recent NBA champions, even ones with historically potent offenses, were at least near the NBA’s top-10 in regular-season defense. The 2017-18 Golden State Warriors were only 18th in opposing points allowed per game, but 11th in defensive rating. They also had Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala leading the league’s No. 1 offense.

Since the year 2000 alone, every single NBA Champion — other than the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers — has been in the top-11 of at least opposing points per game or defensive rating, more often than not, both. If you go back even further, the next most recent outlier is the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, but they were 12th and 14th, respectively. They’re the only two outliers since the NBA merger, according to (The Rockets were clearly right there, though.)

There have been other statistically poor defenses who have at least made the NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers of 2016-17 were in the 20s in both defensive rating and opposing points per game, and in 2017-18, they were in the league’s bottom five in both, which is probably at least partially why the Warriors swept them. But if we’re holding the Nets to unprecedented offensive standards, it at least offers them an opportunity to win a title in an increasingly offensive-minded game.

What makes them one of the great offenses we’ve ever seen is that Harden could still carry the club to 38 points on 22 shots, and accompany that with 11 assists, and seven rebounds, while Irving and Durant watch in street clothes. His 11 assists contributed to a highly productive 22 points on 13 shots from Joe Harris, a season-best 17 points from Tyler Johnson, and a combined 31 from Jeff Green and Landry Shamet off the bench. Harden not only scored, but he raised the efficiency of those around him as Bruce Brown (1-for-5), and Chris Chiozza (0-for-1) were the only Nets to shoot under 50 percent last night. And much of the work came in the fourth quarter, where the Nets dropped 40 after trailing by 12 to begin the period.

It’s not ideal for Brooklyn to have allowed 100 points to the Suns through three quarters, the same Suns who are 19th in offense and 29th in offensive pace. But they’re also fourth in opposing points per game and seventh in defensive efficiency, which didn’t mean a damn thing in last night’s fourth-quarter Brooklyn barrage.

As teammates, Durant, Irving, and Harden are averaging nearly 82 points per game while each shooting over 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and around 90 percent on free throws. Outside of Harris’ 15 points per game, no one else is even at 10. DeAndre Jordan has the best defensive rating on the squad at 111, and he’s been much worse than that if you just happen to be watching them play. They’ll almost definitely add another piece or two along the way, whether it’d be amongst JaVale McGree, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but they clearly aren’t at their final form yet, roster wise. New additions Andre Roberson and Noah Vonleh should help defensively, but it won’t make the Nets akin to the 1996 Chicago Bulls.

They don’t need to be, though. Their offensive pace may be difficult to maintain, especially during playoff basketball, but the Durant-Harden-Irving combination makes them as potent as any offensive trio we’ve seen sinceDurant was a Warrior. Because of that, they won’t need a cacophony of defensive stops; they’ll need just enough.