Few transactions send shockwaves across the league the way the Brooklyn Nets’ acquisition of James Harden did on Wednesday. Separated by less than 250 miles, the Boston Celtics felt those tremors more than most teams, though the reasons why don’t have much to do with proximity.
The pairing of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving ensured the Nets as a threat to the Celtics' hopes at finally breaking through to The Finals. Brooklyn proved as much with a dominant preseason showing followed by an equally convincing Christmas Day victory in Boston less than a week later.
Having now added the reigning three-time scoring champion alongside two of this generation's deadliest shot creators, the Nets have set the bar at an unprecedented level, leaving plenty of Celtics’ faithful wondering how they’ll circumvent the latest superteam in a likely playoff series. It was only last season when it was Boston that had the top-scoring trio in the NBA as the only team with three players exceeding 20 points a night.
Two of those three have only improved in the interim. Jayson Tatum has smoothly transitioned into superstardom. Jaylen Brown is ascending towards his first All-Star appearance. Both are posting career-highs in scoring with more than 26 points a game on absurdly efficient shooting.
The health of Kemba Walker is no sure thing, but you have to imagine the Celtics would cryo-freeze his entire body if it meant a clean bill of health come playoff time. That’s the type of precaution being exercised. Should it pay off, the All-Star point guard is one of the most dynamic threats off the dribble finishing both inside and out.
In a duel of individual abilities, Boston’s trio isn’t victoriously emerging against two former MVP’s and a player with as decorated a playoff resume as Irving has (minus his run as a Celtic, of course). When staring down the barrel of a truly breathtaking offensive attack, Tatum, Brown, and Walker are simply as well equipped as any to be in enough of the point-producing vicinity that will allow other aspects of the game to fill in the remaining gap.
The Celtics’ defense has gotten off to a slow start, ranking 19th in rating so far this season. If even the best defenses will struggle to slow Brooklyn, the C’s need more to put up an honest fight.
Gordon Hayward’s departure removes a large chunk of the switchability that made them a top-five defense last season. Though even in his absence, the Celtics still only gave up 107.3 points per 100 possessions — per Cleaning The Glass — a top-five mark spread over the course of an entire season.
As long as Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart remain present and able, Boston holds a solid foundation for a defensive gameplan predicated on length, athleticism, and overall versatility. With those three on the court, the Celtics ranked in the 95th percentile in points surrendered per 100 possessions — per CTG. Throw in Kemba and Daniel Theis, which Brad Stevens can still do this season, and they gave up an even 100 points per 100 possessions.
Walker’s knee troubles make the six-foot guard even more of a liability at that end, one who will be mercilessly targeted by Brooklyn’s stars for favorable matchups. If the Celtics want his offense punch, they’ll have to make that trade-off.
An upgrade elsewhere, however, comes in the form of Tristan Thompson at center. The Nets are one of the league’s elite isolation teams and will only look better with the league’s most prominent iso scorer. Thompson is no stranger to holding his ground on that island, having done so on the highest stage. Though much time has passed since his contending days in Cleveland, Thompson, still only 29, is invigorated in a similar competitive setting with the Celtics.
Posting the second-highest offensive rebounding rate of his career, the former champion can also exploit a thinned-out Nets frontcourt that was already surrendering the most offensive rebounds per game before the departure of Jarrett Allen.
According to Basketball Reference’s roster continuity chart, Boston returned 75 percent of last year's team, including five of its six most-frequented players. They possess an identity and an established hierarchy. They instinctively know how to play off each other with a head coach who’s been at the helm for over half a decade.
Already integrating two high-usage superstars among an established supporting cast, the deal for Harden further shook up a roster trying to find a sense of comfort. Of the seven players to log more than 1,000 minutes for the Nets last season, only three now remain, including Spencer Dinwiddie who is likely out for the season after tearing his ACL two weeks ago.
Several of the minimal number of threads binding this team together have been cut clean in favor of another strong personality added to an already volatile mix of characters. A first-time head coach has a unique challenge no contemporary past or present can truly help him maneuver.
Maybe the overwhelming presence of offensive talent wins out, but the LA Clippers offered a glimpse last season of what the absence of chemistry can do to even the most talented of teams. In a shortened season with ever-changing roster availability, continuity is as crucial as ever without much time to build it. Steve Nash doesn’t have to look too far than his own playing history when in his twilight, he teamed up with Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, and Pau Gasol in LA.
For any of this to matter, fate would have to line these two teams against each other in a playoff series. Even then, there are so many questions whose answers can only be revealed in time.
How does this new Nets team look at both ends? What version of Walker is Boston getting? What version of Kyrie is Brooklyn getting? Who will the Nets fill with three empty roster spots? Will Brooklyn’s potentially historic offensive output be enough to mitigate concerns about its defense? Are health and safety protocols going to prevent either team from establishing the necessary habits every team must carry into the second season?
Boston’s path to The Finals just got objectively tougher with the newest Big Three lurking in their division. It’s a buzzkill for the team with currently the highest winning percentage in the Eastern Conference, but a challenge that can make the task of triumph all the more satisfying.