Despite missing their last couple of games due to a Covid-19 outbreak, the 7-3 Boston Celtics managed to climb their way up to the top of the Eastern Conference standings a few days ago. On top of that, Jayson Tatum was just named as the East’s Player of the Week, although because he was diagnosed with the disease in question—he’s currently asymptomatic—it’s fair to say that this isn’t going to be what he remembers from this stretch. The Celtics were probably hoping to return to action in Friday’s scheduled game against the Orlando Magic ready to make a push as being recognized as favorites to make the NBA Finals. Yesterday, that became less likely, as the Brooklyn Nets’ trade for the Houston Rockets’ James Harden probably made them instant favorites in the conference.
The Nets hype is warranted. Harden is one of the greatest players in the league, he won the MVP in 2018 and was the scoring champion for three straight seasons. He’s joining 2014 MVP Kevin Durant, who has a credible case for being second only to LeBron James in terms of current NBA players, and six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving, about the most overqualified third option you’ll find on a team. These Nets, who started the season 6-6 despite preseason hype, are now absurdly stacked, especially on the offensive end of the ball. This is all a poor development for the Celtics as one of their potential postseason opponents has added a phenomenally dangerous weapon.
The Harden trade is a logical move coming from a franchise that already established its “all-in” credentials. The Nets signed Irving and Durant before the 2019-20 season, despite the fact that they knew Durant would be missing the entirety of his first season while recovering from an Achilles injury. The Nets were looking ahead to this year as being a “win very soon” situation. By making the Harden move, they have effectively double-downed in their pursuit to win a title that will give them the instant credibility they have been seeking since moving from New Jersey back in 2012.
The Celtics remembered the last time the Nets attempted to trade their way into a potential title contender. That was when they traded three first-round draft picks to Boston in exchange for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, both clearly in the downsides of their careers. To put it mildly, the trade ended up working disastrously for Brooklyn. This Nets also included three first-rounders and four first-round swaps in this particular trade, although Harden is clearly in his prime, or close enough to it, not to have to worry about it.
What the Nets do have to worry about is something that the Celtics themselves had worries about as far as Harden. There are legitimate concerns about bringing him in for chemistry-related reasons. Even though the Celtics could have used Harden’s production, assuming they could acquire it without giving up either Tatum or Jaylen Brown, they showed very little interest over the last few weeks. While doing diligence on Harden, they were reportedly turned off upon getting insider information about what was going on behind the scenes in Houston. Given the franchise’s recent history, it’s understandable if the Celtics were hesitant to go down that route.
You remember those valuable first-round picks the Celtics got from Brooklyn, right? Well, the Celtics traded one of those picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers for—well look it here—none other than Irving himself. Irving’s time as their starting point guard and de facto leader ultimately ended poorly. After an injury ended his first year with the team, a turn of events that would repeat in Brooklyn, his only fully healthy season with the team ended with a disappointing regular season, reports of a fractured locker room and an abrupt playoff exit. Despite publicly expressing his committal to re-sign with the Celtics in free agency, it came about that he was the one who convinced Durant to join forces with him on the Nets. It was a disappointing end to his time in Boston, one that added to Irving’s increasingly poor reputation in basketball circles.
The Nets are currently having their own issues with Irving, who is currently MIA and has been captured partying at a large gathering without a mask. Now they are adding Harden, who is an infamously difficult player even in the best situations which this is not: the only reason the Rockets trading him was that he has been working overtime trying to force it: including skipping training camp to attend rapper Lil Baby’s birthday party and leaving his new coach in the dust. Now, Harden should be on his best behavior with his new team, but having him play with an unpredictable, ball-dominant player in Irving, could bring out his worst tendencies. Oh yeah, first-time head coach in Steve Nash is going to have to be the one to make all this work.
So, make no mistake, today’s trade was not good for Boston’s chances to get over the hump and win the Eastern Conference Finals this time around. The Nets now feature a ridiculous amount of talent. However, the Celtics would be the first to tell them that a world-beating team on paper might not be the same one you see on the court.