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Nets gain superstar guard Harden from Houston, pay heavy price; superteam may be justified only by a title, but should continue to wrest attention from Knicks

In another remarkable--albeit risky--move, the Brooklyn Nets yesterday became even more of a superteam, adding Houston Rockets superstar James Harden, who'd agitated to leave, in exchange for a heavy price: three solid young players, including budding stars Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, and a trove of draft assets: three unprotected first-round picks, plus four opportunities to swap draft positions.

That lifted the Nets into the NBA's likely second slot, behind the defending champs Los Angeles Lakers, according to betting odds, though pundits said the trade would be justified only by a title. 

It should further cement the Nets--who last night beat the long-struggling New York Knicks with forward Kevin Durant as their only star on the court--as the city's dominant team, thus narrowing the Knicks' long advantage in revenue, sponsorships, viewers, and value. 

And if it delivers a championship to the Nets, who began playing in Brooklyn in September 2012, it's another example of "rooting for the clothes." LeVert, who arrived in June 2016, had been the longest-tenured Net; that's now Joe Harris, who arrived in July 2016.

A team re-set

The Nets now have three transcendent scorers, with Durant and point guard Kyrie Irving along with shooting guard Harden, plus other talent like Harris and guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who's out for the season. 

They still lack the frontcourt muscle to match up with the Lakers' LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers, after winning the title, added more complementary pieces--but playing defense on the new-look Nets will be challenging. 

The trade, leveraged by Harden, completes a transformation of the Nets, a team rebuilt from the ashes of an even riskier win-now blockbuster trade, that for aging Boston Celtics stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce after one year in Brooklyn. That was under General Manager Billy King and new Coach Jason Kidd, a retired star point guard making his coaching debut.

General Manager Sean Marks and Coach Kenny Atkinson savvily used draft picks, trades, and player development to make the Nets--boosted by location in the nation's media capital and a new, government-enabled arena--a desirable location for Durant and Irving, who had wanted to play together.  

The newly arrived stars, who didn't play together until this season, after Durant spent a year in rehab, are believed to have engineered the departure of Atkinson, who this year was succeeded by Steve Nash, a retired star point guard making his coaching debut.

New challenges, new upside

Nash's job just got harder. While the Nets got Durant and Harden for a relatively gentle price, they'll will have to fill out this year's roster and find other young players.

And while the team assembled by "Markinson" was remarkably cohesive, the superstar-driven league means stars can push the envelope. 

Irving has been on personal leave, for reasons unspecified (yet reportedly related to political issues), but also was spotted at a family party, potentially violating coronavirus protocols. Harden alienated his teammates in Houston. 

The ball-dominant stars--especially Harden and Irving--must learn how to play together. Sports Illustrated's Jeremy Woo gave the Nets a B- grade, albeit with an asterisk:

The Nets are now at the mercy of their potentially fickle chemistry. The risk is major, and the stakes are high in Brooklyn. Then again, if it works, forget you ever read this.
And the Daily News's Kristian Winfield called it a gamble:
That is the most troubling part of the deal: Marks has repeated the mistakes of Brooklyn’s past. He said he wouldn’t mortgage the team’s future in any deal for a star, but there was no deal for Harden that did not include every pick Brooklyn had to offer.

The New York Post's Mike Vaccaro was even more harsh, noting the hypocrisy of Marks' statement this past November:

“I think we want to build something sustainable here. This is not something that’s a fleeting moment, like go all-in and a year or two years from now, we’re sitting here like, ‘Great, now we’ve got to completely rebuild everything and we don’t have the assets to rebuild with.’ So there’s that side of it.”
Wrote Vaccaro:
Maybe Irving’s troubles upped the ante for Marks. Maybe the lure of throwing those three talents together was worth overlooking Harden’s recent behavior, which had been poisonous, or Irving’s ongoing issues, whatever they may turn out to be.

...It’s impossible to know.

Only one thing is certain:

No team in the history of sports has ever been required to win a championship to justify their existence. Until now.

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