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Nets land James Harden in bold move to dethrone champion Lakers

James Harden of the Houston Rockets reacts to a basket.
The Brooklyn Nets have agreed to a deal with Houston for former MVP James Harden.
(Carmen Mandato / Associated Press)

The Lakers knew they’d enter this season with a target on their backs. They probably didn’t know how that target would get smaller and smaller.

Thirteen games into the NBA season, the team with all the excuses to get off to a slow start has the best record in the league, a 7-0 mark on the road, the third-ranked defense and the seventh-best offense.

If you’re one of those teams chasing, now is as good of a time as any to start smashing the turbo button.

The Brooklyn Nets did that Wednesday, trading picks and their best young players to acquire James Harden, giving them unquestionably the most talented “Big Three” in the current NBA.

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Harden and Kevin Durant have both won MVP awards, and along with Kyrie Irving, the trio have been fixtures in All-Star games and on All-NBA teams.

It’s hard to view the trade outside of the lens of the present, when Harden is still overweight and covered in the ashes from the Houston Rockets’ empire that he helped burn to the ground in a flurry of trade demands and mask-less partying.

The Lakers’ LeBron James didn’t need to watch his three-pointer all the way into the basket in a 117-100 win over the Rockets on Tuesday in Houston.

It all came to a head Tuesday, the Lakers having easily blown out the Rockets for a second consecutive game and Harden ending his postgame news conference by stating that his team wasn’t good enough now and never would be.

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By Wednesday, hours after his teammates in Houston labeled Harden as “disrespectful” for quitting on them before this season began, Harden got what he wanted.

The trade grew like a weed, eventually involving four teams.

The basics go something like this: the Nets get Harden. The Rockets get All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, Dante Exum, four future first-round picks and the right to swap spots with Brooklyn in four other drafts. The Indiana Pacers swapped Oladipo for Brooklyn wing Caris LeVert. And the Cleveland Cavaliers land their center of the future, Jarrett Allen, and wing Taurean Prince. A few second-round picks also changed hands.

Whew.

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The trade hasn’t yet been made official.

The Nets, who already had the talent to be considered contenders, are now even more talented (and probably even more defensively vulnerable). And that’s assuming Irving rejoins the team at some point.

The Rockets get to actually enjoy one another even if they’re not going to be factors in the West. The Pacers flipped an expiring contract for a dynamic player with more years on his deal. And the Cavaliers jumped on the opportunity to turn a likely late first-rounder (the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2022 pick) into Allen.

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It was a bonafide NBA blockbuster, an enthralling diversion from historic happenings at pretty much the same time. But kind of like that other thing, what actually changed?

The Lakers are still the best team in the West — LeBron James and Anthony Davis are playing perfectly in step in their second year together, a dynamic James described last year before the team captured a championship.

“We’re two guys who know who we are. We know who we are as human beings. We’re not trying to be nobody else but our own identity, our own self,” James said. “And when you know yourself and when you’re confident in what you do both on and off the floor and you know what you represent, then there’s no ego. There’s no ego.”

Does that apply to the trio in Brooklyn? That’s a big question that’ll need to be answered, with first-year coach Steve Nash in the middle of the finding the answer.

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The Clippers, a team that’s had to navigate its own chemistry problems, have a huge head-start on the Nets, who will need to figure out who does and says what and when.

In the East, the Nets will have to fight off a team that was in on Harden — Philadelphia, which has been terrific in coach Doc Rivers’ first year with the team, minus a stretch where the 76ers were hit hard by health and safety protocols. Boston wouldn’t offer its best players in the Harden chase, so it’s fair to think the Celtics feel good about Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

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And there’s Milwaukee, which is once again stifling offenses with one of the league’s best defenses with an ever-improving Giannis Antetokounmpo flanked by the addition of veteran point guard and stellar defender Jrue Holiday.

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Brooklyn’s top-end talent is better than all those teams, but fit and chemistry questions are big enough where taking a “wait-and-see” approach with the Nets seems like the smartest thing.

None of that applies to the Lakers, who are off and rolling despite having every reason to have taken their time getting into things this year.

They’re playing with joy, blowing out inferior opponents and not complaining about the realities of playing in a pandemic.

When you’re in the front with everyone chasing, you’re usually there for a reason.


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