Insider Details How Demise of Nets Big 3 ‘Hinged’ on Mavericks Star’s Injury

Brooklyn Nets

Getty (From left) Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets.

A late-2020 injury to a player no longer on the team ultimately might have been the catalyst for the breakup of the Brooklyn Nets’ Big Three, according to a new report.

A set of extenuating circumstances – all centered on guard Spencer Dinwiddie’s torn ACL just three games into the 2020-21 season – likely led to the acquisition and eventual ridding of superstar James Harden from a team that was swept out of the first round of this year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, according to a May 21 story by Brian Lewis of The New York Post. Seventeen months later, Dinwiddie is playing with the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals.

“Dinwiddie, along with Joe Harris, was one of the last vestiges of general manager Sean Marks’ first full-season roster from 2016-17,” Lewis wrote. “The combo guard had been part of the Nets’ arduous climb from the NBA cellar into a team that backed up superstar free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving with balance, defense, and depth.

“Then on Dec. 27, 2020, in just the third game of Durant and Irving sharing the court, Dinwiddie tore his ACL. Less than three weeks later, the Nets dumped their roster depth for James Harden and the dreams of a Big 3. It set in motion everything that’s happened since the lack of depth to survive Irving’s absences this season; the trade Harden forced out of town; the arrival of Ben Simmons, who hasn’t played since.”

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Nets Let Dinwiddie Walk

Because of Dinwiddie’s injury, the Nets never got to see what their true potential would be with him on the floor with Irving and Durant.

With Dinwiddie out for the season, Marks and the Nets essentially mortgaged their future to bring Harden to Brooklyn from the Houston Rockets a three-team deal in which the Nets gave up four players and seven draft picks. The Nets wound up going 48-24 in the pandemic-shortened season, finishing second in the Eastern Conference.

After they were ousted by the Bucks in the conference semifinals, Marks outlined a goal to ink his Big Three – Harden, Durant and Irving – to long-term extensions. By making them the highest-paid threesome in league history, though, Marks was left to trim payroll elsewhere, and that meant letting the recovering Dinwiddie walk in free agency.

As the 2021-22 season began to unfold, more extenuating circumstances appeared to affect Harden’s outlook on his future with the Nets. For one, Durant was sidelined with a sprained MCL in January that held him out for nearly two months. In April, Durant pointed to the injury as the moment the Nets’ season was “derailed.” Then there was Irving’s unavailability to play home games because of his vaccination status. He didn’t appear in a game at Barclays Center until March 27, at which point the Nets appeared destined for the conference play-in tournament.

Harden, left to shoulder much of the load for the Nets, finally requested a trade in February, when he was shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers for injured superstar Ben Simmons, a move that came as a surprise to many.

Sam Mitchell: Nets Were Better Without Harden

There is no telling how far the Nets would have gone had they never acquired Harden. But ex-NBA player and coach Sam Mitchell said that he had no doubt that Brooklyn would have been better off without him.

“Think about if it would have been Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving,” Mitchell said during an appearance on Sirius XM Radio in December 2021. “Look at the center, Jarrett Allen. Look at what kind of player he has turned out to be. Put him with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and Joe Harris. You’d still have Caris LeVert and you would still have Spencer Dinwiddie. … He can come off the bench, he can start. He’s not the guy that gets the engine going. Spencer Dinwiddie on that team is your fifth or sixth best player.

“I would argue with you, they would be a better team if they had those players and that collection of players, that group they had if they wouldn’t have added James Harden. They would be a team that I would feel more comfortable with that team we just talked about, winning a championship. Because even with Kyrie Irving, I still don’t believe they have enough past those three guys to beat the top teams.”

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