In the last few years, there has been a paradigm shift in the NBA. The days of stockpiling top-end talent to try and form the next big 3 are winding down. Instead, most contenders have focused on building deeper teams around one or two stars. The Phoenix Suns then, went against the grain when they traded for Bradley Beal and formed a big 3 with him, Devin Booker, and Kevin Durant.
That combo has invariably drawn comparisons to big 3s of the past, chief among them the failed Brooklyn Nets trio that comprised James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Durant himself. Those three played all of 16 games together before Harden was traded away.
It would’ve been the last true big 3 in the NBA before the Suns take the court on opening night of the 2023-24 season.
The Suns have a couple of protections against the pitfalls that caused the Nets to have such an abbreviated window of contention. The first is a slight contractual advantage. When the Nets big 3 formed they all had three years remaining on their deals. For the Suns, Durant also only has three years left on his deal, but Beal and Booker are signed for four and five more years, respectively.
However, as we’ve seen in the NBA, years left on a deal isn’t much of a deterrent when a star wants out. The Suns themselves benefited from that when Durant asked out of Brooklyn, so it’s not out of the question that the shoe could be on the other foot at some point.
The biggest factor the Suns have working in their favor to avoid that is the personalities of Booker and Beal compared to Irving and Harden. Kyrie’s mercurial nature caused countless problems in Brooklyn.
He was constantly in the news for the wrong reasons, ranging from linking an antisemitic film on his Instagram, to his flat-earth theory. These provided plenty of distractions off-the court for the Nets, but it eventually spilled onto the court when he refused to get vaccinated and missed a large chunk of a season.
All of this may very well have contributed to Harden’s trade demand after just year in Brooklyn. Then again, that may have been inevitable considering Harden is embroiled in yet another front office stand off with his third trade request in four years. With those two players, it just never seemed like Brooklyn’s trio was going to last long.
Say what you will about KD’s frequent spats with Twitter trolls or his constant attempts at forming loaded teams, but the man is all basketball. It feels like he’s been in the gym everyday this offseason given the amount of videos we’ve seen of him working out with every player under the sun.
Durant has found a kindred spirit in Phoenix with Booker, who is also all about ball. Book is incredibly media savvy and never puts himself in a situation where he can become a distraction. Beal too is known for his elite work ethic, and played for a struggling Washington Wizards team for years without complaint.
Outside of their respective big 3s, the Suns have a couple more advantages over that Nets team. The most prominent of which might be the edge the Suns have in the coaching department. The Suns brought in a known commodity in Frank Vogel to helm the team.
Vogel has experience not only with the ins and outs of game planning, but has also coached superstars and managed their personalities. The Nets, on the other hand, hired beloved Sun but coaching newbie Steve Nash.
Nash wasn’t a bad coach for the Nets, but it was clear that he had his hands full trying to check the stars. Vogel won’t get pushed around by anyone, but the Suns players likely won’t try to do that.
One of the hallmarks in teams that have three stars is the steep drop-off between that third star and their fourth best player. That was the case for 2021 Nets, whose fourth best player was either Joe Harris or Bruce Brown. It came back to bite them in the playoffs when Kyrie and Harden dealt with injuries and Durant had to singlehandedly carry the team.
The Suns though, have managed to retain Deandre Ayton throughout all this roster turnover. Ayton is pretty clearly the best fourth option in the league now, but more importantly plays a completely different role than the other three.
There won’t be an overlap in where he operates with them, so the Suns should get max effectiveness from Ayton. Ultimately, the 2021 Nets aren’t the big 3 cautionary tale that they were made out to be. If Kyrie didn’t get hurt they probably cruise to to a Finals appearance that year and possibly win it all.
The dissolution of that team was more due to the personalities involved rather than team construction. James Jones and co. seem to have accounted for that in assembling this Suns team. Because of that, and the other advantages the Suns have, they should get many more cracks at a championship together than Brooklyn did.