The NBA is nothing like the MLB. In baseball, when two teams have never won a World Series face-off, it usually means that the two teams are small-market teams. When it comes to the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers, both teams have never won an NBA championship and are not small-market teams.
The Nets have won two championships (1974 and 1976) when the franchise was apart of the exclusive ABA league but have never won a true NBA championship. As for the Clippers, the team has never qualified for the NBA Finals, winning just two division championships since being founded in 1970. In a year of firsts, we could see a first with the Clippers and Nets qualifying for the finals.
The Big 3 vs. The Claw PG13
James Harden has won the last three scoring titles but has adapted perfectly to becoming the team's new point guard. Harden currently leads the league in assists and is averaging 25.2 points and 11.6 assists per game through 19 games with the Nets. The assists mark is the highest in his career, even higher than his MVP season. Pair him with Kevin Durant, who was on pace to win the MVP for the second time in his career before missing time due to COVID and a hamstring injury, and that alone is a superstar duo.
Irving has thrived since moving to the shooting guard position. Irving is averaging 27.4 points per game, which is tied for his career-high set last season when he didn't have either Harden or Durant next to him. While the Nets do have problems defensively, they can run with any team in the league. The three have combined to lead the Nets to the No. 1 ranked offense in the entire NBA, averaging 121.1 points per game with a league-leading 50.1% field-goal percentage. If the team can win the NBA title, it will be the best Big 3 we have seen in the last 20 years.
Kawhi Leonard is having another top-5 caliber season. While he may not win the MVP, he will certainly receive votes. Leonard is the main catalyst for the Clippers ranking fourth in the league in scoring and third in the league in field-goal percentage. Leonard is averaging a career-high 27.1 points per game, while his 39% field goal percentage from the three-point range is the highest in his career. Along with his tough defense, Leonard remains a top-5 player in this league.
Paul George is thriving in his second season with Leonard. His points per game (24.5) are higher than last season, while his three-point field goal percentage (48.6%) is fifth in the league. With that said, George takes 7.7 three-point attempts per game, which ranks significantly higher than Bobby Portis, Jeremy Lamb, and Marcus Morris Sr. Alongside Joe Harris, George is right up there as the best outside shooter in the league this season.
Along with Irving, Durant, and Harden, the Nets feature two high contributing NBA players. At small forward, Joe Harris is a former Three-Point Contest champion and leads the league in three-point field-goal percentage (50.5%). Harris is no slouch either as he takes approximately 6.7 attempts each night. Harris has been the sole beneficiary of having Harden and Irving pair up together as both players are great passers and Harris is a spot-up shooter. With the defenses collapsing on Irving, Harden, or Durant, it leaves Harris wide open and he knocks it down nearly half of the time.
At the center position, DeAndre Jordan has played a lot better since the team traded Jarrett Allen. Even though Jordan is not at the caliber he was five years ago, which was back-to-back rebounding champion titles in 2014 and 2015, he is a former All-Defensive selection. Jordan owns a 79.5% field goal percentage, so when he shoots he is accurate, but it appears that his focus is more on rebounding and defense. His 1.5 blocks per game are high highest total since 2016. In the end, this lineup features three All-Star selections and the league leader in three-point field goal percentage, so the starting lineup has to get the edge here.
Patrick Beverley remains one of the best wing defenders in the league but he has improved his outside shooting as he shoots 44% from three-point range. With the ball in his hands less, his assist totals are down, as well as his rebounding. With that said, Beverley is thriving when allowed to shoot an outside shot. Also thriving is Nicholas Batum, who went from shooting 28.6% from outside to 44.3% this season. Batum has resurrected his career since averaging 3.6 points per game last year in Charlotte.
Serge Ibaka has started all 32 games this season. While his offense and rebounding are down this season, his defensive presence hasn't gone unnoticed. He is blocking his highest percentage of shots since the 2016 seasons. The team just needs him to handle post players, which allows Beverley, George, and Leonard to guard the more athletic players. As a team, the Clippers rank fifth in points allowed per game.
Nets: Bruce Brown, Chris Chiozza, Spencer Dinwiddie, Landry Shamet, Tyler Johnson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jeff Green, Reggie Perry, Nicolas Claxton, Norvel Pelle
Clippers: Reggie Jackson, Lou Williams, Luke Kennard, Terrance Mann, Marcus Morris, Jay Scrubb, Patrick Patterson, Daniel Oturu, Mfiondu Kabengele, Ivica Zubac
When the Nets traded for Harden, they parted with two key contributors off the bench in Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, both of who could be starting with their respective new teams. LeVert was an 18-point per night type of player, while Allen was closing out games for Jordan and finishing with double-doubles most nights. Most nights, the Nets have used just an eight-man rotation. Now, the team is thin with Jeff Green and Bruce Brown playing most of the minutes. If Spencer Dinwiddie wasn't out for the season, this would be a different conversation.
Landry Shamet has been disappointing, but both Bruce Brown and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrott have played well filling in when either Durant or Irving is out. Brown has been starting lately, which has really helped his growth. The Nets realistically have a three-man bench.
As for the Clippers, Reggie Jackson is a former starter in this league that can chip in 12-15 points each night and contributes a few three-point shots. Ivica Zubac might be the best backup center in the league now that Allen is a true starter in Cleveland. Zubac matches well offensively and holds a high field-goal percentage. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris are both seasoned veterans that can contribute at any time. The real conundrum is Lou Williams and his health.
Williams is having his worst season in nearly seven years. His points per game are his lowest since 2013, while his rebounding and assists are both down. His field goal percentage is near his career-mark. If the Clippers want to make a long playoff run, Williams will need to play like his former Sixth Man of the Year self. Either way, the Clippers bench has more options and could potentially wear down the Nets in a seven-game series.
Coach: Steve Nash vs. Ty Lue
Nash has the Nets one game out from the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Nets are 22-13 this season and are just 1/2 a game out of first place of the 22-12 Philadelphia 76ers. The biggest question mark was how Nash was going to get Irving and Durant to let ego aside and play together with Harden thrown into the mix.
Nash has succeeded well in that regard. For starters, it was Irving's choice to let Harden take over as point guard. With the distractions that Irving has provided, Nash has not only handled these with grace but also helped form a team culture. That was proven when Irving chose to move to shoot the guard. Harden and Irving have been flourishing in their new roles, which has helped Brooklyn go 7-3 in their last 10 games. By the end of the year, Brooklyn could be the No. 1 seed and feature the NBA Coach of the Year.
Lue has done an exceptional job since taking over for Doc Rivers. The Clippers look to shoot the three more and are more of a complete team. A lot of their success has to do with Leonard and George having more years together, but a fresh face was overdue. Rivers had plenty of talent during his tenure and couldn't make the NBA Finals. With Lue, a new voice is clearly being heard. The Clippers are the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference but what is more impressive is how the Clippers have consistently slid under the spotlight this season.
The Clippers have consistently played well with little national attention. There are no distractions with the team. Everyone is playing well and a lot has to do with the coach setting the culture.
The Nets are playing some of their best basketball and that is without Kevin Durant playing. When Durant comes back, there's reason to believe that this team will go all the way to the NBA Finals. Who can blame anyone for thinking it? For most teams, they have found no answer for the NBA's most prolific scoring offense. Until the Clippers show they are better than the Lakers, the Nets will have the edge in a seven-game series.