After eight seasons in Houston, James Harden took time after the 2019-20 season ended on the NBA Campus in Orlando to reflect on his next steps. His objective was clear; to put himself in the best opportunity to win at the highest level. Harden felt that no longer existed with the Rockets, and when he surveyed the landscape, he settled on a preferred destination: Brooklyn.
“Obviously, you’ve got Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the team, and then, surrounded by those guys, you have really good pieces in DeAndre (Jordan), Jeff (Green), shooters in Joe (Harris) and Landry (Shamet),” said Harden. “You just look at this entire roster, and it’s just built for any style of basketball you want. And then the coaching staff, who knows the game of basketball at a high level. You just add that all together and it’s like, that’s a legit chance right there. It was a no-brainer for me.”
This week, Harden got what he was looking for with a trade to the Nets, and as long as all the players involved in the four-team deal pass their physicals, he could make his debut in Brooklyn’s game against the Orlando Magic on Saturday night at Barclays Center. Nets coach Steve Nash said that once Harden is cleared to play, he’ll start immediately.
A six-time All-NBA First Team selection and a former MVP, Harden led the league in scoring each of the last three seasons, including a career-high 36.1 points in 2018-19. He’s 11th in NBA history with a career scoring average of 25.1. Quite simply, he’s one of the great scorers in league history. The interesting part is that the Nets already have one of those guys: Kevin Durant has four scoring titles of his own and ranks even higher on the all-time lists. Plus, there’s the dynamic Irving, averaging 27.1 points per game this season to Durant’s 29.4.
“It’s going to be an adjustment for him,” said Nash. “He’s played the same role for many years now, the same way, the same style. So, he’ll be able to emulate that in some ways, but in other ways, he’s going to have to adapt to playing with other guys, namely Kevin and Ky. The newness of that, but also the adjustment of how to make them all make each other better and fit together is something I think he’s incredibly excited about. He realizes he’s in a fortunate opportunity to be able to play with those guys, and they feel the same way about him. So, I think everyone’s motives are on track, and at the same time, we have to figure this thing out as we go here.”
“It might take a little time, it might not,” said Harden. “I think all of us are very, very smart, like I said are very unselfish, and we know what’s at stake. So, I mean, it’s just a matter of coaches putting us in position and us communicating, putting ourselves to positions and spots on the floor where we can be effective and help each other out. Each game is going to be different, but I think as time goes on, since we’re not really practicing, as we get a feel for throughout the course of games that it should be a lot easier because, like I said, all of us are unselfish and we want to see the next man succeed. Not only just us three though, we want to see our entire team succeed and play to the best of their ability.”
There is familiarity that can help ease the transition. Harden and Durant played together for three seasons in Oklahoma City through 2012. Jeff Green was there too, into the 2010-11 season. While Harden doesn’t have previous ties with Nash, he’s looking forward to connecting with another of the great point guards in league history. And he spent the last four years playing for Nets assistant coach Mike D’Antoni, who was his head coach in Houston. As he did when he coached Nash and the Phoenix Suns 15 years ago, D’Antoni guided Harden to new heights individually and the Rockets and the NBA in new directions.
One of those new directions is building out increasingly fluid and versatile lineups, and with Harden joining Durant and Irving, Nash now has an unprecedented trio to work with in Brooklyn. Yes, all three players have historically high usage rates and are among the elite one-on-one scorers in the league, but they’re also all skilled facilitators and world-class shooters.
“I think the game is becoming more and more positionless,” said Nash. “You don’t have to define a role so clearly. Fortunately for us, you know I think James is a point guard essentially, but he has the size to play multiple positions. If you want to go the positional traditional route, Kyrie will be a point guard; he also was very capable of playing off the ball. I think there’s a lot of interchangeability between the players. The way the game is going and modern game is very interchangeable, positionless as it is. It's really about how much these guys want to sacrifice to become an efficient unit, and if they’re willing to do that it doesn't really matter who brings the ball up the court or what you label it: It’s about how they play together and how willing they are to work and make each other better.”
Harden has an assist title to go with his three scoring titles, leading the league with 11.2 assists in 2016-17. He’s one of only six players to have led the league in both points and assists in his career, and he’s averaged at least 7.0 assists for each of the last six seasons. Now he’s paired with two elite scorers who finish at highly efficient rates.
“My job is to come out here and obviously score the basketball when needed, but my playmaking ability as far as getting our shooters shots and our bigs finishes around the rim and making the entire team better, I think that’s one aspect of my game that will excel in this offense,” said Harden. “As long as I’m making my teammates better, it doesn’t matter about the points. I think everybody knows I can score the ball at a high clip, and that’s where the sacrifice comes in at.”
The Durant/Irving pairing had Brooklyn’s possibilities and expectations soaring, and the addition of Harden, while it dramatically reshapes the roster, somehow elevates them.
“We want to win a championship for sure,” said Nash. “That’s why we made the deal, that’s what we’re setting out to do. Having said that, we’re so far from that right now. So, our expectation is just to grow every day, to get better, to figure out who we are and what we are, how we fit together and where we can improve. And so, it’s a process. You have to earn the right to play for a championship during the regular season and playoffs. So, those steps are still in front of us before we can say we’re a championship team. We’re not a team that’s running it back, that’s been to the Finals or the conference finals even. We’re a brand-new entity that has to figure it out, but that is the end goal. If we take the necessary steps and continue to improve and work towards that and commit to that process, why not? We have a great opportunity here with the players we have.”