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James Harden Wants to Change Teams. Is He Willing to Change His Game?

The Rockets star suffered three failed superstar marriages in Houston. Will joining Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn go over any smoother? It would be on him to make it work.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

James Harden wants to play with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. That seems abundantly clear from the reporting coming out of Houston over the last few days. The question now is whether he’s willing to make the necessary changes to make that kind of superteam work.

There’s no great secret about what Harden would have to do on that version of the Nets. He wouldn’t be able to hold the ball and run endless isolation plays like he has with the Rockets. He would have to truly buy in on defense and move without the ball on offense. But that same logic applied to his partnership with Russell Westbrook. And that never happened.

The Harden-Westbrook divorce must be frustrating for Houston. Harden demanded the Rockets sacrifice their future to pair him with his former teammate and then refused to alter his style of play to make his new costar more comfortable. To Harden’s credit, he didn’t play with the ball quite as much as before and allowed Westbrook to push the pace when they were both in the game, as opposed to walking it up the floor. Those changes, though, didn’t change the fundamental dynamic of the team.

The Rockets bent over backward to empower Harden, the league’s three-time reigning scoring champ. They never challenged him in the locker room. They restructured their offense to let him chase MVP awards. And they frequently reshuffled their roster to bring in new waves of players willing to watch him on offense and cover for him on defense. Playing with that version of Harden is incredibly difficult. Every star that has tried has eventually grown tired of it. Dwight Howard lasted three seasons. Chris Paul lasted two. Westbrook made it through only one before demanding a trade of his own last week. It doesn’t take a master’s degree in tea-leaf reading to figure out what Russ was referencing when he said that he wanted “team-wide accountability, discipline, and structure.”

Even the role players who flourished next to Harden weren’t particularly happy, according to that same report from The Athletic. Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, and Danuel House Jr. all wanted a bigger role in the offense, while P.J. Tucker wanted more money for the sacrifices he made on defense. As effective as all four were at times in Houston, none of them grew up playing as spectators whose only job was to make sure someone else had enough room to take stepback 30-footers. NBA players want to feel involved. They want to touch the ball.

That amount of sacrifice only makes sense on a genuine contender. It’s one thing to buy into a limited role in a season like 2017-18, when the Rockets won 65 games and made it to Game 7 of the Western Conference finals. It’s quite another when they flame out in the second round like they did in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Harden hasn’t lived up to his end of the bargain. Playing with LeBron James requires a lot of sacrifice, too. The difference is that playing with LeBron almost guarantees a trip to the Finals, at minimum. Harden’s only trip to the Finals came when he was a sixth man in Oklahoma City.

Harden’s playoff history in Houston will be litigated for years to come. His postseason averages as a Rocket look great on the surface—28.4 points on 42.1 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game—and he carried his team out of the first round in five of the last six seasons. He never benefited from an ownership group willing to go deep into the luxury tax, or the type of versatile frontcourt playmaker most title teams have. But he also doesn’t have the same history of clutch shots as many of his peers. There aren’t many legendary performances on his résumé outside the regular season. The best team his Rockets beat in the playoffs was the Lob City Clippers. And Harden was benched in the fourth quarter of their miraculous Game 6 comeback in that series.

For such a ball-dominant player in the first 46 minutes of a game, Harden often becomes surprisingly invisible in the final two. Westbrook imploded multiple times in the fourth quarter of the Rockets’ first-round series against the Thunder last season, but he should never have been in that position in the first place. The Rockets were set up for Harden to play one-on-one and for Westbrook to get out of the way. That might not be the ideal way to win a title, but it’s the philosophy that allowed Harden to become one of the greatest scorers in NBA history.

That style won’t work if Houston gives in to Harden’s demands and trades him to another contender, whether it’s Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or a mystery team. The balance of power will shift in the new locker room. A star won’t be coming to Harden this time. Harden would be coming to them.

All of Harden’s costars in Houston should have bought into a secondary role playing off him. The NBA had changed by the time Howard arrived in 2013. Running a lot of post-ups for a relatively unskilled center didn’t make sense. Paul was in the latter stage of his career when he arrived in 2017, no longer capable of being the best player on a contender. And Westbrook may have never been that player. He didn’t win a single playoff series in Oklahoma City without Durant.

It would be a different story for Harden next to Durant and Irving in Brooklyn. That Big Three would have a mind-boggling amount of offensive firepower. All three players are offenses unto themselves who can score without help from any part of the floor. There has never been a superteam quite like that—including the Warriors and the Heat. It’s hard to envision how any team could defend a two-man game between Harden and Durant, even without Kyrie spacing the floor. But that would work only if Harden commits to playing defense, moving the ball, and being a threat off it. His days of contending for MVP awards would be over.

There’s no reason he can’t adapt. The Thunder once trusted him so much on defense that they had him guard LeBron in the Finals. It might not have been the best decision in hindsight, since LeBron bulldozed him in the post, but the thought shows that he was once capable of being part of a system instead of the entire system.

Now, getting a player as decorated as Harden to buy in to those changes is easier said than done, especially for a first-time head coach like Steve Nash. Harden is a surefire Hall of Famer who literally changed the way the game is played. He could stay in Houston and win 50-plus games for the indefinite future. More won’t be asked of him somewhere else. Instead, different things will. Buying into that change for an entire season is hard. Westbrook never really made the adjustment in Houston. Now it seems that he wants to go back to playing the style of basketball that made him a Hall of Famer even if it means never winning a title.

Harden is great enough to play any way that he wants. But he’s not quite great enough to go his own way and win a title. His eight seasons in Houston are proof of that. There’s no way to know for sure how he would handle these changes. He might say the right things now, but that doesn’t mean he will still feel the same in the middle of a losing streak, or the heat of a playoff series.

The concern for the team that acquires him is that he has a player option after the 2021-22 season. This could end up as a repeat of what happened with him and Westbrook, except with Harden as the one who demands a trade after one disappointing season. The Rockets almost certainly won’t trade Harden to a team that won’t mortgage their future for him. Not after they just did the same thing for Westbrook. The gamble for that team, whether it’s the Nets or someone else, is that Harden is willing to take a step back to make it work.

He should be willing. He’s won an MVP and accomplished all that he could as an individual. The only thing left for him to do is win a title. But “should” only goes so far in this era of the NBA. His potential costars in Brooklyn are proof of how hard that kind of sacrifice is to sustain, no matter how much you care about winning. Durant won two titles in Golden State and still left so that he could run his own team. Kyrie won one in Cleveland before doing the same.

The most telling mark of LeBron’s greatness is that he’s the one star who can win titles on his own terms. Everyone else has to manage the balance between maximizing themselves and winning. It’s Harden’s turn to walk that line. He’s one of the most unguardable players to ever pick up a basketball. From this point forward, the only thing stopping him from winning a title is himself.