Basketball has never been this easy for James Harden. He’s flourishing as part of a superteam in Brooklyn, averaging 24.2 points per game with career highs in assists (11.7), rebounds (8.2), field-goal percentage (50.0), and 3-point percentage (40.8). He doesn’t have to carry his team on his back anymore. Harden can play within the flow of the Nets’ offense, attacking off the dribble and taking what the defense gives him. He’s one of the most skilled and intelligent players ever. There’s little opponents can do to slow down the former MVP now that he’s playing with so much talent around him.
Harden led the Nets in points (23) and assists (11) in a battle of shorthanded squads on Thursday, pacing a double-digit win over the Lakers. The surprise isn’t that Brooklyn won the game without Kevin Durant, but rather how effortless it looked. Harden was in complete control from the start, getting wherever he wanted to go and bending the defense to his will. It never seemed like the Lakers bothered him. Harden had only one turnover despite dribbling through the heart of the Lakers defense the entire game. He casually strolled to the rim, set up his teammates for open shots, and scored seemingly without breaking a sweat.
That’s been one of the biggest differences between Harden and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. Kyrie scores as if he’s being judged on the degree of difficulty on every possession. Harden does it like he’s playing in sweatpants at the park:
The two have settled into new offensive roles during the team’s current five-game West Coast road trip. Harden is the point guard and Kyrie is the shooting guard. It’s the perfect blend of their games. Kyrie has always been at his best when dribbling the ball into the ground and hunting for his own shot. That was his role when he won an NBA title in Cleveland with LeBron James running the offense. Harden was often portrayed as a similar kind of player in Houston, but he’s closer to LeBron than Kyrie in terms of being a well-rounded offensive force.
That’s become clear in the former Rockets star’s first month in Brooklyn. Harden has been the key to making the Nets’ superteam experiment work. He has expanded his game and allowed Kyrie and KD to thrive in more specialized roles. It’s his job to keep the ball moving and make sure that everyone is involved in the offense. All his costars have to worry about is getting buckets. Harden has adjusted his style of play to become a more traditional floor general. He is the Nets’ third-leading scorer and averaging more assists than his two costars combined:
The Nets’ Big Three
|Player||Points||Field Goal Percentage||Assists|
|Player||Points||Field Goal Percentage||Assists|
Their offense now revolves around Harden, even though the four-time scoring champ is no longer shooting as much. He’s averaging more touches per game (95.0) and more time with the ball in his hands (8.7 minutes) than he did last season in Houston. The big change is that those possessions aren’t ending in shots nearly as often. Harden is averaging fewer field-goal attempts (15.3 per game) and more passes (69.4) than in any of his eight seasons in Houston. These are the kinds of plays that would probably have ended up as shots during his time with the Rockets:
It’s almost as if Harden, KD, and Kyrie worked out a grand bargain before joining forces. Harden would still get to dominate the ball despite being in a Big Three, but that privilege would come with the responsibility of setting everyone else up. There are times when it seems like the other two are living in their own universes within the Nets offense. When one of them heats up, they’ll jack up shots for a couple minutes, and then Harden will take back the wheel and get the ball moving again. Per NBA Advanced Stats, 42.9 percent of Harden’s drives with the Nets have ended in passes, compared to 22.8 percent for Kyrie and 22.4 percent for Durant.
But Harden’s increased emphasis on playmaking shouldn’t overshadow his continued dominance as a scorer. One of the most underrated parts of Harden’s game is just how powerful he is. He’s only 6-foot-5, but he plays much bigger because of his strong frame (220 pounds) and long arms (6-foot-11 wingspan). Defenders bounce off him and can’t stop him from getting to his preferred spots on the floor. Harden has never had any difficulty creating shots for himself. Brooklyn has weaponized that ability in a new way. Instead of asking Harden to create tough shots against defenses geared up to stop him, they just rely on him to sprinkle in a few easy ones when the defense plays him for the pass.
The concern about bringing Harden to the Nets was about whether he’d be willing to sacrifice his own offense after never doing that with the Rockets. But he has already sacrificed more than he ever did for any of his costars in Houston. It’s hard to know from the outside what changed for Harden, but it’s already clear that the change was the best thing that could have happened to him. The situation in Houston had gotten stale; Harden lost to Golden State in the playoffs four times in his last six seasons there. He was outmanned in every one of those series.
Things bottomed out in the Rockets’ loss to the Lakers last postseason. Los Angeles double-teamed Harden all over the floor, and his teammates couldn’t consistently score in four-on-three situations. It was an embarrassing loss that revealed just how far the Rockets were from matching up with the best teams in the NBA. But no one will ever double-team Harden again now that he’s playing with KD and Kyrie.
Harden’s NBA career has come full circle. He spent his first three seasons as the third wheel behind Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City before branching out on his own in Houston. Now he’s back where he started in an even better Big Three in Brooklyn. It’s all part of the natural life cycle of an NBA star. Harden was 23 when he left the Thunder. He needed to prove that he was one of the best players in the league and that he could carry his own team. At 31, Harden has put all of that behind him. He has won an MVP and changed basketball forever. The only thing left for him to do is win a title. That’s similar to Kobe Bryant’s career progression with the Lakers, except that Harden did it on three separate teams.
Harden isn’t the most popular superstar. He’s the only one of Brooklyn’s Big Three who wasn’t picked to start in the All-Star Game. But there shouldn’t be any question as to how great he is. His ability to seamlessly transition from most prolific scorer in the NBA to glue guy speaks to his absurd basketball IQ. Harden has always been able to do whatever he wants on the court. And now that he wants to sacrifice and win a title, it will be hard for anyone to stop him.