He’s leading the league in assist per game at 11.2 — 11.6 a night since the trade — and we’re not talking about what many consider to be selfish assists, where a player relinquishes the ball only when they believe they have a chance to be rewarded for doing so in the final stat sheet.
Harden has remodeled his game to showcase a more unselfish brand of basketball in his short Nets tenure to this point. He’s up to second in passes per game at 72.1 compared to 49.5 in his final season with the Houston Rockets while holding and dribbling the ball fewer times on each possession.
In short, the reigning three-time scoring champion is embracing the responsibilities that come with serving as the de-facto floor general and thriving in them to help the league’s latest superteam.
Perhaps the biggest reason behind the seamless play of the Brooklyn Nets’ Big Three has been the stylistic adjustments made by James Harden.
“I came into this team knowing they have two special scorers on this team,” Harden said after a win in the first of a five-game west coast trip. “Obviously, I score when I need to but as long as I’m getting everybody involved and Ky’s getting the shots that he wants, KD’s getting the shots that he wants, it’s pretty efficient, it seems to work well that way.
The early stages of Big Threes are typically not as glamorous as the immediate post-transaction euphoria would have you to believe.
It always looks great on paper, but the question quickly shifts to how it will function on the court. Three players ranging from star to superstar caliber can’t go about their business as if they still run their own teams. Just look at the first year of trios that belonged to the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Three All-Stars for each had you thinking of a clear path to the title. Starts of 9-8 and 5-7, respectively, made you realize that something different was needed. Sacrifice, after all, is the word most often associated with superteams for a reason.
“Everybody says they want to win,” Chris Bosh, the one who had to take a backseat during his Miami days alongside LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, said in October of 2014. “But when you start talking about sacrifice and doing what’s right for the team, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t mean that. I want to win, but…’ There’s always a conjunction with that. It’s never what you think it is. And it’s always like your weakest point where you got to do it.”
As a big man who never pounded the basketball during his lone-wolf days up north — the natural limitations of a big man — and the least accomplished of the bunch, Bosh was the natural pick to stand in the shadows of his co-stars. The same applied to Kevin Love once he and LeBron joined Kyrie Irving in Cleveland.
There was work to be done to establish familiarity and chemistry, but predetermined roles set a much-needed foundation to build off of. Unfortunately, a similar pecking order didn’t naturally fall into place when the Nets acquired Harden to pair alongside Irving and Durant.
All three had grown comfortable in their careers playing no less than second fiddle with the ball still primarily in their hands when it mattered most.
— NBA (@NBA) February 14, 2021
Even after rehabbing an Achilles tear, Durant didn’t need long to prove he was still the best among them, but Harden no doubt felt he had a case as the most recent MVP. And while Irving lagged behind in the talent department, the former champion could boast a level of playoff excellence his new teammate fought his way to Brooklyn to find.
Having three players each fully capable of going for 50 on any given night is as good a problem to have as there is in the NBA. That didn’t absolve the Nets of doing the early work to ensure they were reaching their full potential as a trio come playoff time.
But there are only so many rotation choices and offensive sets Steve Nash could make without one of the three sacrificing to make the job a little easier for everyone. To his credit, Harden seems to be the one embracing that challenge, and it’s helped the Nets look ahead of schedule with this new iteration of their team, at least at the offensive end where they’re top-five since the blockbuster trade.
“I feel like he’s been doing a great job of just managing the point guard role,” Irving said of Harden. “We established that maybe four days ago. I just looked at him and I said, ‘You’re the point guard, and I’m going to play shooting guard.’ That was as simple as that.”
As big a name as Harden has made for himself scoring the ball at a historic level, this isn’t his first go-around as a full-time point guard nor is he a stranger to the challenges that come with thriving alongside other great players.
It was current Nets assistant coach and former Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni who moved Harden up a position in their first year together before the 2016-17 season, resulting in a career and league-high 11.2 assists per game from Harden. The sour ending to their relationship clouds the early stages that saw Harden and Chris Paul lead a 65-win powerhouse that came within a game of the NBA Finals.
Comparable to the Heat and Cavaliers of prior years, a modest 8-6 record since Harden arrived indicates plenty of areas the Nets still needs to grow in before being confident in their title hopes — though most of those are at the defensive end of the floor.
But a 9-1 record against teams .500 or better this season, including quality wins over the Bucks, Clippers and Warriors with Harden, indicate the ceiling Brooklyn is fully capable of reaching. That they’re showing significant glimpses in the working stages of a complex relationship speaks volumes of Harden’s desire to start it off right in the hope of finishing it even better.
“[We’re] just trying to build some camaraderie out there and just have fun dominating,” Harden explained. “Obviously, we played against a good team [Saturday] with Steph [Curry] leading the group but it was just a great challenge to start off the West Coast trip. But we look forward to continuing to have performances where we understand coming into the game that we have to sacrifice, each one of us, to have our highest potential as a team”