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Saturday, February 13, 2021

Has James Harden Accepted His Ideal Role?

In an ESPN interview, Rachel Nichols asked James Harden how he feels about the way his tenure in Houston ended. Harden offered the quintessential non-apology apology for his poor conduct, saying that he regrets how things happened--as if things happened to him, as opposed to him throwing his teammates under the bus before abandoning ship--but that he did not like the burden of having to score 40 points for his team to have a chance to win. Harden declared that he prefers to be on a team that does not need him to score so much, enabling him to showcase other facets of his game, such as playmaking. 

I wrote it eight years ago when Harden went to Houston, and I have been repeating it ever since: if Harden were willing to accept a Manu Ginobili role instead of chasing scoring titles and individual honors then he could be the second option on a championship team.

It is hilarious to see Harden tell Nichols with a straight face what his ideal playing situation would be, because what Harden described is the role he had as the third option in Oklahoma City eight years ago before he fled town seeking a max contract plus the opportunity to shoot the ball as often as he wants. Now, after winning three scoring titles and one MVP, perhaps Harden has satiated his quest for individual glory and he may be ready to focus on accepting the role he has always needed to accept in order to win a championship--but instead of coming to this realization when he, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook were about to enter their prime years in Oklahoma City, Harden has only figured this out when he and Durant are both in their 30s. 

Despite all of the hype about Brooklyn supposedly fielding the deadliest offensive team ever, an objective assessment must concede that the Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio circa 2012 is better than the Durant-Irving-Harden trio in 2021. The 2012 Thunder were also much stronger defensively and had much greater paint presence than the 2021 Nets; the 2012 Thunder ranked first in the NBA in blocked shots, fourth in defensive field goal percentage, and sixth in rebounding, with Serge Ibaka leading the league in blocked shots and Kendrick Perkins providing physical play at both ends of the court. In contrast, the Nets currently rank third in blocked shots, 14th in defensive field goal percentage, and 15th in rebounding. The Nets traded away their leading rebounder and shot blocker (Jarrett Allen) to acquire Harden, so all of those rankings figure to decline as the season progresses.

Durant's legacy is secure, as he has already won two championships and two Finals MVPs, outdueling LeBron James on both occasions. Irving's legacy is secure to the extent that he proved he could be the second best player on a championship team--but if he aspires to more than that then he has work to do. 

Harden is the player who has the most to gain if Brooklyn wins a championship, and the most to lose if this trio fails to live up to the hype.

The Nichols interview aired previously, but was shown again tonight prior to the Nets defeating the Golden State Warriors, 134-117. Durant scored 20 points in his first game at Golden State since he left the Warriors (the Nets routed the Warriors in Brooklyn on opening night). He shot just 8-19 from the field while also contributing six assists and five rebounds. Irving led the Nets with 23 points on 10-17 field goal shooting; he made some dazzling moves, prompting the ABC crew to note that his godfather--former NBA player Rod Strickland--claimed that Irving is the most skilled player in NBA history. That kind of foolishness needs no comment, but Mark Jackson calmly pointed out that Kevin Durant can do everything that Irving does and Durant is seven feet tall. Enough said about that. 

Harden scored 19 points on 6-11 field goal shooting, and he had a game-high 16 assists plus eight rebounds. During this game Harden did not flop/flail, he did not dribble endlessly for no purpose, and he made some outstanding passes. His defense was not great, but no one put on a defensive clinic: after one play early in the game, ABC's Jeff Van Gundy called the Nets' defense "god-awful" and that description could accurately be applied to both teams' defense for most of the game. The defensive intensity, effort, and attention to detail resembled a summer league game.

Stephen Curry led the Warriors with 27 points on 10-17 field goal shooting. He was involved in a defensive sequence that epitomized the level of play in this game. After the Warriors scored inside, Curry jogged back on defense absentmindedly as Bruce Brown streaked by him, caught a full court pass and converted a layup. Curry fouled Brown, who completed the three point play. An observation that Van Gundy made earlier in the game applied to this play as well: Van Gundy noted that the great Hubie Brown used to say, "If you aren't on the boards and you aren't back on defense then where are you?" Both teams spent most of this game in that no man's land described by Brown.

The injury-riddled Warriors are struggling to hold on to eighth place in the tough Western Conference, so this game does not tell us much about the Nets' championship aspirations. It is obvious that the Nets can score a lot of points, and it is obvious that they will need to score a lot of points because individually and collectively they lack the mindset/focus to consistently play even average-level defense. One encouraging sign for Nets' fans is that, at least on offense, Harden appears to be willing to accept the role that he should have accepted eight years ago. It remains to be seen if he and the Nets will figure out that agreeing on the offensive pecking order is only part of the championship recipe.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:43 PM



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