In recent years, when it came to the NBA, I held firm to these two articles of faith:
1. I loved watching pro basketball.
2. I hated watching James Harden play pro basketball.
He was a devastating offensive force with the Rockets, no question. His ballhandling, his ability to create space in a heartbeat on that step-back 3, his ability to draw fouls — the guy was absurdly good, and yet so maddening at the same time. For those of us who long ago identified ball movement as the core beauty of the game, and who fell hard for the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird-Jason Kidd approach to the fast break, man, it was hard to savor the sight of Harden in half-court isolation, dribbling his teammates to death.
I would give myself pep talks before Rockets games, trying to get to a place to appreciate this generational great. It never worked. And when the Nets traded for him, yeah, I ignored the fact Harden led the league in assists in 2016-17 and expected the bearded wonder to engage Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in nightly Greco-Roman wrestling matches for possession of the ball.
Instead, Harden has emerged in Brooklyn as a model teammate, and ultra-willing passer, and — two gulps — someone who is fun to watch play basketball.
This transition and transformation started in February when, out of left field, in typical Irving fashion, the point guard announced on a Zoom call with reporters that he had recently given himself a new job while handing away his old job.
“You’re the point guard, and I’m going to play shooting guard,” Irving had told Harden.
Irving didn’t care that giving Harden ownership of the ball might be tantamount to naming a fox as president and CEO of the local hen house. Irving saw something in practice that told him this would be the Nets’ best Big 3 bet, and the rest is potential history. The Nets open up their second-series with the Bucks on Saturday night as the favorites to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, and then to win the whole thing.
Harden’s team-first commitment is a primary reason why.
“He’s a willing passer, he’s looking to pass, he’s looking to get guys shots,” Durant said of Harden after the Nets eliminated the Celtics in Round 1. “His energy. He comes into the gym every day, and it’s just his excitement to play basketball. Somebody that loves to play so much that their energy is infectious. You can tell everybody was drawn to James since the day he got here.”
To date, this three-man partnership has gone more smoothly than most anticipated. Harden, Durant and Irving are among the NBA’s top 15 all-time in career usage rate, all around 30 percent. Harden arrived as one of only two players in league history to finish a season (2018-19) at 40 percent or higher. And yet his usage rate for his 36 regular-season games for the Nets was 28.4 percent, his lowest number since 2013-14. His usage rate in the Celtics series of 25.7 percent was lower than his rate in any of his eight postseason runs in Houston.
Harden has been just as willing to throw a no-look pass on the break to Landry Shamet as he is to throw one to Durant. He has been just as willing to set up a Joe Harris explosion as he is to set up an Irving explosion.
“His level of communication with guys, it’s almost like having another set of coach’s eyes on the court, the way that he sees the game and has a pulse on how everybody is playing,” Harris said. “And he knows that especially for somebody like me, maybe if I hadn’t gotten a look or an easy offensive touch in a little bit, he’ll come down and talk about where he wants you to be, what kind of action he might want you to run in order for you to get a good look. But he does that with everybody.”
That’s why Harden’s assist averages with the Nets — 10.9 in the regular season, and a career-best (by a lot) 10.6 in the playoffs — fly off the stat sheet and make his absence in the two losses to Milwaukee a cause for great optimism in Brooklyn.
“You guys see how big of a role he plays in our offense,” Blake Griffin told reporters, “even if he’s not scoring the basketball. The way he facilitates the game, not just passing the basketball, but the way he sees a game and gets everybody in their positions is huge for us.”
Griffin called Harden “one of the best playmakers and facilitators in the world.”
Harden himself had said of his arrival: “I just came here to make an impact on the game, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s rebounding, whether it’s my ability to pass the basketball, whatever the case may be. … I just try to play basketball the right way, each possession.”
He has walked that talk, and walked that tweet from May 27, when he posted photos of himself with teammates (non-Big 3 division) under the words “the big 15!”
Out of nowhere, James Harden hasn’t just become the bearded face of team basketball. For those of us who couldn’t stand his Iso-Man act in Houston, he has become a pleasure to watch.