James Harden’s pass has hit another level and his scoring rejection to Kyrie Irving makes the Nets click

Like that Brooklyn Nets was busy wallopering Golden State Warriors Saturday I went back and forth in ours NBA chat room with my editor who at one point asked a question that I had not considered much: Why not James Harden received the same kind of vitriol to jump on a superteam cart, which Kevin Durant did when he went to the Warriors?

That’s an interesting question. People went out of their way to pick bones with Harden while he was in Houston, where he actually traveled the harder road and tried to kill superteams, a seemingly admirable quest. It would make sense if he was such a bright target while fighting with NBA behemoths, he would be even brighter when he joined them.

But it has not worked that way.

In fact, Harden – who sent a 29-point, 14-assist, 13-rebound triple-double in Brooklyn’s victory over Sacramento on Monday – has become one of the more famous players in the league over the past month. Deservedly. He’s been brilliant with Brooklyn. But Durant was brilliant with Golden State, and four years later he is still being pulled for his decision, and his back-to-back final MVPs are treated by many as footnotes in a sold-out NBA history.

The difference, of course, is that Harden did not join a 73-man winning team that had already won a championship without him. When Durant joined the Warriors, with the exception of injury, there was nothing that could go wrong. He was an almost perfect player on an almost perfect team. We do not like safety in our sports.

The Nets are not a perfect team, not even the title favorite in most people’s eyes, and there was no certainty Harden would fit. Then I might point out that our collective fascination with everything that could go wrong in Brooklyn – no matter how unfounded these concerns were – suppressed the typical irritation that we reserve to tire stackers. How would all these moody guys share a locker room, let alone a ball? Was the defense even a consideration?

One month after the experiment, defense is still a big issue. Since Harden’s arrival, the Nets have the fourth worst defensive rating in the league, going into Monday. But the offense is magical. The “only one ball” crowd has been silenced by Harden, who has shifted so naturally to the role of a facilitator that it makes you wonder how anyone could have ever questioned his ability or willingness to do so in the first instance.

Sure, Harden was probably the most one-sided isolation scorer in NBA history Rockets, but if you think he was not also one of the best passers-by in the world during that time, you did not pay attention. We are sure to make this Harden role change a romantic victim, and it is true Harden has been willing to swallow some of his scoring pride. But for the most part, it’s just what makes the most basketball sense.

Durant and Irving are better shooters, obviously good at and very experienced with off-ball roles. Durant existed next door Russell Westbrook in OKC, then Stephen Curry with Golden State. Irving played LeBron James, then burned out in Boston because he could never quite master the delicate score-sharing balance.

Harden has taken this burden off Irving without completely compromising on his own scoring aggression. He still scores over 23 points in a game. On Monday, he put up 29 points on 18 shots with Durant out. Irving got 22 shots for 40 points. This little reverence for Irving as the goal scorer makes Harden look like the generous hero in a way we could never see him in Houston – even though Harden only acted in accordance with Daryl Morey’s ethos, who built the rockets in a way that required Harden to work as a solo artist.

“I feel like he’s done a great job just managing the point guard role,” Irving said of Harden on Saturday. “We found out maybe four days ago. I just looked at him and said, ‘You’re the point guard, and I have to play the shooting guard.’ And it was as simple as that. “

It has really felt so simple, but in truth, this role clarity that Irving refers to, at least from the outside, was achieved much earlier than four (now six) days ago. Harden had 14 assists in his Brooklyn debut. In 15 games with Brooklyn, Harden’s had double-digit assists in total except two, and he has averaged 12 dimes during that time.

Against the Warriors, Harden got 16 assists while taking only 11 shots and hitting six of them, including five of his eight 3-pointers (one of the three misses was a lift at the end of the quarter). It was the third time Harden finished a game with more assists than shots attempted with the nets. Meanwhile, Irving and Durant fired 36 shots. They combined 43 points for Hardens 19, while Harden led the team with a plus-28.

People love to talk about “chemistry” with newly formed teams. “It will take time,” is the starting line when a team does not live up to early expectations. But there has been no need for such excuses with Nets. Irving and Durant have been amazing all season, and Harden has improved their efficiency rather than just not interrupting it.

Nor is it just about sacrificing shots. Yes, Harden tries eight fewer shots per. Fight than he did last season in Houston, and 10 fewer than he took in 2018-19, but that has not been at the expense of his scoring aggression. If he exaggerated the generosity, it would disrupt his rhythm and the totality of the transgression. but it is his shot selection and his overall determination that has proven to be very important to Brooklyn’s offensive flow.

In short, Harden does not dominate possessions as extreme. He does not dribble the air out of the ball as his teammates grow roots and look at him. With Houston, Harden would get in his bag and stay there until he found something. In Brooklyn, he is in and out, aware that re-creation in an environment with creators comes with diminishing returns and trims his possession time by almost one second per second. Touch from last season in Houston (a direct product of him dribbling less), which is much more than it sounds.

* Number per. NBA.com, which goes in Monday

2020-21 (with net)

5.3

4.7

2019-20

6.0

5.7

2018-19

6.3

5.9

2017-18

6.3

5.8

As for Harden’s improved shot selection, we’re mainly talking about his signature 3-pointer. So far with Brooklyn, Harden is taking four of those shots per game. Match, significantly down from the 7.2 step-back 3s he averaged per. Match from 2018-20 with the Rockets.

To be fair, Harden made that shot with solid prices in Houston (38 percent from 2018-20), but at similar volumes it would not stand in the efficiency test in Brooklyn with Durant and Irving trials representing the opportunity costs – especially again when you include all the time, Harden tends to use dribbling before firing that shot.

2020-21 (with net)

3.5

3.7

2019-20

5.8

6.7

2018-19

6.7

8.1

All of this is the quantifiable proof of Harden’s commitment to change, which should come as no surprise. Consider the alternative: The Harden comes in Brooklyn cannons blazing, while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irvingwho was scorching hot before his arrival, hanging out on the side? Facilitating it will always be Harden’s smartest way, not to mention the easiest way to instant acceptance, both on the team and in the public eye.

Suddenly, Harden feels like a completely different player, a really fun player to watch, as his most aesthetic talent – his passing – is now displayed at night, a welcome departure from his often paint-drying belongings in Houston. And that, in my opinion, is the big reason Harden has avoided the superteam-coincident setback. Because he has shown humility. A willingness to operate outside his own terms.

Maybe it should never have been questioned in the first place, but it was nonetheless. People really thought Harden had become so used to playing in a way that he was unable to adapt at this point in his career. The fact that he had made this adjustment so effortlessly speaks to his incredible talent, which the masses might not begin to fully appreciate, without all the negative talk.

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