including myself. After clashing in previous years with Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, could Harden co-exist with Irving and Kevin Durant? After spending most of the time in Houston playing isolation basketball, would Harden become a more willing passer? After showing immature behavior before his departure in Houston, would Harden exhibit similar behavior if things did not go his way in Brooklyn? After shattering scoring records in Houston, could Harden blend his dominant scoring while tapping into his passing and defensive potential?
Don’t look now, but Harden has answered all of those questions in nearly every way since his arrival.
“He literally can do almost everything there is to do out there, and he’s been a great leader for us,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “He can control the game. He is a very smart defender. I think he’s been outstanding as far as keeping his team on track — leading, talking things out, communicating. His passion for the game and willingness and want to win have been fantastic.”
Granted, Harden will be judged more on if he can help the Nets win an NBA championship and less on how he navigated the honeymoon stage. Although the Nets wish they had more than seven games for Durant, Harden and Irving to play together, the overlapping absences to Durant (10 games) and Irving (five) theoretically reduced any potential tension in figuring out the on-court dynamics among three stars. And after finishing with a poor defensive rating through eight games with Houston (117), Harden has only shown marginal improvement through 13 games in Brooklyn (114.9).
Still, Harden has consistently thrived through other circumstances. When the three stars have played together, Harden has averaged 20.4 points while shooting 47.1% from the field and 43.19% from 3-point range along with 12.6 assists and 7.7 rebounds. When either Durant or Irving have sat out, Harden has simply increased his scoring workload.
In the seven games that Harden and Irving played without Durant, Harden has averaged 25.5 points while shooting 48.9% from the field and 46.7% from 3-point range along with 8.5 assists and 7.0 rebounds. In the two games Durant and Harden played without Irving, Harden increased his workload in scoring (33 points on 48.8% shooting), assists (13) and rebounds (9.0) while regressing in outside shooting (30%). In the three games Durant and Irving both sat out, Harden averaged 31 points while staying efficient from the field (52.3%) and from 3-point range (40%), along with a high volume of assists (9.0) and rebounds (7.3). Whenever Durant returns from the left hamstring injury that will sideline him through at least the All-Star break, expect Harden to seamlessly reduce his scoring output while increasing his playmaking.
“I just try to find ways to impact the game, and not just scoring the basketball. We have a number of guys that can put the ball in the basket,” Harden said. “Getting guys shots and getting guys easy buckets, I feel like it’s my job.”
Regardless of who he has played with on the floor, Harden has consistently held himself accountable for his play.
He has helped the Nets go 9-4 in so-called clutch games that were decided by five points or fewer in the final five minutes. He has been a major factor in the Nets shooting 55.3% from the field since his arrival. And with a league-leading assist average (11.1), Harden has already set a Nets record with seven triple-doubles.
“We have to implement the phrase, ‘Get used to it,’ ” Irving said. “When someone is that special, someone is that gifted and they’re able to do all facets of the game at a very high level, they’re able to play at a very high level. He’s displaying that. It makes it easier for me. I’m sure other guys can echo the sentiment. James is being James, and makes all of our jobs a lot easier.”
And when he makes the job more difficult?
Unlike the final chapter in Houston, Harden has turned the criticism inward. After the Nets lost against Dallas on Saturday in a game without Durant and Irving, Harden consistently faulted himself for his six turnovers. In the Nets’ overtime win over San Antonio on Monday, Harden committed zero turnovers while finishing with 30 points, 15 assists and 14 rebounds.
“It has to be that way,” Harden said. “If I’m the point guard and my teammates and coaching staff are giving me the responsibility to handle the basketball, I have to do a really good job with my passes and making them precise, and not just giving away points.”
How Harden fulfills that job description will largely determine the Nets’ title chances. For now, though, it’s a good bet Harden will at least do that against a struggling Rockets team. Thankfully for the Nets, Harden has carried over the qualities that made him a star while addressing the question marks that contributed to an ugly exit in Houston.
“I’m excited to go back to Houston where I basically had an unbelievable career there,” Harden said. “To get that love and respect, I’m excited to be playing in front of those fans.”