The James Harden Experiment Is Working
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
James Harden, is this really you?
This high-performance individual who has made an explosive start with the Brooklyn Nets — is it the old you, the new you or the new iteration of the old you?
And what about that previous version of you, the disruptive, dejected, unmotivated guy who left the Houston Rockets in tatters? Is he gone, or is he in temporary hiding, waiting to resurface when things get difficult?
Harden, and the way he handled his departure from Houston and the resulting shift east, spawned so many questions and no small measure of resentment from those he left behind.
Yet the beginning to his new beginning has been a source of wonder, with a 32-point triple-double in his first outing against the Orlando Magic followed on Monday by a 34-point, 12-assist night as Brooklyn outlasted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, the Eastern Conference’s regular-season dominators, by a score of 125-123.
That’s the kind of productivity the Nets were banking on when they sent their entire draft future to Texas in exchange for the league’s leading scorer from the past three seasons.
Yes, that really was Harden hustling and putting his body on the line for an offensive rebound. It was also him scurrying to collect a loose ball by the baseline and somehow keeping it inbounds by throwing it between Brook Lopez’s legs. And it was him moving with his typical grace and playing 41 minutes despite, let’s be honest, putting on a few pounds since the end of last season.
"It was an easy transition, especially with James handling the ball a lot coming in," Kevin Durant told reporters after the Nets won their fourth straight to move to 9-6. "We're still trying to find our way, and we've got room to improve, but it's a solid start."
Durant sounded like someone who expected this to happen, for the pair to click so neatly and so quickly. Many didn’t expect that. Through his struggles in Houston, it looked like Harden had lost his way and reached a point where nothing could keep him happy. Only time will tell how things will unfold with the Nets, but the start couldn’t have been better.
The next step in the process is the impending return of Kyrie Irving from an absence originally listed as being for personal reasons that has now stretched to seven games. Having Brooklyn’s Big Three play together will provide a litmus test in itself, but Harden, at least, appears comfortable not being the sole focal point of the offense, as he was with the Rockets.
"We were young," Harden said, reminiscing of his time with Durant (and Russell Westbrook) in Oklahoma City. "We are grown men now. We know what we want. We really know the game of basketball. We are not those young guys that want to run around and just shoot and dunk all day. I sit back, and I know what a player Kevin Durant is. He's one of the best to ever touch a basketball."
It could be that this is the best kind of spot for Harden, where he is alongside at least one individual who he thinks might be as good as or better than him. The Rockets were never shy about anointing Harden a star in every way, catering to his every whim and moving on from whoever didn’t fit in the moment, from Dwight Howard to Chris Paul to, eventually, Westbrook.
With a moderate schedule ahead, the Nets have every chance to build some momentum. Their opponents, meanwhile, must figure out how to control an offensive duo – now trio – that have so many powerful options at their disposal.
"A combination like Durant and Harden breaks normal rules and defenses alike," wrote Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer. "How do you stop two players who can score as comfortably from 30 feet as they can at the rim?"
Doubts about Brooklyn’s ability to compete for the ultimate prize at the end of the season hinge on their defensive limitations. On Monday, DeAndre Jordan was given the responsibility of marking Antetokounmpo – no prizes for guessing how that played out.
On First Things First, FS1’s Nick Wright pointed out how poor Brooklyn’s defense looked in the closing moments against the Bucks, despite the win.
"When you have a star-studded crowd, when it’s on national television, when it’s on MLK Day, when you’re playing the previous favorites in the East, if there was ever a night when you might want to show the world [you] have the ability to lock down defensively, you’d have thought last night would be that night," Wright said. "You cannot win this way."
Things have just gotten started, but the Nets are winning right now, and they have several months before they really need to work it out. When the Harden trade happened, there were some major questions that looked to be a long way from being answered. Not so much now.
The Nets aren’t a finished product, but in these early moments, they look like they’re close to being as advertised, an imposing offensive force that can score on anyone and will ride its talent as far as it can go.
The experiment, for now, is working.