James Harden didn’t even play an entire season’s worth of games with Brooklyn, but his impact on the team cannot be understated. The Brooklyn Nets were 55-25 when Harden wore a Nets uniform, the highest winning percentage of any Net in history. Harden’s message was once “get me to Brooklyn”, and the league’s most talented trio in history was assembled.
Yet over a year later, Harden abandoned the borough, choosing to chase the ever-elusive ring with Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden played less than 20 (!) games together, with only one series win to show.
Out was the former MVP and three-time scoring champion. In was the still-injured Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks, changing GM Sean Mark’s vision for this season and moving forward.
One day after the Nets secured the 7 seed with a dominant 115-108 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Play-In Tournament, let’s take another look at the impact of the Harden trade. The deal, undoubtedly the biggest of the deadline, has ramifications not just for the Nets’ past, present, and future, but for the league as a whole.
It turns out that trading James Harden was addition by subtraction for Brooklyn. Aided by the end of the mandate limiting Kyrie Irving from playing home games, the Nets saw improvement on both ends after the All-Star Break. The team was 7th in PPG after the break, a jump from 11th pre-break. Additionally, while not admirable, the Nets finished 18th in defensive rating post-break. A top-ten offense with average defense can be the formula Steve Nash & Co. ride to the offseason.
Simply watching the post-Harden Nets shows a team with a much better offensive philosophy and cohesion. Reports stated that Harden wanted an iso-heavy offense, while Durant favored a free-flowing offense. After the All-Star break, the Nets offense transformed. The team moves faster playing at a higher pace. Fast break opportunities and a better transition offense has been pushed by full-time Kyrie and Seth Curry. Andre Drummond has been the best rebounder to ever play in a Brooklyn uniform, along with providing a fearsome interior presence. He has been the bruiser to complement Nic Claxton’s more versatile defender. Both have seen an abundance of lobs and open layups thanks to Brooklyn’s ball movement, along with increased perimeter pressure from Curry’s presence.
Curry’s addition to the offense has been crucial, replacing the shooting desperately missed by Joe Harris’ absence. The Nets can now play lineups with three 40% 3 point shooters at all times, the key to an elite offense. Additionally, Curry (and Goran Dragic) have provided secondary ball-handling capabilities.
Harden’s departure has given Brooklyn flexibility in determining the next step to long-term contention. Ben Simmons would be a fantastic fit next to Durant and Irving, as a DPOY-capable player who can guard all five positions. He is one of few players in the league who legitimately stand a chance at guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brooklyn will be seeing a lot of him in the future. Simmons’ elite point guard skills allow 7/11 to play off the ball. That simeltaneously rests the stars and creates an even more fluid offense.
Yet, if Sean Marks decides to take a swing on a different third star, Simmons, along with the two first round picks acquired in the deal, are the perfect package. There are legitimate concerns about Simmons, not just about his current back injury. Issues include his offensive limitations, less-than-ideal playoff performances and a max contract. Marks could view Jazz star Donovan Mitchell as an ideal complement to 7/11, due to his perimeter scoring and overall aggressiveness.
The team affected the most by the Harden trade was the Philadelphia 76ers, forming arguably the best duo in the league. (For the record, I have Durant and Irving as better. There’s also an argument for either of the LA duos when healthy). Embiid and Harden have been the highest-scoring duo in the league ever since they joined forces. They also have the potential to be the deadliest pick-and-roll duo in history. Philadelphia’s bench has taken a hit, but Tyrese Maxey has been unlocked since Harden’s arrival, scoring over 20 a game.
The hardest decision comes in the offseason. Daryl Morey (long-time Harden ally, current Sixers President) has money moves to ponder. James is eligible for a 4-year, $223 million max extension the largest in history. Combined with his $47 million player option for the 22-23 season, this contract alone would pay Harden more than the rest of his career combined.
Giving that much money is a legitimate question mark at this point of Harden’s career. He has simply not retained top-5 status since his injury in last year’s postseason. While he still remains a surefire All-Star, Harden has lost his burst and ability to drive to the rim. He’s also lost all willingness to play defense. Additionally, Philadelphia is currently saddled with Tobias Harris’ max contract on the roster; trading Harris to clear up cap space could require moving multiple first-round picks as well.
There’s hope for the Beard; the entire world thought Chris Paul was washed after his hamstring injury in the 2018 Playoffs, followed by a down year in 2018-2019. Paul was traded to OKC in a salary dump. That revived his career that year; he then helped lead Phoenix to the NBA Finals in his age-35 season. Harden suffered a similar hamstring injury, which was the first serious injury of his career. One would assume that Harden, currently 32, could follow the same trajectory and return to his MVP form next season. Concerns about Harden’s care for his body and training, however, have made many speculate about Harden’s future. Reports of constant partying do not alleviate these concerns.
The NBA As A Whole
The Nets’ inability to win a championship with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden has made some wonder if the era of superteams is over. On the contrary, it’s possible that Philadelphia’s acquisition of Harden propels it. The NBA arms race is seemingly never over. If Morey ends up re-signing Harden, that could push another top-tier team in the East to make a move for elite talent. It’s been rumored that Miami has sought after Bradley Beal for years; a trio of Beal, Butler, and Adebayo combines elite scoring and defense like nothing else. Other big names like Damian Lillard and even LeBron James could be on the move this off-season as well.