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The Brooklyn Nets recent struggles have made one thing clear: if they’re going to win a championship, they’re going to need a healthy James Harden leading the way.
The Brooklyn Nets have not looked great recently. However, when James Harden first injured his hamstring in a March 31 game against the Rockets, the Nets were on a tear. Even without Kevin Durant, who missed several weeks due to his own hamstring injury, the Nets had won 18 of their last 21 and often looked like the best team in the league.
Harden tried to return the next week but only played four minutes in an April 5 match-up with the Knicks before leaving the game. In the 18 games since, the Nets have gone just 10-8. Not even the return of Durant has been enough to buoy the team as Brooklyn recently lost four in a row. It’s not an auspicious way to wrap up the regular season for a team that went all-in on winning a title this year. And it shows that unless James Harden is healthy as the playoffs begin, the Nets are not likely to be true championship contenders.
James Harden is not a system player, though his presence immediately establishes one. In Houston, he often functioned as a one-man offense, isolating on the perimeter before stepping back for a 3 or driving to the hoop where he would either lay it in, get fouled, or find an open teammate. It was crude and predictable, but extremely effective. In Brooklyn, Harden has not to carry the same burden. His usage percentage has fallen from 36 last season to 28 this year. He’s also taking five fewer shots per game compared to his 2019-20 numbers since arriving in Brooklyn.
Defenses have to focus so much attention on Harden that his presence, combined with his court-vision, transforms his teammates. During his time in Houston, he helped players like Danuel House Jr. and Ben McLemore, among several others, make or revitalize their careers; all they had to do was stand on the perimeter and wait for Harden to find them. And now, assuming all three Nets stars are healthy when the postseason begins, instead of Harden setting up House and McLemore, he’ll be finding and creating open looks for Durant and Irving. It’s quite the upgrade.
It’s reductionist to label stars as either ceiling-raisers or floor-raisers, especially since one can often be either, or both, depending on the situation they find themselves in. Harden though, during his tenure in Houston, consistently looked like the ultimate floor-raiser. The Rockets found themselves in the playoff hunt every year and often looked like one of the better teams in the Western Conference. While they were never able to make it to the Finals, no team was a more regular threat and annoyance to the Warriors during their reign than the Harden-led Rockets.
Meanwhile, Kyrie Irving spent three seasons in Cleveland before LeBron James returned to the Cavaliers. Though he was admittedly quite young then, those teams never came close to making the postseason with Irving at the helm. While it’s true that LeBron never would have won the 2016 NBA title without Irving by his side, it’s also true that Irving never would have found himself in the Finals to begin with without LeBron leading the way.
Durant had a good share of postseason success before moving to Golden State, but was never able to quite take Oklahoma City all the way. And while it was not Durant that made the Warriors great, it was Durant that made them seem unbeatable. This is not to say that Irving or Durant could never be the best player on a championship team — Durant arguably already has been — but that while Harden may be better at lying the foundation for a great team, Durant and Irving may be better suited at elevating an already good team into a great one. Harden is not necessarily a better player than Durant or Irving and all three benefit from sharing the floor together. But Harden’s presence makes things easier for them in a way that theirs do not for Harden.
Harden’s absence would also be less notable if not for the players the Nets gave up to acquire him. While a Nets team with Harden is certainly better than one with Caris Levert, Taurean Prince, and Jarrett Allen, a team with those three players is certainly better than one with a Harden who is unable to take the floor. With those pieces, the Nets might be fine with Durant and Irving alone, but without them or Harden, they look far from the title contenders they are when Harden joins them.
The problem with trading so much for Harden is that there is no margin for error. Durant and Harden are both in their 30s and their primes will not last forever. It was not a bad deal, but it will soon look like one if the Nets are unable to win a championship in the next few years. Even without Harden, Durant and Irving are a very good one-two punch. Together they form arguably the best offensive duo in the NBA. But as the last few weeks have shown, if it is just those two leading the way then they may be in trouble as the postseason approaches. The Nets do not need Harden to be a scary team, but they will need him if they want to win a championship.