When James Harden forced his way out of Houston and into the waiting arms of the Brooklyn Nets, who were already armed with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, what is, or was, probably the greatest trio of individual offensive talent ever was formed, and a title, even multiple titles, became the expectation.
For myriad reasons, it just never came together. In the 2021 playoffs, Harden ripped his hamstring 43 seconds into Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks. Then Irving went down with a sprained ankle in Game 4 and missed the remainder of the series. Harden came back in Game 5 and played the rest of the series like he had a spike stuck in his leg, but he wasn’t close to right and Brooklyn was eliminated.
Harden didn’t even look right to the start the 2021-22 season. Then, in response to a global pandemic, a New York vaccine mandate kept Irving from playing home games, which frustrated Harden, who abruptly started sending signals that he wanted out of Brooklyn.
This was a shift, apparently, from what Harden had told Durant last summer after the Nets’ elimination. According to The Ringer, Harden “twice reassured Durant that he’d sign an extension to stay in Brooklyn long term” when traveling together in Greece.
Now, in what has become the classic leverage play, Harden was hanging his ability over the franchise — and his increasingly implied intentions — to leave the Nets high and dry as a free agent this coming summer, and it worked. Hours before the 2022 trade deadline, Harden was dealt to the 76ers in exchange for a packaged headlined by Ben Simmons.
At his introductory press conference with the Sixers, Harden intimated that Philadelphia was where he’d always wanted to end up when he first started asking out of Houston. When you trace back to what Harden said at the Nets’ 2021-22 media day, that makes more sense than his reportedly telling Durant he was committed to Brooklyn for the long haul.
“I’m taking my time. I’m focused on trying to bring a championship to the city. But as far as an extension, I mean, I’m just being patient with it,” Harden said. “I went through a lot last year and I want to make sure just that I’m in the right mindset, knowing long-term that ultimately I want to be in Brooklyn for the rest of my career. So it’s no rush, and we’re going to have fun with it.”
In other words, a few months after Harden reportedly told Durant, twice, that he intended to stay with him and the Nets long term, he turned around and told reporters that he wanted to be patient and not rush his decision as to whether he wanted to stay in Brooklyn for the rest of his career.
We didn’t know what he’d reportedly told Durant at the time, but with access to that information now, you can see that Harden was starting to question things and wanted to pull back on his perhaps impulsive promise to Durant. It’s understandable. You’re on vacation with Kevin Durant. Everyone is excited about this super-team and finding out how great it can be once everyone is healthy. You don’t want to kill the vibe and say you’re thinking about leaving. So Harden says what he says in the moment, but things change.
And indeed, a lot did change. Again, Harden got off to a terrible start. He didn’t look healthy at all. In fact, he looked almost incapable of doing many of the things we’d grown accustomed to him doing on the court. He took a lot of heat. Kyrie couldn’t play in New York and the Nets eventually removed him from the equation altogether. Durant got hurt. Missed extended time. The Nets started sinking, and Harden jumped ship. That’s the gist of it.
Perhaps the old Durant would’ve been bitter about Harden going back on what he’s reportedly told him. But in this Murdock article, it’s apparent that Durant has let loose of the things he can’t control. He sounds like a guy in harmony, at peace with himself as a player and a man. He admits that he worried about expectations early in his career, and he was impacted by the narrative-flip on his name when he signed with the Warriors and the manner in which he believes the media tried to separate him from his Golden State teammates.
But none of that was in his control. In the end, Durant loves to play basketball. Always has. He was hopeful that Harden would want to play basketball with him, but it didn’t work out. And frankly, I think it’s better for the Nets. I would not want to give Harden a max extension at this point in his career, and Simmons fits pretty perfectly next to Durant and Irving while filling a defensive hole Harden only made bigger. It worked out for the best for both sides, really, with the Sixers getting the Simmons mess off their plate, so who really cares what Harden told Durant in Greece. That was then. This is now. And Durant seems like he’s in a really good place.