NEW YORK — For James Harden, the road to Brooklyn began in Orlando.
The latest, greatest iteration of the Houston Rockets made it to the second round of the playoffs on the backs of Harden and his star teammate Russell Westbrook. That iteration, much like every previous version of the Harden-led Rockets, fell short to LeBron James’ Lakers in five games.
Harden said he gave it time, but in Houston, there was a problem: Things were falling apart. Rockets GM Daryl Morey said he wanted to spend more time with family, then signed a deal in Philadelphia. Head coach Mike D’Antoni left, too, joining the Nets as rookie coach Steve Nash’s offensive coordinator.
The Rockets scrambled to appease Harden, trading Russell Westbrook for John Wall, signing DeMarcus Cousins, and adding young, talented forward Christian Wood to the fold. Harden, as he voiced in his last press conference as a Rocket, was not sold. He wanted to win a championship, and did not believe he could do so with the team surrounding him in Houston.
“Re-evaluating our personnel and seeing if we had enough to compete with the best teams in this league … I felt like we didn’t have a chance,” Harden reiterated in his first press conference as a member of the Nets. The Rockets offered him an additional two years worth $100 million to stay, but he turned it down. “As much as I love the city of Houston, loved being there, I think at this point in my career, it’s not about money, it’s not about anything else but having a chance to reach that ultimate goal: winning at the highest level.”
Harden now likes his chances as a member of the Nets, having forced his way to Brooklyn in a trade that took three first-round picks, four pick swaps, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs from the Nets. He is now the third head of what is — at least on paper — one of the greatest offensive trios in NBA history.
Harden was surrounded with talent in the past. He played with Westbrook, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, yet never took Houston to the NBA Finals. He made it to the conference finals twice and was ousted in the first and second rounds three times.
That projects to change.
On one side, he’ll have Kevin Durant. On the other — whenever he returns from his personal leave — he’ll have Kyrie Irving. In-between those superstars, he’ll have shooters Joe Harris, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, front court pieces DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green, and tough-nosed defender and play-maker Bruce Brown.
He’ll also have GM Sean Marks, who openly decreed he is not done making changes to the roster — which has three open spots.