Last season, the Nets had a revelation: Move Kyrie Irving off the ball, and let James Harden’s brilliance as a playmaker dictate the Brooklyn offense.
Without Irving, the unvaccinated superstar guard whose 27 points, six assists and five rebounds vanished into thin air, Harden’s role has changed.
If one thing is for certain in Brooklyn, it’s this: The Harden wearing black and white this season is not the same player he was last season and is certainly not the same player he was during his surreal and unconscious stretch as a perennial MVP candidate in Houston.
Harden’s hamstring is no longer hampering him. Irving’s absence, however, is.
That’s because Harden is still trying to pick his spots. He’s a shoo-in Hall of Famer because of his abilities to read a defense and make the right play. In seasons past, the right play was a near-even balance of distributing to his teammates or scoring, either via side-step or step-back three, a euro-step that splices the defense on the way to the rim, or a trip to the foul line.
Harden put his desire to score on the backburner last season because he had two all-world scorers in Irving and Kevin Durant willing to shoulder the load. Now, however, his team needs him to score more.
“Honestly I’m trying to figure all that out right now,” he said after shooting just 4-of-15 from the field and 0-of-6 from downtown for 14 points against the Suns. “I’m trying to figure out when to score, when to be a playmaker, when to run offense, when to do a little bit of everything.
“It’s been a little difficult especially since (Irving isn’t in the rotation). It’s been a little difficult but I’m just trying to figure it out.”
There are two iterations of Harden and both have shown face in Brooklyn this season. There’s the Harden who scored 36 points against the Magic, who scored 39 points against the Pelicans, who scored 27 points against the Cavaliers, 28 points against the Raptors and 29 points against the Pacers.
Then there’s the Harden who prioritizes the pass over the shot, the Harden who is an all-world playmaker and passer but sometimes tentative when looking for his own shot.
Harden’s teams have been most successful when he’s the scoring machine who is unguardable at every point of the basketball court, but Durant says the Nets can beat teams no matter which version of his co-star shows up to play.
“I just think we can do both,” Durant said. “We can play around both sides, both variations of James – scoring and facilitating. So, 14 assists, 13 rebounds, we’re going to need that. We definitely (want him) to shoot the ball better, but I like his aggressiveness.”
The Nets trust Harden, regardless of how he plays. He’s one of few players in NBA history to challenge Tiny Archibald’s standing as the only player to ever lead the NBA in scoring and assists in a single season. He’s a perennial MVP candidate, having won the award in 2018. There’s a reason the Nets traded the kitchen sink for a player of his caliber: He has the ability to take over a game when he has it going.
So far, the Nets are still waiting for him to crank the engine, and if the engine has been cranked, it’s sputtered this season.
His teammates aren’t losing faith. They know their best chance at realizing their championship dreams lies with him supporting Durant as the superstars that have dominated the league for more than a decade.
They also know Harden is as smart of a player there is in the NBA. Irving around or not, he’ll figure it out, even if it looked iffy for a night against the Suns.
“I guess you could say (he looked passive) tonight, but James is great,” said DeAndre’ Bembry. “We trust James in every way, so I know he’ll get back to it. But (questioning) him making a play? Nah. He sees the game better than others. That’s the last thing we’re worried about.”©2021 New York Daily News. Visit nydailynews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.