Regardless of how you feel about James Harden—whether you think he’s a villain, a system player, an offensive genius, whatever—one thing is certain after The Beard finally engineered his exit from Houston on Wednesday: The pressure on Harden to win is now greater than ever before.
Those are the stakes that come up with superstar power moves. Harden entered this season clearly over his tenure with the Rockets. He showed up late to training camp. He didn’t appear to be in great shape. He flagrantly violated the league’s COVID protocols. And he basically said his teammates weren’t good enough in his final press conference.
Whatever your thoughts are about players bending teams to their will, Harden exercised his might as one of the league’s premier players, and propelled himself into a situation of his choosing. With that comes one directive—win, or see your legacy take more hits as it compares to your contemporaries.
Harden could not have asked for a better situation than the one with the Nets. He’s teaming with two former champions in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Both are proven Finals performers, and are capable of doing much of the heavy lifting themselves. It remains to be seen how it will work on the floor, but in theory, Harden will go from being one of the most aggressive solo acts in the league to now being part of a supremely talented ensemble. The team won’t live and die with his top-of-the-key isos, instead asking him to take advantage of a newfound lack of attention.
All of that also means Harden is out of excuses. No more playoff no-shows. No more long bouts of inefficiency. No more taking breaks in the halfcourt when the ball isn’t in his hands. Harden may not want the pressure of having to do everything himself, but now he has to consider the potential fallout of not winning.
Superteams don’t always go swimmingly. Heck, just ask Harden, who saw his megawatt partnerships with Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook deteriorate quickly, or his new coach. For every Anthony Davis on the Lakers, there’s Steve Nash and Dwight Howard on the Lakers.
While Durant and Irving have made it work with other stars before, it’s still fair to describe the current group as a combustible mix. Durant didn’t leave Golden State on warm terms despite all the winning. Irving had controversial exits from both Cleveland and Boston. And even excluding this season, Harden hasn’t always gotten along with his partners in crime.
There will be an immense spotlight on this Nets team. They play in a huge market, and the trade was a risk for GM Sean Marks, who came into a job because his predecessor traded the farm for stars, and is now replicating that strategy (albeit with significantly more talented pieces). There would be people who take immense joy in the Nets imploding, in part because of the mercurial personalities involved, and because of the dramatic nature in which the group was assembled.
When you’re a player of Harden’s caliber, you play to win championships. This isn’t an argument for Ringz Culture or a suggestion that teams that don’t win matter. It’s not even a claim that Harden’s career would be a failure if he never wins a title. But this move? This move would be a disaster if the Nets don’t win. That’s because the franchise mortgaged much of its future for a two-to-three year window. And it’s because Harden, for all his talent, still lacks a signature moment in the postseason. Boom-or-bust moves are good. More teams should stop kicking the can down the road and play for now. However, if this does go bust, Harden must be prepared to take a brunt of the blame.
This really is my favorite kind of NBA transaction. Both Harden and the Nets are pushing all their chips to the middle of the table. It is thrilling when teams unabashedly, wantonly go for it. That being said, opulent trades create even more grandiose expectations. James Harden, like many stars before him, bullied his way to a contender. Opinions on him have been split for the majority of his career. How Harden’s power play in Brooklyn works out should settle the case once and for all.
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