It wasn’t exactly the smoothest ride through the 2020–21 season for James Harden.
The former MVP and current Nets superstar endured perhaps the most tumultuous season of his career last year, with a rocky eight-game stretch in Houston preceding a blockbuster trade to Brooklyn in January. Harden battled a hamstring injury for the latter part of last season, and though he returned in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, his chase for the Larry O’Brien Trophy ended in an overtime heartbreaker against Milwaukee. Entering his age-32 season, Harden is still seeking an elusive first championship.
Perhaps there’s mounting pressure on Harden to secure his first ring, but don’t tell that to the three-time scoring champion. Harden has no trouble declaring the Nets the favorite for the championship if healthy, and, paired with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, he says he’s perhaps the most comfortable he’s been as a professional. While Year 1 in Brooklyn didn’t deliver a championship, Harden’s title window remains wide open.
Harden spoke with Sports Illustrated about his offseason rehab, superstar teammates and the championship expectations in Brooklyn.
Sports Illustrated: It was a bit of a whirlwind year for you in 2020–21 with a new team, some injuries and a classic series against Milwaukee. How would you assess your season?
James Harden: It was pretty good, considering all the adversity we had to deal with, whether it’s me getting traded midseason, [Durant] missing damn near three months of the season, the COVID protocols, [Irving] missing a chunk of the season as well. And with all that said, we were a step away from the Eastern Conference finals. Now we’ll get a full year to regroup and get this thing going where we want it to.
SI: You gained two notable costars this season. We’ll start with Kevin Durant. What do you enjoy about playing with him?
JH: Well, he’s really good. But in all seriousness, he’s as humble as they come. He works his butt off, and he works to be the best version of himself night in and night out. And one thing about him is he just really, really loves the game of basketball. A lot of guys just play because they’re tall or whatever the case may be, but he loves it. He plays basketball whenever and wherever. You can’t teach that.
SI: With your other costar, Kyrie Irving, what makes him an effective backcourt complement to you?
JH: He’s just one of the most skilled players I’ve ever seen. The things he can do with the basketball, the way he can score from anywhere on the court, playing with a guy like him makes my job a lot easier. I can just go out there and be a playmaker and score when they actually need me to score.
SI: How would you describe Steve Nash as a head coach?
JH: Ultimate players’ coach. He was a great point guard, and you really see that during situations in the game. There’s a real difference where with him he actually played the game and played it at an elite level, so he understands every game situation. Actually being in high-level moments so often over the years, that’s a big benefit for us.
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SI: Were there any adjustments you had to make in Brooklyn after being the unquestioned top option in Houston for so long?
JH: There really wasn’t any adjustment. I still play how I play, but now I don’t have to shoot the ball so much. It’s really the best style for me, to be honest. Kevin and Kyrie can always go get a bucket, and, with me as a playmaker, I can think about how to get shooters involved, how to get bigs touches, how to create open shots. My main focus is trying to get everybody involved and have each guy make an impact on the game.
SI: You’re now in New York, one of the largest cities of the world. What are your goals off the floor in the coming years?
JH: That was one of the reasons I wanted to come to New York and Brooklyn. I want to build my business side and my brand side more than it already is, and what other place would you do that than Brooklyn? And as long as we win, as long as we handle our business on the court, our work off the court will reach the same level.
SI: Your annual JH-Town event in Houston is coming up. How would you describe your relationship with the city at the moment?
JH: Houston will always hold a special place in my heart. I spent the last nine years there. On the court it was what it was. I was disappointed in myself that I couldn’t bring a championship there because that’s what I put the jersey on for every single game. But the community work really lets me see the impact I can have on the city. We’ve been through some tough times with [Hurricane Harvey] and all types of things. And just being able to come back now and be there for people and support them, I’m going to do that as long as I can.
SI: Is there anything you’re focusing on in your offseason preparation for next year?
JH: Conditioning is going to be my main focus. I’m still trying to basically get healthy from my hamstring injury, which I was dealing with for a few months. So I want to make sure I’m completely healed and strong enough so I can go out there and completely be myself. My rehab is going very, very well, and my getting my conditioning right is a big part of that.
SI: You’ve been a partner with BODYARMOR for years now. How does the product help you train during the offseason?
JH: I’ve been with BODYARMOR since the beginning, and we’ve built something special for the culture, for everybody. It’s very innovative. They’re always changing the game. It’s something that I rely on really every year.
SI: You enter next season after falling just short of the conference finals. You could have won the championship last year if things broke right. Is there a certain chip on your team’s shoulder entering 2021–22?
JH: There’s no chip at all, no chip for us. We’re just excited. We’re focused. We know what we have to do. The biggest thing is us being healthy, which we will be. Honestly, we’re just excited to play a whole season together. That’s the exciting part.
SI: Why do you think next season will be the year you capture your first NBA title?
JH: At full strength, nobody can beat us. I’m just going to leave it at that.
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