On Saturday night James Harden made his long awaited return to Barclays Center. The future Hall of Fame guard requested a trade to Philadelphia about a year ago today. When he first touched the ball upon the opening tip he heard some boos from the Brooklyn Nets fans. The Big Three were brought in by Nets’ GM Sean Marks to win multiple titles. It never worked out.
Kevin Durant is now a member of the Phoenix Suns. Kyrie Irving is on the Dallas Mavericks. And Harden leads the NBA in assists per game, manning the point for Joel Embiid and your home town Sixers.
The Beard is not the type to readily admit stuff like this, but you get the sense there might have been some feelings using that Barclays Center visitor’s locker room.
Before Christmas, Yaron Weitzman for FoxSports had an exclusive interview with The Beard. We’d learn some tidbits about Brooklyn’s dysfunction, and not just as it pertained to Irving’s own antics. Per Weitzman:
“I don’t mean to, like, just down talk to anybody or whatever. It was just, there was no structure [when I was in Brooklyn] and even superstars, they need structure. That’s what allows us to be the best players and leaders for our respective organizations,” he said....
“I just feel like,” Harden continued, “internally, things weren’t what I expected when I was trying to get traded there. I think everybody knows that. And I knew people were going to talk and say, ‘You quit’ and all that stuff, but then the following summer, the other superstar there [Durant] wanted to leave. So it’s like: Am I still the quitter?”
James Harden was pretty direct just now in saying he left the Nets due to the team’s dysfunction, is not surprised Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are no longer here.— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) February 12, 2023
Didn’t want to detail internal issues, but was clear in saying he felt his desire to leave was justified.
Harden must have enjoyed playing well down the stretch and disappointing a frenzied crowd. Trailing by nine with under seven minutes to go, things looked bleak for Philadelphia. By the team’s star duo stepped up.
Harden Middy pic.twitter.com/iQDYMPCTit— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 12, 2023
But after dropping a pair of clutch buckets, and a pair of clutch dimes to Embiid, drawing a couple key fouls, the tide had turned and the Sixers held on.
Harden missed a layup but Joel grabbed it then Embiid and James hit four ice-water free throws in the final seconds to help seal the deal, surviving this near dagger by Spencer Dinwiddie:
Reaction of Sixers bench in the moments before they learned Dinwiddie’s shot was too late. pic.twitter.com/ou9lToRv5T— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 12, 2023
His decision to leave Brooklyn doesn’t look half bad these days, does it?
February 12, 2023
And after the Sixers second win of a back-to-back set over his former club, a comeback 101-98 thriller, Harden answered questions about his experience with the Nets.
Could he have even imagined a scenario where both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were both gone by the time he visited the arena.
“Yeah,” Harden told reporters in Brooklyn, his terse, honesty perhaps providing a bit of unintentional comedy.
More per Ky Carlin of SixersWire:
“I didn’t just ask to leave for no reason. I was in a really good place in Houston. Obviously, we didn’t have a chance to win the championship, but I was comfortable. So for me to up and leave my family and all the things that I created there to Brooklyn for, what a year and a half? To just up and leave? It was for a real reason, but I’m happy for the organization in what they got back. They got some really good pieces.”
Harden was asked if there were things the Nets could have done to have kept him, before he requested a trade.
“Yeah, there was,” he said. “Like, a lot of things. But it was just a lot of dysfunction. Clearly. But it was a lot of internal things that I’m not going to ever just say, put in the media or anything. And that was one of the reasons why I chose to make my decision.
“But now, fast-forward to date, I don’t look like the crazy one. I don’t look like the guy or the quitter or whatever the media want to call me. I knew what was going on and I just decided to ... hey, I’m not built for this. I don’t want to deal with that. I want to play basketball and have fun and enjoy doing it. And fast-forward to today, they’ve got a whole new roster.”
He was asked to sum things up with the former Big Three.
“Frustrating. There’s a lot of what-ifs. I think we only played less than 20 games together so it was a little bit frustrating, but it is what it is. Hopefully, everybody’s in a good place now and we can move on.”
Harden was asked about Kyrie Irving specifically.
“That’s not something that I’m going to answer,” Harden said. “But the reason I made that decision to get out of my comfort zone which was leave Houston and do everything that I did to get out of there was to come in and play with KD and Kyrie.
“And with that being said, that didn’t happen as much as I would like to or probably the organization wanted to. It was just something where I knew it wasn’t going to change. So, for me, I just had to make an individual decision for the betterment of my family and my career and what I wanted. And that’s what happened.”
You can see that the idea James “quit” on the Nets is still a bit of a sore spot he’d like to clear up. Harden was actually diagnosed at the time with a hamstring issue; “tightness with a strength deficit” was how former Net coach Steve Nash characterized it at the time after MRI. When people cite his poor showing in a game vs. the Sacramento Kings, people rarely mention that he was actually banged up at the time.
We now know from the two weeks he took before he suited up for the Sixers, and how he played at times in 2021-2022, he wasn’t just faking being hurt in that now infamous Kings game. Some have lobbied that charge against him.
In fact, if he was going to leave the Nets in free agency that summer, he did them a major favor by alerting them of that fact so they could recoup some value. The Nets wound up with the Sixers 2023 and 2027 picks, Seth Curry, and Ben Simmons. Although the last name there may not have much positive value these days.
Harden already pushed himself through a Grade two hamstring issue back in the 2021 playoffs, and that was probably not a good idea to play on that ailment.
But Harden’s point here is basically that there were plenty of things going on below the surface, on top of the stuff we knew about, chiefly Irving’s vaccine related absence, and other simmering frustrations.
I’m of the belief that the 2021 Nets would have won the championship if they’d remained healthy. For that reason, I can’t fault the franchise for assembling that trio of stars. But it didn’t work out. And the fact that all three superstars have wound up wanting out casts a bit of stain on the organization.
Hopefully Harden sticks around Philly longer than this year, after winning his first championship come June.