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Is mystery of James Harden closer to be being solved?

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s seemed at times that James Harden has been taking one step back, one step forward but never quite getting over the line. And at no time over the team’s first 21 games — all of which he’s played! — has that disparity been more exposed than in the Nets last two games.

On Saturday vs. the Suns, he had a triple double but his game also included, as Michael Pina of Sports Illustrated writes Thursday, “seven ugly turnovers, six missed threes and only two trips to the charity stripe off a drawn foul.” He also shot 4-of-15 and after the game, his confidence seemed sapped.

Then, on Tuesday vs. the Suns, he had 34 points, eight assists, 10 rebounds, three steals and even a put back dunk. He shot a respectable 11-of-20 overall including 3-of-8 from deep , and went to the line 10 times, making nine. Confidence was not lacking in his one. As Brian Lewis of the Post noted, “it would bode well if Harden is starting to figure it out” with the Timberwolves and Bulls coming to town.

Jekyll and Hyde, Jekyll or Hyde? Take your choice. The larger question of course is whether Harden, one of the game’s all-time greats, is on a downward slope at 32 years old, critical not only to the Nets title hopes but also to their financial future. Do they give him the biggest extension ever, a four-year, $223 million deal at the start of free agency next summer, one that would reward him with a monster $61.8 million in the last year?

Pina offers a number of arguments on both sides of the decline argument, laying out stat after stat, video after video, all of them telling, while noting both his injury and the absence of Kyrie Irving, but coming to a less than definitive conclusion.

In getting back to whether he’s in decline or simply working his way out of a physically impaired rut that’s compounded by a supporting cast that doesn’t bring the same amount of gravity he normally enjoys, it’s possible both factors are to blame. That’s not to say Harden won’t ever recapture the strength and finesse that was apparent just a season ago, when he spent lengthy stretches as Brooklyn’s most valuable player. But even if he does bounce back this season and reasserts himself as an All-NBA force and bonafide top 10 player, these first 21 games will still exist as a glimpse for the Nets of what Harden will likely become.

Lewis analysis is more about the current state of affairs, so his horizon line is closer but is no less certain.

Despite being championship favorites, it’s hard to picture the Nets hoisting the trophy without James Harden playing at an MVP level.

Publicly, the Nets don’t engage in that longer term debate, focusing on how Harden just needs to be aggressive as he works his back from what we can now understand was a serious hamstring rehab over the summer. Privately, though, the Nets have always believed that Harden, with his more cerebral game, is likely to play at a high level for a long time. He’s not so dependent on his athleticism as his two superstar teammates, they believe.

All that said, it should be noted that even with his rehab, his slow start, the changes in rules, no Irving, etc. etc., he is averaging a near triple double. For the season, The Beard is at 21.0 points, 9.3 assists (second in the league) and 8.0 rebounds. His shooting splits are 42/36/90 with only the first number(slightly) below his career stats. True, both his field goal attempts and free throw attempts are down (as are his drives, which Pina points out) but he’s averaging 35.5 minutes a game — one minute more than he has over the course of his career— and as we noted he’s played in all 21 games.

Also, there’s no indication that the Nets have had second thoughts about the extension. Presumably, it’s still on the table. Not everyone thinks it should be. John Hollinger of The Athletic who was an exec with the Grizzlies, believes extending him at those numbers would be foolhardy, contending he “already looks to have lost a step.”

Harden has also said all the right things about staying and if the Nets did pull the offer, there are others just waiting for him to take their calls, chief among them the 76ers whose GM, Daryl Morey, was his guy in Houston and tried to get him before the Nets did. Ian Begley of SNY is among several pundits who have speculated that that scenario could open up the possibility of a Harden-for-Ben Simmons deal. Seems a bit of a stretch.

In the meantime, the Nets and their fans will monitor Harden’s progress, step by step.