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James Harden on Nets: not enough ‘structure’

Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

James Harden’s tenure with the Brooklyn Nets was one odd piece. He came to the Nets in Sean Marks signature trade (not counting the cobbled together sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant), leaving the Nets bereft of draft picks and most of its young players. Then, after claiming he was in great shape but looking decidedly otherwise, Harden helped lead Brooklyn to the playoffs, a triple-double machine playing at MVP level, only to have that conditioning deficit catch up with him. He missed 21 of the Nets last 24 games. He did return for the playoffs, gave it his best — even playing 53 minutes in Game 7 vs. Milwaukee — but his hamstring deprived him of lift and he was basically playing on one leg.

Last season, with first Kyrie Irving deciding he wouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine then Kevin Durant going down with a sprained MCL, Harden ultimately decided that just as he forced his way out Houston, he would do the same in Brooklyn, getting his long sought reunion with Daryl Morey, who had brought him to Houston. The Nets got Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, two firsts and a huge trade exception, one of the picks and the TPE becoming Royce O’Neale and no, he still wasn’t in good shape.

Now, after some tough times in Philly and a payday much smaller than the quarter billion dollar deal Tsai was willing to give him, Harden has spoken about his time in Brooklyn.

“I don’t mean to, like, just down talk to anybody or whatever. It was just, there was no structure and even superstars, they need structure. That’s what allows us to be the best players and leaders for our respective organizations.” Harden said in an interview with Yaron Weitzman of FOX Sports that was published late last week, but which took place in late October, five days before the Nets fired Steve Nash.

Harden (somewhat) disputed that he gave up — aka quit — on the Nets.

“I just feel like internally, things weren’t what I expected when I was trying to get traded there,” he said. “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?”

Of course, you can be the judge watching clips of his last games in a Brooklyn uniform...

Indeed in his final game before the trade, Harden played 37 minutes vs. Sacramento, going 2-of-11, including 0-of-5 from deep, scoring four points. He did have 12 assists, but days later in a Philly uniform, he started out on a roll, scoring 27, 29, 26 and 25, as if to rub it in. But his body vetoed his desires and he fell short once again.

Harden did not detail to Weitzman what constituted said structural issues, nor did he blame anyone individually: not Nash, not Tsai, not Sean Marks. Durant suggested that he had similar issues with the organization that led him to last summer’s trade request and he did, at one point (while traveling with Harden in Europe), tell Tsai he wanted Nash and Marks canned. Ultimately, Nash did get the heave-ho.

Of course, Harden’s comments to Weitzman aside, there isn’t anyone who really believes that he didn’t want out ... and said so ... to Tsai. He may have had his reasons, and it was obvious he was not happy with Irving’s absence, but he didn’t see his last chance at a ring happening in Barclays Center.

“Once it got to a certain point, James was just over all of it,” a Nets staffer told Weitzman.

Harden agrees that he wasn’t in shape and that KD let him know it, as Weitzman writes:

Harden and Durant, according to multiple Nets sources, butted heads during the season – Durant didn’t think Harden was in peak physical shape, and told him as much; Harden, meanwhile, struggled to adjust to an ecosystem where everything was no longer catered to him. According to a friend, Harden also became frustrated with the Nets training staff and its focus on maintenance, rest and recovery; after all, in Houston he’d run stadium stairs and lift – even after games sometimes – and he never got hurt.

Again, no specifics re: his issues with the training staff (which remains intact, with one exception, since Harden left.)

“The whole two years was a low point. I’ve never really had to deal with something like that,” Harden told Weitzman. “My body, mentally, physically … It was a lot going on. I mean, basketball is everything to me.”

Harden told Weitzman that he’s in the best shape of his career but he is 33 and injuries come quicker, rehab takes longer. He’s played in only half the Sixers games, suffering a tendon strain in his foot. The combination of that Joel Embiid’s own foot injury has led to a mediocre start for the Philadelphians. Like the Nets, though, they are improving, going 7-3 over the last 10 as they hope for a respite from further maladies.

The 6’5” guard with the great court vision and three-level scoring ability has been one of the NBA’s signature players the last decade or more. He told Weitzman with little to no exaggeration, “I’m one of the people that changed the game of basketball. Honestly, the only thing that I’m missing is a championship.”

It will take a while for the Nets history with Harden to play itself out. The Nets gave up a king’s ransom to get Harden but if Ben Simmons again reaches his All-Star, All-NBA, All-Defense again, it could all work out. And if the 76ers falter, the Nets do have their pick in a very good draft this season. At this point, it seems Harden, Simmons, Marks and Morey are all relatively happy with the way things worked out, but as Harden says, the ring remains the thing ... for everyone involved.