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ESSAY: The Brooklyn Nets, James Harden, and bad breakups

Brooklyn Nets v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Breakups always hurt. You and your partner come to the realization that despite your best efforts, it just isn’t working anymore. You try to think back to the good times and hope that can help turn things around, but you’re too far gone and the other person has checked out. And once you realize there’s nothing more you can do, you have to let go.

For the Brooklyn Nets and James Harden, that moment came on February 10th. After a month of backroom dealing, mounting frustration, injuries, and bad play, Harden got the breakup he wanted and moved in with the Philadelphia 76ers. In looking back, there were signs Harden wasn’t fully committed and looking to find the escape hatch.

In recent reporting, we got the idea that Harden’s eyes were looking towards Philly all along. We learned that he was focused on testing free agency and angling to reconnect with his long time running mate, Daryl Morey, and friends Michael Rubin (Sixers co-owner) and Tad Brown (Sixers CEO). With Morey, Harden evolved from a good player to an offensive machine that rightfully earned a spot on the NBA’s Top 75 players of all time list.

On the court, you start looking back and you notice something was up. There were so many games where Harden wasn’t as aggressive and explosive as we were used to seeing. He was driving to the rim less, had his worst efficiency on shots inside of three feet since his rookie season in 2009-2010, turned the ball over at the highest rate of his career, and spent so much time and energy fussing at the referees for the lack of foul calls he was getting he let them take away from his game. After a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in which he didn’t take a shot in the fourth quarter of a game that started the team’s current losing streak, Harden said of that no-shot quarter:

“It was just me just kind of being passive and not really attacking how I need to attack consistently. put that on me as far as not being able to get to the basket consistently like I need to.”

Two days later, everything blew up as reports came out that detailed Harden’s frustration with Steve Nash and the coaching staff, Kyrie Irving and his part time status thanks to his refusal to get vaccinated and the city’s COVID-19 mandate, etc. He denied the reports publicly, but something was up and things were bubbling underneath the surface. You couldn’t ignore the smoke.

The visual of seeing a Hall of Fame point guard being pissed off with the team and forcing his way out of town was an unfortunate call back to a past relationship for Nets fans.

In 2008, Jason Kidd was tired of the direction of the New Jersey Nets. The rest of the Eastern Conference had lapped his team by in an instant, and with the team off to a bad start, Kidd sat out a game against the New York Knicks with a “migraine.” No one bought it and Kidd got his wish to return to contention and was traded to the Dallas Mavericks on February 19, 2008. It marked a disappointing end to a wonderful run as a player in Jersey for Kidd and it took a long time before he was able to repair his relationship with the team and fanbase. There was another bad breakup with a star guard, but the Deron Williams Nets’ story was complicated in its own right.

Harden had his own “migraine game,” but turned up a few notches. He sat out the ABC Game of the Week against the Golden State Warriors with a hand strain, played a mediocre (by his standards) game against the Phoenix Suns two days later, and then went to Sacramento. There, he pulled the “I want to break up with you” routine, without saying it verbally. The four points on 2-of-11 from the field, zero free throw attempts, six turnovers, and lack of drives to the basket read bad enough. It was perhaps the worst game of his illustrious career. Seeing it is well...

Yeah, man. And the last time we saw him with the Nets he was on the bench watching as the team got beat down so badly by the Boston Celtics that TNT switched the feed to the Phoenix Suns vs. Philadelphia 76ers game for the fans at home. And two days after that, Harden’s Nets tenure was up in smoke as he burned every bridge in the organization he had erected and got (rightfully) slandered by legends of the game.

The NBA is incredibly unique in that one superstar player has such an impact and can uplift a team, even if the surrounding pieces around him aren’t Hall of Famers. The superstars do a little bit more, set the example, and keep their teams afloat even when everything is going wrong. At the same time, when a superstar starts causing trouble, they can take everyone down with them until they get the result they want. For everyone on the receiving end of that, it makes for a stressful, toxic, and damaging work environment. At that point, if you know one party is so dead-set on leaving and will keep making life hell for you and everyone else until they do, you know it’s time to move on.

Once the relationship ends and you look back on it, you wonder whether it was all worth it. After the initial trade in January 2021, I wrote:

When the Nets pulled off the Clean Sweep in 2019, everything changed. You can’t be a plucky underdog anymore when a top three small forward of all time chooses to work for you and partners with another All Star caliber player and former champion. Combine that with the cachet of playing in a place like Brooklyn and the star power now here, and it makes even more sense to swing for the fences and make a play for a Hall of Fame talent still in his prime. When you have a chance to get to the top of the mountain, you owe yourselves and your fans the best chance to get there.

One year and a messy breakup later, it was still worth it. The team and fans have a chance to see their first NBA championship and when you’re trying to win chips, you have to go all in and get the best players you can. The Nets swung for the fences and while they missed with Harden, the thinking was sound. When Harden was engaged and playing seriously, he was a great Net and made them one of the most overwhelming offenses we have ever seen.

Harden deserves great credit for fighting through a hamstring injury and trying to help in games five through seven against the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 playoffs. However, the way he ended is what we should remember him by. For someone who’s a no doubt Hall of Famer, tanking it on the court instead of being a grownup and asking out when he knew he wanted to leave is weak and unbecoming for someone with his resume’.

Breakups suck, but the future is bright. To quote Blake Griffin, “We definitely got what we wanted: Guys that want to be here and guys that want to play.” That includes Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, two solid hands that provide shooting (Curry), rebounding (Drummond), and an opportunity to take some of the workload off a beleaguered team that has been ravaged by injuries and bad luck for the past week. And most importantly, they get a star in Ben Simmons that can jumpstart the team, solve their issues with rebounding and switching on defense, plus give them a star that can be a part of their future. It’s a new day for the Nets, but one that they hope brings good vibes and championship parades.

Hang in there.