Multiple aspects of Harden’s push out of Texas were indefensible: He flagrantly violated the NBA’s health protocols by partying in clubs without a mask, showed up late to training camp, exhibited uneven effort during his first eight games and then held a news conference for the ages, in which he declared that the Rockets were unsalvageable. The pressure campaign worked, with the Rockets agreeing to honor his desire to move to Brooklyn, where he could join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Throughout the December ordeal, Harden appeared to have no problem being the bad guy, even when he was accused of unprofessional and disrespectful behavior by fans, members of the media and even his teammates. Two months later, it’s remarkable how quickly Harden has moved on and how well he has meshed with his new co-stars.
Consider that the Nets (22-12) entered Saturday’s action as the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed with the NBA’s top-ranked offense and an eight-game winning streak. They just completed a perfect five-game road trip through the Western Conference and have climbed in the standings, even though Durant will miss 12 of their final 13 games before the all-star break because of covid-19 protocols and a hamstring injury.
How has Brooklyn managed to click on all cylinders? The answer is Harden, who has taken the reins of Brooklyn’s offense as a point guard and is averaging 24.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and a league-leading 11.1 assists. He has been a rock, ranking first leaguewide in minutes per game, eighth in win shares and 14th in real plus-minus through Friday. Simply put, Harden has transformed from Public Enemy No. 1 in Houston to an MVP candidate in Brooklyn, winning Eastern Conference player of the week honors twice in the past month.
“We see his scoring and playmaking ability, but his intelligence is special and defensively as well,” Nets Coach Steve Nash said this month, according to USA Today. “He’s also in a position where he’s grateful for the opportunity to win. He’s willing to sacrifice. His leadership has been great.”
While Harden has done his best to make a clean break, not everyone is prepared to forgive and forget. Harden wasn’t selected as an all-star starter, with the fans, journalists and his fellow players all ranking him third among East guards. Several media voters said they snubbed Harden because of his behavior in Houston. None of the 100 media members who participated in ESPN.com’s MVP straw poll Feb. 10 included Harden among the top five candidates, and one online oddsmaker listed Harden as having only the 10th-best MVP odds as of Thursday.
Meanwhile, John Wall was still making veiled references to Harden weeks after the trade was completed. “We had people who didn’t want to be here, so it’s kind of hard to play through that and try to find a chemistry,” the Rockets guard said in late January. “Once we got that away and then we made the trades happen, we got the team that we wanted and the guys that wanted to be here.”
This type of gap between on-court impact and off-court perception after a polarizing move is hardly a new trend. After leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010, LeBron James finished third behind Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard in the 2011 MVP race, a result that has drawn plenty of second-guessing over the years. When Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016, he never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting during his three years in the Bay Area.
James and Durant were booed mercilessly in their first games back in Cleveland and Oklahoma City, respectively, and both conducted considerable charitable outreach to show their appreciation for those communities. Harden has taken a similar step, recently donating more than 3,000 meals to those affected by the freezing temperatures and power outages in Houston.
Whether Harden can win over the masses — or even a meaningful portion of them — looms as one of this season’s most fascinating questions. With Harden at the helm, the Nets are an improvisational wonder and arguably the NBA’s most aesthetically pleasing team. After several years of isolation-heavy play, Harden is playing faster and more unselfishly in Brooklyn — the exact stylistic approach that many critics wanted to see from him in Houston.
Brooklyn’s stars haven’t gotten bogged down in tug-of-war battles for control of the ball, and February has seen meaningful improvement on the defensive end. The Nets are now one of the favorites, if not the leading favorite, to win the East. Not bad for a franchise that went 35-37 last year and hasn’t reached the Finals since 2003.
“It’s night and day since I first got here,” Harden said after a recent win over the Los Angeles Clippers. “We’re playing hard now, and we’re playing smart. We’ve had time to practice and go over things on both ends of the ball. That’s why we’re playing better. We know each other a little bit better. We know what we’re doing defensively. Offensively, we know what we’re doing and our spots on the floor. It makes the game a lot easier.”
Yet it’s hard to blame anyone who eyes Brooklyn — and Harden in particular — with contempt, in large part because Houston cratered without its former franchise player. The Rockets displayed some spunk in the trade’s aftermath, but they have lost 10 straight games and rank 14th in the West standings. Making the postseason is a long shot.
With that bleak reality in his wake, it’s fair to wonder how long it will take for Harden to outrun his shadow. For now, every highlight pass and step-back three triggers the thought: “Fool me twice, shame on me.” Even so, Harden’s immense skill and impact are undeniable. He has played so well and so freely in Brooklyn that he’s threatening to make fools out of his skeptics, too.