James Harden can be the greatest version of himself as a No. 2 option

James Harden insists he hasn’t changed, that the same qualities he was criticized for in Houston are now lauded in Brooklyn.

"I get credit now, previously I wasn't getting credit," Harden said Wednesday after a satisfying triple-double performance for the Brooklyn Nets against his former Rockets squad. "Same leadership, I've been the same person. I haven't changed one bit."

It looks the same, the step-back triples, the pounding of the basketball into submission, but it feels different watching Harden with the Nets — freed from the responsibility of carrying a franchise, from being a culture setter.

Harden can be the greatest version of himself as a No. 2 even though he has spellbinding talents of No. 1, maximizing a team’s ceiling the way Snoop Dogg used to enhance a song the moment that voice unexpectedly aided a beat. Harden’s game is like that. At its best: smooth and destructive, effortless and efficient, as long as the other parts are working in some level of concert, as long as too much isn’t placed on his plate.

His prolonged exit from Houston was equally ugly and irresponsible but somehow, necessary, to get to this point. The lack of a packed house prevented him from feeling a possible mob mentality approach from a scorned fan base, and in time his contributions will be properly contextualized — perhaps from the sheen of a champion.

It was clear his connection to Houston was genuine, from the work he has done as a citizen to help from last month’s winter storm that devastated the area, to the way he openly spoke on his affection for the city, the affection we all know he has for its unique nightlife and the greatest individual stretch the franchise has experienced since Hakeem Olajuwon roamed the floor at The Summit over two decades ago.

Harden lived in the awkward space of being a superior talent who could bend the rules, maximize the numbers and produce historically without being great enough to overcome dynastic teams or even sometimes, his own poorly-timed performances in the playoffs.

It’s impossible to mention the playoff failures without noting his teams won an average of 52 games between 2012-2019.

James Harden #13 of the Brooklyn Nets warms up prior to playing the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on March 03, 2021 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
James Harden returned to Houston on Wednesday night as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

He was also the common denominator with strained on-court relationships with fellow star players Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

There’s plenty of players tagged with carrying a franchise, but only a few are good enough to get to the doorstep of team greatness, thus creating the label of being a choker or even having his individual accomplishments diminished in the face of something better.

“You know, I think people underrate what an accomplishment it was for these Rocket teams to go toe to toe with the Warriors twice,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “I mean, those are, you know, some of the greatest teams to ever play the game. And that the fact that before that Rockets team, you know, the year before they took him to seven [games], I felt like nobody thought anyone could get close to them.

“And we forget about it and just say oh, 'they weren't good enough.’ Well, I mean, that was a huge amount of ground they closed that year to compete with the Warriors and Game 7 and to do it again [the next year]. And so sometimes you just need a little bit of luck and a balance and they didn't get that but that shouldn't diminish what they accomplished here.”

And while it’s true history won’t absolve him of those weird closing performances and ugly flameouts, he can add a sizable postscript in the meantime. Anthony Davis could be the ultimate No. 2 in today’s game, with all the gifts of a franchise player without appearing to want the weight that comes with it, willingly ceding that space to LeBron James.

But Harden can be the most interchangeable No. 2 with No. 1 talent.

“I think he's a No. 1 guy, but he's playing with other No. 1 guys,” Nash said. “So and since he can share responsibility, there is help. That can just take a little bit of the pressure off. But James is as good as anybody out there. And he's a No. 1 guy.”

While playing with Kevin Durant — and to a lesser degree, Kyrie Irving — seems perfect, why couldn’t he fit in Miami next to Jimmy Butler, the bucket-getter alongside the culture-setting ass-kicker?

Or next to Joel Embiid in Philadelphia as the ball-preying perimeter option on the floor, and off-court troll?

Or next to Nikola Jokic in Denver, confusing defenses with wizard-like passes and cuts?

There are only a few No. 1’s in this star-studded league, players whose names immediately elicit thoughts of a championship because of their myriad ways of excellence. Teams are created in their image, and their personalities are consistent, often the lifeblood of a champion. That’s James, Durant, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard and Jokic. More recently, it appears Embiid and Luka Doncic are entering that stage.

It doesn’t mean Harden isn’t worthy, or two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo or even Davis. There’s a major gap in Antetokounmpo’s game or his development yet to be solved, and even still, for their manufactured beef last season, he and Harden could fit on the same roster if it came to it.

But Harden could align himself next to nearly all of them, and look to be in his element and just as potent as he did as a solo act in Houston. The freedom to just play and not be burdened by the ancillary things, to raising the ceiling of a team compared to the responsibility of ensuring the bottom doesn’t fall out of the floor, shouldn’t be criticized as much as acknowledged as a special space.

“This league is tough no matter what,” Harden said. “How you separate yourself from being one of the elite players in this league is doing it playing at a high level consistently every single night. It's great, it's easy for somebody to have a great game every once in a while, you know, but you separate yourself as far as being one of the ones, top five, top 10 in this league, when you do it every single night at the highest level.

“So that's what I pride myself on no matter, if I was in a situation where I was in Houston or my situation now. My thought process is try to play well every single night and try to make an impact on the game.”

Kevin Garnett was a culture setter in Minnesota, but was viewed as an underachiever until he got to Boston. Then Paul Pierce and Ray Allen did all the things Garnett wasn’t as equipped to do and (voila!), Garnett is now a culture-setter and champion guy — even though he didn’t change much from one stop to the next.

The turn, if Harden has embraced it as it appears he has, could be just as seismic, and we could find out in July.

And if so, we’ll all be singing a different tune.

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