James Harden heads to Brooklyn with a spark — but he could also burn it all down
Fire, meet kerosene.
That’s what the Brooklyn Nets appeared to have done in the acquisition of James Harden, in what already feels like a volatile, if not fragile, situation.
Harden doing his best to be Professor Sherman Klump in his escape from Houston will largely be forgotten if he reclaims his regular-season reputation as an explosive scorer, a stink that won’t follow him until the playoffs — where that historic stench won’t turn rosy so easily.
As funky as it may be, players acting up in trying to get out of their situations can be remedied by on-floor excellence. It’s hard to think of Jimmy Butler in the context of the hilarity in Minnesota or the instability in Philadelphia, or the turmoil Anthony Davis caused in New Orleans.
The sheen of the Finals erases the details, but in this case it’s hard to see this team as constructed getting there, much less overtaking who comes out of the West. Having two great soloists in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving was always a tricky proposition, but adding the ultimate “me” player — not in abject selfishness but in tunnel vision — seems to be too much for either to handle, or the Nets’ still-developing foundation.
The best fact about this trade could be best described as the best defense might be a good offense — in every sense. Keeping Harden away from the Philadelphia 76ers is probably the biggest win, because it seems he would fit perfectly next to a freakishly scary Joel Embiid.
Instead, this trade feels scary for Steve Nash, who suddenly has to get three players who specialize in being in their own heads to subjugate themselves for a greater good when that has never seemed enough.
Durant and Irving seemed to embrace each other because they were overshadowed by franchise beacons in their respective cities, LeBron James and Stephen Curry. It feels like the Nets are still in search of that beacon, because for as noble as Irving’s civic intentions could be, he’s unreliable for a franchise to rely on.
Durant is the closest thing to what the Nets need him to be, and while he’s looking every bit like the player who was basketball’s best before his Achilles injury, having him be navigator and therapist for Irving and Harden is too much weight to carry on those skinny legs.
Organizational and on-floor stability win in the NBA, especially in such an unconventional season that will call for direction, discipline and general sanity over the next several months. The Jackson Five could only have one Michael, and barely one at that.
For all its perceived greatness, two would’ve been disastrous.
Pecking orders are real, and the power structures within ego-driven, competitive basketball players are not figments of imagination, which calls for someone to sacrifice — as a third option.
Durant is the ultimate system player, as in he can thrive inside or outside of any system. So much so, you take for granted the pieces around him and how they fit because he exists so easily next to anyone.
Who willingly does that, especially if Irving has behaved like a man who’s been empowered because he brought Durant with him in free agency? Assuming he comes back at some point, he’d have to go to the trunk instead of the back seat and it’s hard to see that happening without kicking, screaming and disruption.
Dwyane Wade knew how to navigate the on-court relationship with LeBron James because he’d done it with Shaquille O’Neal — albeit in a different way — but he also sacrificed for Chris Bosh, too, because of the connective tissue between the two.
Durant is the tangible connective tissue.
Durant is also why we’re here. He’s why this team matters and bringing out the best in him should be the first consideration, if not the only one.
His greatness and better-than-expected recovery called for a move of this caliber, even if this particular one wasn’t the best. On its face, the trade was one of excess and didn’t fill fundamental needs of back line help. At some point, the Nets will realize they’ll need more than DeAndre Jordan back there and championship teams need to make defensive stops even if they score 130 a night.
A healthy Durant means his employer has a responsibility to go all-in for a ring, one that the Nets had no problem inheriting, even though they mortgaged everything in their future to get from Baltic Avenue on the way to Park Place — hoping they won’t be put in roster jail along the way.
It’s what the Rockets did with Harden, when they swapped out players, coaches and styles once realizing he was an exceptional talent. But Harden has appeared to lack the accountability that comes with being in charge, even as his force of will got Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook sent to parts unknown.
There’s an assumption he realized he wasn’t fit to be the main headliner, illustrated by his list of teams that already had players he wouldn’t supersede on the marquee or in the blame game if things fail.
But he’s yet to show it on the floor, and pointing to what he did as a younger, much less accomplished player is a leap too far to make until it’s seen.
Usually a trade of this nature answers more questions than it asks: It charts the futures of teams, defines the present of others and sometimes establishes a hierarchy by clearing the decks or adding a perfect complementary player.
Those questions were better answered by the other three teams than the headliner in this, a Brooklyn Nets squad that has champagne dreams. This trade couldn’t have answered its biggest question, about the whereabouts and mental state of Irving — dazzling at his best, puzzling at his most consistent.
He hasn’t been heard from despite being spotted in public places without a mask or on Zoom calls for politicians.
One executive said this would cement Irving’s return because “this move shows they can win without him,” given Harden is a bona fide scorer assuming he sheds the excess weight and reclaims his usual standing near the top of the leaderboard.
But whether the move serves as Kyrie insurance or merely the cost of doing business in the big-boy NBA, they’ve committed to players with reputations of being flighty without much of a parachute.
This trio can blow up the NBA — or blow up in each other’s faces.
Fire, meet kerosene.
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