When James Harden came to Houston in 2013, he did so as a former sixth man oozing with potential. In Oklahoma City, he had fit himself snugly into the super sub role who could carry the offense in bursts when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook rested, but closed games as a tertiary option to his two star teammates.
The Rockets banked on Harden’s star potential and it paid off in the form of some of the most productive offensive seasons the league’s ever seen from one player. Harden emerged as the league’s preeminent scoring guard, taking up massive amounts of usage on a team that made him their ever-present focus. When they added fellow star backcourt mates, it was always incumbent on them to work their way into Harden’s team — a process that led both Chris Paul and Westbrook to want out not too long after arrival. Playing with Harden isn’t the easiest thing, but the Rockets happily made him the center of their universe.
Now, seven years after arriving in Houston, Harden appears to be on the outs, issuing a request to be traded to another team with the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers topping his desired destinations list — and Brooklyn the focus of his efforts currently. In both places are familiar faces, as Daryl Morey is now running basketball operations in Philly and Mike D’Antoni is an assistant in Brooklyn, but on both teams he’d be entering a place not built solely for him. After years of being the sun that the rest of the team revolved around, it begs the question: Can James Harden ever go back to being in orbit?
Harden has become basketball’s most frequent and aggressive isolation scorer, a man capable of breaking down nearly any opponent to get the shot attempt he wants or, sometimes preferably to him, force contact to get himself to the free throw line. He is nearly unrecognizable to the player that the Thunder had, both in his diverse array of skills and mindset on the floor. To play that style requires an intense commitment from everyone around you, and it’s hard to get fellow stars to buy in. It worked best with Chris Paul, as they’d take turn isolating with shooters around them, but it was still Harden’s show, not Paul’s, and that steadily drove a wedge between the two, with tensions reaching an apparent boiling point after just two seasons together. Westbrook lasted just one season, likewise struggling to find his place alongside his friend and who, on the court, barely resembled the man he’d played with previously.
Both teams atop Harden’s target list would be trading for him to play alongside at least one All-Star, and would have to effectively ignore history to believe it was assured things would go smoothly. In Brooklyn, he’d be joining Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, although it’s possible the Rockets would insist on Irving being a part of a trade package, which would make for a very interesting decision for the Nets. They are two fellow ball-dominant players who see themselves as elite end of game options, and while they’ve said the right things about handing off responsibility to each other this offseason, adding a third cook to the mix would only further complicate matters.
The frequent refrain when discussing how guys could fit alongside each other is to reference how stars come together for a common goal every four years for Team USA at the Olympics. That fails to account for the vast differences between doing so in an international competition where the sole goal is a gold medal and to do so in the NBA where, while a title is the end goal, legacy and individual accolades weigh on everyone’s minds. It’s possible Harden, Irving, and Durant could find a way to coexist, but it would be the first superteam we’ve seen to have three players with their level of on-ball expertise team up. In Golden State, Durant was able to share the ball with Stephen Curry, without needing to worry if Klay Thompson or Draymond Green were getting enough time on the ball. In Miami, LeBron and Dwyane Wade found a similar balance, with Chris Bosh accepting the tertiary, off-ball role. In Brooklyn, it’s hard to imagine any of those three being willing to be the one to raise their hand to take a backseat to the other two, a necessary sacrifice on such a team.
With the Sixers, it’s a bit easier to see the fit between Harden and Joel Embiid, assuming Ben Simmons would be the centerpiece of the deal to acquire the former MVP. Embiid has welcomed closers in the past, namely Jimmy Butler, and has openly pined for having someone who can takeover on the perimeter to create his own shot. Harden, maybe more than any player in the league, fits that description, but there would still have to be some give and take from all parties, including James, to cede some of his preferred style to play more pick-and-roll with Embiid and allow the big man to get his touches inside. It’s been some time since Harden played with a big capable of scoring, and like with Paul and Westbrook, his partnership with Dwight Howard soured considerably over time.
Any team acquiring James Harden is well aware of this history and how effective he is when allowed to do what he wants, particularly the two teams he’s targeting given the corporate knowledge D’Antoni and Morey have. They’ll do their best to accommodate him and build a system that maximizes his immense talents, but it likely won’t ever be the same as it was in Houston. The question for Harden in a trade isn’t the talent or ability, but simply the willingness to do something else and play within a system after years of being given carte blanche. Every star has a dominant style of play, but Harden takes it to a degree you rarely see and, maybe most importantly, he doesn’t have the massive team success to be able to demand everyone else fall in line and bend to his will in the way, say, LeBron James can.
It’s hard to even envision what he looks like in another system, but it’s something that he has to, at least to a degree, have considered before making this request. There’s no doubt in the effectiveness of Harden’s play despite gripes about its aesthetics, but if the goal is to find a new home in which to win a championship, some sacrifices must be made. It’s one thing to workout with your friends in the offseason and play with them on an Olympic team, it’s a whole other to make things work to win a championship in the NBA.
Wherever Harden goes he’s going to remain a focal point, of that there’s no doubt. It’s just that he’ll have to also find a way to revolve around others as well, a skill he hasn’t had to show for some time.