James Harden's first full season with the Philadelphia 76ers got off to a frustrating start, as he sprained a tendon in his foot less than a month in and was sidelined for 14 games. He is back on the court now, though, and the Sixers have gone 3-1 since he returned from injury.
Harden is also back, for the first time in nearly three years, in the media with a full-length feature story -- this time from Yaron Weitzman of Fox Sports. The full piece is well worth a read, but some of the bits about the end of Harden's tenure with the Brooklyn Nets are particularly notable, and worth going through bit by bit.
Contentious relationship with Kevin Durant
First, there was the whole Kyrie Irving vaccination mess. Also, Harden and Durant, according to multiple Nets sources, butted heads during the season – Durant didn't think Harden was in peak physical shape, and told him as much.
Previous reporting has indicated that Harden and Kevin Durant were locked in a "cold war" during the former's final days in Brooklyn. A February report from Bleacher Report indicated that Durant eventually pushed to trade Harden, and that Harden's lack of conditioning was part of the problem. So while this bit of news isn't new, it's noteworthy that it has been confirmed by another source.
Harden's injury frustrations
According to a friend, Harden also became frustrated with the Nets training staff and its focus on maintenance, rest and recovery; after all, in Houston he'd run stadium stairs and lift – even after games sometimes – and he never got hurt.
I asked Harden how he'd describe his time in Brooklyn. He hesitated. His first answer was that it was tough because "I wasn't able to get healthy."
During Game 1 of the Nets' second-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021, Harden suffered a hamstring strain that kept him out of Games 2, 3 and 4. He played the final three games of the series, including a miraculous 53 minutes in Game 7, but was not himself as the Nets lost at home and were eliminated.
The injury derailed Harden's 2021 offseason, which was already shortened due to the pandemic. Not only was he unable to suit up for Team USA during the Tokyo Olympics, he couldn't play pick-up and was not in game shape by training camp and opening night of the 2021-22 season.
He then missed a chunk of games while in the health and safety protocols, suffered a hyperextended knee, a hand strain and once again tweaked his hamstring. All told, he missed 11 games before being traded to the Sixers at the deadline, and then missed another seven in Philadelphia.
Health was certainly a key factor in Harden's Nets experience unraveling. It's hard to say, however, how much of that was Harden's lack of conditioning, as Durant suggested, versus plain old bad luck.
Nets' lack of organizational structure
"I don't mean to, like, just down talk to anybody or whatever. It was just, there was no structure and even superstars, they need structure. That's what allows us to be the best players and leaders for our respective organizations. ... I just feel like, internally, things weren't what I expected when I was trying to get traded there. I think everybody knows that."
The Harden-Durant-Kyrie Irving superteam experiment in Brooklyn never fully got off the ground. They were awesome in the brief glimpses we saw, but only played 16 games together between the regular season and playoffs (they were 13-3 in those games). Some of that was due to injuries and the freak occurance of a worldwide pandemic. But Harden is correct to criticize the Nets' lack of structure.
Quite often, the Nets were too willing to acquiese to their stars' demands. They signed Deandre Jordan to a huge deal in free agency because he was friends with Durant and Irving, which led to internal tension when then-head coach Kenny Atkinson rightfully started Jarrett Allen over Jordan at center. The Nets later fired Atkinson largely because the players pushed him out, and essentially let Durant pick Steve Nash as his successor. When the players stopped listening to Nash, he too was gone. It appeared as though Ime Udoka would be next in line despite his current scandal, but he was never actually hired and Jacque Vaughn took over instead. Meanwhile, their handling of Irving's various controversies has been haphazard at best.
To be fair to the Nets, many teams would hand over power to get players with that kind of talent in the door. Doing so comes with risks, though, and the Nets have paid the price.
Did Harden quit on the Nets?
"I knew people were going to talk and say, 'You quit' and all that stuff, but then the following summer, the other superstar there [Durant] wanted to leave. So it's like: Am I still the quitter?"
Harden contends he never quit on the Nets -- an accusation that clearly stings given he made these comments nearly a year after he was traded. But while some of his previous points were valid, this one is a bit harder to accept. His final game with the team was a complete no-show against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 2 when he shot 2 of 11 from the field in 37 minutes and had more turnovers (six) than points (four). Go back and watch the footage of that game; the lack of effort, particularly on the defensive end, is shocking.
Harden is correct that both Durant and Irving have tried to get out of Brooklyn in the months since he left, but their actions don't retroactively absolve him.