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The Brooklyn Version of James Harden is Terrifying

Liam McKeone
James Harden
James Harden / Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
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Despite the fact that the team boasts three of the NBA's most famous superstars, the Brooklyn Nets have not been discussed ad nauseam. I mean, sure, they get a segment on First Take and Undisputed every other day, but the arguments put forth on the studio shows are about what this team could be, if they will be, in fact, good enough to take down the defending champ Los Angeles Lakers or if they will be good enough come playoff time to be considered far and away favorites to win the East. Comparatively, discussion about what Brooklyn is doing right now is thin.

That makes perfect sense for two reasons. One, the NBA regular season feels less meaningful than any other sport and talking about the playoffs is how fans get through the meaningless midweek games that populate every team's schedule. Two, the Nets have not given anyone a lot of content to digest in terms of the now because their Big 3 is rarely on the court at the same time, especially over the last month. Kevin Durant has played one game since February 6 with a hamstring injury. Kyrie Irving has missed three contests in that same timespan. All in all, the Nets' trio of superstars have only played in six of 22 games together since the blockbuster trade that brought them all together.

Therefore, eyes look towards the future when three of the greatest scorers on Earth can play together for more than three games at a time. Until then, it's hard to really pare down exactly what the Nets are like when they're at full strength. That does not mean we should ignore the now, though. Because as Irving and Durant have taken turns riding the pine due to one ailment or another, James Harden has been playing outstanding basketball.

I will briefly use this space to praise what I feel will forever be an under-appreciated part of Harden's legacy: his durability. Despite the fact that he spent years as the highest-usage superstar basketball has ever seen, Harden's ability to stay on the court remains nearly unmatched and really only comparable to LeBron James, who as we all know was made in a lab and shouldn't really be taken into consideration when discussing mere mortals. By non-LeBron standards, Harden is the most durable star in the NBA, even if you choose to not take his workload into account. How durable is he? Last year, Harden missed 14 games. It was the most games he missed since 2011-12, when he was still everybody's favorite sixth man in OKC. A seven-year streak of playing at least 72 games is even more mind-boggling when you remember that he averaged 37 minutes a night throughout that timespan and went deep into the playoffs most years.

I bring it up because it might be the most important characteristic he brings to the table for this Big 3. Durant didn't have much issue with injury pre-Achilles tear but the team has to manage his workload because of that and now he has a hamstring issue. Irving hasn't played anything close to a full season since 2016-17. The two have missed a combined 28 games in 2020-21. Harden, by comparison, has missed two games all season, and one was because the Rockets were trying to trade him. In a Nets uniform, he's missed exactly one contest.

That is what everyone expects from Harden at this point. He isn't putting up gaudy statlines with the same regularity that he did while the No. 1 option in Houston because he's had to change his game to fit next to Irving and Durant. But even when he's riding solo as the only star on the court (which has been most of his Brooklyn tenure to this point), Harden hasn't regressed back to the ball-pounding, foul-drawing play that makes him such a divisive superstar. He's changing his game, and early returns should frighten other teams in the East.

One need only look to last night to see the truth in that statement. The Nets took down the Spurs in an exciting OT affair, 124-113. It was mostly due to the efforts of Harden, who posted a triple-double by way of 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 15 assists. Fifteen assists! To top it all off, he had zero turnovers. That is simply ridiculous. He scored his 30 on 12-of-23 shooting, and the kicker is that only three of those 30 came off free throws.

Harden is still the guy who can go get a bucket whenever he wants, whether by way of the charity stripe, a step-back three, or an easy drive into the lane. But he did that constantly, night after night, for the better part of a decade and realized that playstyle can't bring him a ring. So he's changing it up, averaging 11 assists per game as a member of the Nets while taking only 16 shots per contest. The last time he took only 16 shots per game, it was his very first season in Houston. To compare, Harden took 22 shots per game last year and hasn't averaged less than 20 across a full season since 2016-17.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: this is a different James Harden. He won't always have a 15-assist triple-double, obviously, but leading the league in assists (as he is now) one year after leading the league in scoring is a remarkable transition that very few, if any, players in basketball history could pull off. It shows just how damn good Harden is. And it is terrifying.

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