The James Harden Ballad: California Dreaming

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After an uncomfortable exit from the Houston Rockets, James Harden lands in Brooklyn. Forcing his way out of Houston was in bad taste for all Rockets fans, but it was just the beginning. Teaming up with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant sounded like an easy championship ring.

That is not how it played out.

What happened in Brooklyn that ultimately had all three superstars in different cities after a few years? Why did Harden’s stint in Philadelphia afterward end similarly to his time in Houston? Let’s take a look.

The Magic Number Three

The trio of Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant played a total of 16 games together in 2 seasons.
The trio of Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant played a total of 16 games together in 2 seasons.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving decided to join the Brooklyn Nets during the summer of 2019. Kevin Durant was leaving the championship land of the Golden State Warriors, partially due to butting heads with Draymond Green. Irving had a massive falling out with the Boston Celtics after promising to stay with the team, so he also took his talents to Brooklyn. However, Durant’s torn Achilles kept him out of the 2019–2020 season. Kyrie did not join his team in the bubble, chalking up the season as a lost cause.

The following season, the team bought all in to win by trading for James Harden. They traded away two very promising young players, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert, along with four first-round draft picks and three pick swaps. The Nets also brought in Steve Nash to be their head coach, who has never coached before. If the Brooklyn Nets don’t win a championship now, they will be in deep trouble for years to come. This situation is eerily similar to the 2013 trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for the Nets. As we know, this team did not work out and ultimately put the Nets in a deep hole of no draft picks for many years.

When Harden, Irving, and Durant were on the court together, they looked unbeatable at times.

With Harden, Durant, and Irving teamed up, the team looked unstoppable on offense. James Harden averaged 10.9 assists, while Durant and Irving both averaged 26.9 PPG each. However, injuries plagued the team. The three stars only played a total of eight games together. But they ended the season as the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference, and all three teammates played together against the Boston Celtics in the first round. The Celtics stood no chance against the three stars when they played together, and the Nets won the series in five games. However, in the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks, Harden and Irving got injured again. The series still went to seven games, and the Nets could’ve won if Kevin Durant had slightly smaller feet to be behind the three-point line on a game-winning shot. But alas, their season ended.

Vaccinations and Forcing Out Again

When the Nets Big Three played together in the Celtics series, they looked unstoppable. So, the team ran it back with the same players the following 2021–22 season. Durant signed an extension during the offseason, but Harden and Irving held off. With COVID-19 still prominent in the world, New York City made it a requirement to be vaccinated at work. Kyrie Irving chose not to be vaccinated. Initially, the Brooklyn Nets stopped Kyrie from playing altogether until December, when they allowed him to play only in away games. This was a huge controversy in the NBA, as Kyrie would only play as a “part-time player.” This also limited the three stars from playing together more.

Kyrie Irving's part-time play became a real frustration for not only the team, but especially James Harden and Kevin Durant.

With the constant drama of the Brooklyn Nets, James Harden was not in a happy place. Steve Nash was under constant pressure from fans and the organization to perform. Kyrie said after Nash was initially hired that he doesn’t “really see (the Nets) as having a head coach.” Players simply did not listen to Nash. With Kryie playing as a part-time player as well, James Harden had seen enough.

Without “formally” requesting it, James Harden wanted a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. This demand came 13 months after the trade with the Houston Rockets. He feared the public backlash from requesting out once again, which is why he didn’t formally request out. But it did not matter. Harden wanted to reunite with GM Daryl Morey from his Rockets days, who was hired by the 76ers in 2020. At the trade deadline of the 2021–22 season, James Harden was traded once again, forcing his way out of a franchise in consecutive seasons.

The Dynamic Duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden

Joel Embiid and James Harden together sound amazing on paper. But so did Harden, Irving, and Durant. After the trade in February, Harden became more of a playmaker in Philadelphia. With Doc Rivers as coach, Harden molded his game to what Rivers wanted from him. Embiid was the centerpiece of the team, and it would remain that way with Harden on the team.

The newly formed duo of Joel Embiid and James Harden was meant to push the 76ers over the hump to the NBA Finals.

The duo made it all the way to the second round of the playoffs but were defeated by the Miami Heat in six. Embiid missed the first two games in the series, which was most likely the main reason they lost. Harden also put up poor playoff performances in the final two games of the series, a common occurrence for the star.

During the offseason, James Harden declined his player option to sign a cheaper two-year deal with the team. This allowed more salary-cap flexibility for the team, showing James Harden’s commitment to winning with Philadelphia. The contract included a player option in the second year, so Harden could negotiate a new contract if the 2022–23 season did not work out.

The MVP Embiid Season

The 2022–23 season went just as well as the previous season, although Joel Embiid won MVP. They ended the season as the 3rd seed, and the team swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. During the sweep, James Harden looked as good as he did in the last playoffs, which is below the production the team needs from him to succeed in the second round.

James Harden had moments of greatness just like his Houston days during the second round of the 2023 playoffs.

In the semifinals against the Boston Celtics, Joel Embiid once again was injured and missed Game 1. Out of nowhere, vintage MVP James Harden made an appearance. A playoff career high of 45 points and seven threes brought a surprise win in Boston for the 76ers. If Harden can produce similar games like this, the 76ers can win it all. In Game 4, he did it again. 42 points and a near triple double helped the 76ers squeak out a 1-point victory to tie the series 2-2. Embiid is playing but is playing nowhere near the level the team expects from him, mostly due to injury management.

In Game 6 and 7, however, Harden combined for 22 points on 7-of-27 shooting alongside 10 turnovers. This abysmal performance was another sign of playoff Harden not bringing his best when it really mattered. The way he played looked like he had given up on the team, especially in Game 7. Missed layups and lazy defense saw the Celtics take advantage and win the series. Another second-round exit.

The Fallout of Morey and Harden

Daryl Morey believed in Harden all the way back in Houston and they've had a close relationship ever since. Until the 2023 offseason.

During the offseason, James Harden returned to the team with the cheaper player option he signed last year. He agreed to return on the condition that he and Daryl Morey would find a trade. Yes, another trade request from James Harden. This request comes right after the 76ers fired Doc Rivers in hopes of appeasing Harden into returning. But after such a terrible playoff performance in the final two games he played, not many teams are looking to trade for him. But Harden wants to find a way to make it to the Los Angeles Clippers.

In August 2023, Morey and the 76ers informed Harden that the trade talks had gone cold with the Clippers and they were going to retain him this season. James Harden hated this. He felt lied to, and he could’ve opted out of his player option to find a team in free agency. Instead, he chose to help the 76ers by opting in so they could do a sign-and-trade type of deal.

During a tour in China, James Harden went on stage and had this to say about the situation:

“Daryl Morey is a liar, and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of. Let me say that again: Daryl Morey is a liar, and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”

James Harden wanted to make the situation as uncomfortable for the 76ers as possible. He said the relationship with Morey was “irreparable.” When training camp began, Harden did not show up until much later due to a “personal matter.” He did not play in any preseason games, nor did he play in the season opener. On a trip to Milwaukee for the team, the organization told James Harden not to travel with the team after he suddenly decided to join them. On Halloween, the trade was finally completed.

Lights Bright in Los Angeles

James Harden and the Clippers still have a lot to figure out, especially after a tough loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Harden once again gets what he wants. Requested to join Brooklyn, the 76ers, and now the Clippers. All within four seasons.

In one of his first interviews with the Clippers, Harden was asked what he wanted from the coaching staff of the Clippers.

“Someone that trusts me believes in me, I’m not a system player, I am a system, someone that could have that dialogue with me.”

Well, as a system, the Clippers are 2–5, and the team looks fairly lost together on the court. It is a lot of isolation basketball, with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook all getting turns on the ball. Westbrook has even requested to come off the bench so the other starters can learn to gel together.

After a game-winning four-point play by James Harden to win against the Rockets, he had this to say:

“I’m getting really close. I’m getting closer to myself every game. I feel like I’m improving. When we figure this out, it’s going to be scary. We’re getting there. We’ll let others talk, and we’ll put the work in. It’s going to take some time, and that’s okay.”

With a great coach like Tyronn Lue and some fantastic players surrounding him, maybe Harden is right. Hopefully, history does not repeat itself again.

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