NEW YORK — According to James Harden, “it’s all a flow.” Some nights, he said in his introductory press conference on Friday, “I might be a facilitator.” Other nights, he might score at a high clip. Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant “might score 10 possessions in a row,” he said, “and I’m fine with that because we’re going to be winning and it’s going to be good.”
Harden will make his Brooklyn Nets debut on Saturday, provided that all the players in Wednesday’s trade pass physicals. Irving will be out of the lineup, per ESPN’s Malika Andrews, but could be back from his absence as soon as Monday. Whenever the three stars get on the court together, the world will be watching to see what it looks like. Harden said that “it’s going to be fun,” inadvertently channeling an infamous Sports Illustrated cover line, and that he can’t predict how it will go from game to game.
“That’s the beauty of being versatile and being able to do more than one thing,” he said.
The counterpoint is that, since 2012, he has done the same thing. For every moment of his tenure with the Houston Rockets, Harden was unequivocally the centerpiece of the offense and the organization. The teammates changed, the coaching staff changed and the style of play evolved, but he had the ball in his hands, in total control. Nets coach Steve Nash acknowledged on Friday that “it’s going to be an adjustment for him,” but said that Harden was enthusiastic about the newness of this situation. Harden said it was exciting to hear Nash, “one of the best to ever do it,” explain his place in the offense when they talked earlier in the day.
“As long as I’m making my teammates better, it doesn’t matter about the points,” Harden said. “I think everybody knows that I can score at a high clip, and that’s where the sacrifice comes in at.”
Repeatedly, Harden stressed that he wanted this, and his new co-stars did, too. Nash and general manager Sean Marks, who spoke Thursday, said the same thing. It sounded a lot like what everybody said about Durant and Irving coexisting with playmakers Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, an experiment that had barely begun before Dinwiddie partially tore his ACL and the Nets traded LeVert in the Harden deal. This partnership, however, is different. Brooklyn has three All-NBA-caliber players, all between 28 and 32 years old, and Harden isn’t about to go back to the Sixth Man of the Year role he played in his early 20s.
Neither Harden nor his new coach offered a quote about the fit that can match the line Klay Thompson delivered after Durant joined the 73-win Golden State Warriors: “There’s one ball. Guess what we’ll do — we’ll put in the hoop.” Nash did his best to reframe the “one ball” discussion, though, calling it the clichéd “great problem” for the coaching staff to have and, more compellingly, a “great opportunity” for the trio. (Thompson also said, memorably, that he was “not sacrificing shit.”)
“Look, these guys, they want to win,” Nash said. “If they really want to win, they’ll find a way to play together. I think my role, our role as coaches, is to create an environment that is really, really enjoyable, challenging and competitive, but fun.”
It’s hard to imagine a more interesting coach for this particular challenge. Nash is one of the best leaders in NBA history, a Hall of Fame point guard who personifies unselfishness. He is also in his first year on the job, and he was on that infamous SI cover, posing next to Dwight Howard. Assist man that he is, when the goofy Howard belted “I Love L.A.” during the photoshoot, Nash joined in. In that story, Grant Hill describes Nash as a “conductor,” but that superteam was never in tune, doomed by personality conflicts and injuries.
“Having played on teams with other talented players, you can see the pitfalls, you can see the difficulties and you can lean on those experiences,” Nash said. “And I think part of that is just starting out with really just stripping down what are our motives here together. Like, what are we here for? What do we want to accomplish?”
In that respect, Nash believes they are on the same page. Harden, Durant and Irving all know that they will have to “take a slightly less volume approach to playing now,” he said. “There’s still plenty of shots to go around, there’s still plenty of opportunities to make plays to go around, but it’s not going to be the same format that it was before when they were largely the No. 1 focal point. It’s going to be much more spread between the three of them.” Nash said the offense doesn’t have to look perfect next week, but they will figure out how to make each other — and their non-star teammates — better.
Harden described himself as “an elite player, an elite teammate and just a guy that’s willing to do whatever it takes to rack up as many wins as we can, sacrifice.” He has not talked to Irving about how they will share ballhandling responsibility, he said, but he didn’t sound worried about it.
“Depending on what’s going on throughout the course of the game, that’s going to determine who gets the ball and who makes the plays,” Harden said. “We’re all unselfish, we’re all willing passers and we play basketball the right way. And that’s all that matters.”
Harden said the Nets were at the top of his list as he engineered his Houston exit. “It was a no-brainer for me,” he said, because all he wants at this stage of his career is a chance to win a title.
It is always easier, however, for a star player to talk about sacrifice than it is to actually do it. Durant certainly adapted with the Warriors, but even on-court dominance couldn’t keep that arrangement going for more than three seasons. Irving said all the right things when he joined the Boston Celtics, but that situation became untenable in Year 2. One could look at recent history and these stars’ usage rates and conclude that this whole thing is going to blow up in Brooklyn’s collective face. One could also surmise that they understand exactly what’s in front of them.
“We know what’s at stake,” Harden said.