Brooklyn Nets

Bell Game of the Week: James Harden is making the necessary changes for the Brooklyn Nets to reach full potential

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Bell Game of the Week (NBA Canada)

The biggest question when James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets was whether or not he, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant would make the sacrifices needed to get the most out of each other.

It's only been 10 games, but the early returns are encouraging.

Entering their matchup with the Toronto Raptors on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET on TSN 1/4/5), the Nets are 7-3 since acquiring Harden. Two of their losses came early to a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has the worst offence in the league, but the Nets have put their potential on full display recently, hanging a season-high 147 points in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and taking down the red-hot LA Clippers in a game that went down to the wire.

Brooklyn is now 14-9 on the season, putting it behind only the Philadelphia 76ers (16-6) and Milwaukee Bucks (13-8) for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

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Interestingly enough, it's Harden who has sacrificed the most since the blockbuster trade. While Irving and Durant's numbers have barely changed, Harden is averaging his fewest points (24.1) and field goal attempts (15.4) since his last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, way back in 2011-12 when he played third fiddle to Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Additionally, the way in which he's scoring with the Nets has been quite different.

The biggest difference? Harden isn't isolating nearly as much as he did in his last two seasons with the Houston Rockets. In place, he is generating more of his offence in pick-and-rolls with a few more spot-ups and transition opportunities sprinkled in between, per NBA.com's Play Type data.

The catch is Harden isn't isolating as much as he has in the past ... but he's still leading the league in isolation scoring with 8.1 points per game.

To boot, the players closest to Harden are his new teammates: Irving (5.3) is averaging the second-most isolation points per game in the league while Durant (4.7) is averaging the third-most.

They've each been highly efficient as well. According to NBA.com, Harden currently ranks in the 88th percentile with 1.24 points per isolation possession, Irving ranks in the 94th percentile with 1.36 points per possession and Durant ranks in the 90th percentile with 1.29 points per possession.

In other words, the Nets have the three most prolific isolation scorers in the league and three of the most efficient.

The Clippers got a taste of their collective one-on-one prowess recently, as Irving, Harden and Durant basically took turns down the stretch to lead the Nets to their most impressive victory yet. The trio combined for 29 of Brooklyn's 36 points in the final period doing so on 9-for-12 shooting from the field. They put on a clinic.

The fact that Harden leads the league in isolation scoring despite cutting the frequency with which he scores on those plays in half should tell you how much he used to isolate in Houston. (If it doesn't, this should: Harden outscored every other team in the league in isolation in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. That's right, every team not named the Rockets). It's something he still does a lot compared to everyone else, and yet scaling back even a little has opened more opportunities for him to create out of the pick-and-roll.

Harden has been a below-average scorer in the pick-and-roll in a Nets uniform, but history shows he's long been one of the league's best pick-and-roll scorers. More importantly for the Nets, he has also long been one of the league's best passers out of the pick-and-roll. It's helped him hit the ground running with Brooklyn's role players, namely Joe Harris, DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green.

A career 42.3 percent shooting from the perimeter, Harris is one of the best 3-point shooters Harden has ever played with. It makes him an easy target for Harden when defences collapse on his drives, and the Nets have had a lot of success running pick-and-pops between the two of them because of how reluctant teams are to switch whoever is guarding Harris onto Harden.

Jordan's days of being an All-Star are far behind him, but he's still one of the best roll men in the league, giving Harden a lob threat around the basket. According to Stathead, Jordan has 51 dunks on the season. The only players with more are Mitchell Robinson (67) and Clint Capela (52).

Green gives the Nets a bit of both, being a threat to roll and pop as a small-ball centre. Green has connected on 44.7 percent of his 3-point attempts this season and has always been a high-flyer.

His scoring has dipped but Harden's assists have spiked to 12.0 per game with the Nets, which is both a career-high and the highest mark in the league. According to NBA.com, he's assisted Durant (24) more than anyone else on the roster, followed by Harris (19), Green (18) and Jordan (14). Harden's reach is extending far beyond his All-Star teammates.

Time will tell if this version of Harden - the more opportunistic scorer who is getting everyone involved - is the one the Nets need to win it all this season, but it's hard to argue with the results thus far. Since acquiring him, the Nets have the best offensive rating in the league, averaging a whopping 121.0 points per 100 possessions. They haven't been as locked in defensively, ranking 28th on that end of the court in giving up 118.2 points per 100 possessions, but they still have a positive net rating (2.8).

Is that defensive rating cause for concern despite their positive net rating? Absolutely. But as much as they've struggled defensively, the Nets have already proven that there's almost nothing that can be done to stop them when they're firing on all cylinders.

The reason they've proven it this soon is in part because of the sacrifices Harden has made since joining the team.

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