James Harden's time with the Houston Rockets has come to an end.
On Thursday, the Brooklyn Nets announced that they have acquired the one-time MVP from the Rockets as a part of a three-team trade.
The trade includes Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, as well as three first-round draft picks and four first-round pick swaps.
OFFICIAL: The Brooklyn Nets have acquired six-time All-NBA first teamer and eight-time NBA All-Star James Harden.https://t.co/tkh5dCKi5F- Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) January 14, 2021
The trade doesn't come as a huge surprise - it was clear before the season that Harden was ready to move on, the Nets were reportedly at the top of his list and he made it ever-so-clear following the team's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers this week that he'd had enough - but it's still a monumental deal that has the potential to shake up the entire NBA.
At the simplest of levels, Harden is one of the best offensive players in the NBA, if not the best. He has led the league in scoring in three consecutive seasons, peaking in 2018-19 with an average of 36.1 points per game, the seventh-highest single season scoring mark in NBA history. He wasn't far off that in 2019-20, posting 34.3 points per game for the 15th-highest single season scoring mark in NBA history.
Harden did the bulk of his scoring in both of those seasons in isolation. According to NBA.com, he averaged 15.8 points per game in isolation last season, representing just under half (45.0 percent) of his offence. That led the league by a mile, with Russell Westbrook ranking second to Harden in isolation scoring with 6.4 points per game.
In total, Harden scored more points in isolation by himself than every other team in the league last season. You read that right - every other team in the league. He was incredibly efficient, ranking in the 92nd percentile with 1.12 points per possession.
It was an almost identical case in 2018-19.
When people talk about Harden being an offence unto himself, this is what they're getting at. His step back has become one of the greatest weapons in NBA history, giving him the ability to score against almost anyone on an island. He's capable of shooting from deep and has the size to shoot over most defenders, standing at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan.
If defenders press up on him to take those step backs away, Harden is more than capable of making them pay. While he's all but eliminated the midrange from his game, he's one of the better finishers in the paint at his position, both at the rim and from floater range.
Harden is also one of the best passers in the league.
When Mike D'Antoni turned him into a point guard in his first season as head coach of the Rockets, Harden led the NBA with an average of 11.2 assists per game. He's averaged 7.9 assists per game in the three seasons since, putting him behind only Russell Westbrook (9.5), LeBron James (9.2), John Wall (9.2), Trae Young (8.6) and Ben Simmons (8.0) for most in the league during that span.
He's at his best when he's surrounded by 3-point shooters because of the amount of attention he commands...
...but Harden has had success playing alongside rim-runners in the past.
The key to Harden's success in Brooklyn will be striking the right balance between letting him cook in isolation without turning the offence in Hardenball.
The result of him being such a dominant isolation scorer is that an offence built entirely around him doesn't encourage much player movement or ball movement. Last season especially, Houston's offence resorted to a lot of Harden picking his defender apart while his teammates stood and watched. It contributed to the Rockets traveling only 8.7 miles per game on offence, ranking them dead-last in the league.
To make matters worse, Harden has developed a bad habit of standing and watching when he doesn't have the ball in his hands. It was reportedly a point of contention a couple of years ago, with ESPN's Tim MacMahon reporting that one of Chris Paul's biggest beefs when he was with the Rockets was that Harden "basically opted not to participate" in Houston's offence when someone else was in control. It wasn't much different last season with Westbrook as his teammate.
That won't work in Brooklyn, where he'll be teamed up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two score-first players who handle the ball a decent amount themselves.
Harden has at least shown in the past that there's much more to his game than isolation scoring. In that first season D'Antoni took over as head coach of the Rockets, Harden still led the league in isolation scoring but also led the league in pick-and-roll scoring. He was incredibly efficient, ranking in the 93rd percentile with 1.01 points per possession.
All of the same things that make him a dominant isolation scorer - the ability to shoot off the dribble, finish at the rim and punish teams for loading up on him with his passing - make him a handful in pick-and-rolls.
Additionally, Harden has the ability to be an effective off-ball player. He's long been an efficient spot-up shooter - Harden made 41.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in 2019-20 and 41.4 percent in 2018-19 - and he proved to be a dynamic cutter back when he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he played alongside two All-Stars in Westbrook and Durant.
Harden has changed a lot since those Thunder days, but there's very little he can't do at a high level offensively. It's just a matter of someone unlocking those parts of his game again and his willingness to adapt to a new system. If Nets head coach Steve Nash can figure out a way to make it work between the three of them, they're going to be dynamite offensively, especially at the end of games because there's always going to be at least one mismatch for them to exploit.
The other end of the court is a different story. Harden is consistently among the league leaders in steals and has the size to defend multiple positions - based on data collected by The BBall Index's Krishna Narsu, he was the second-most versatile defender in the league last season - but a trio of Irving, Harden and Durant isn't scaring anyone defensively. Losing Allen hurts because he was one of Brooklyn's best defenders, and there's now a lot more pressure on DeAndre Jordan to anchor their defence and Joe Harris to match up with the opposing team's best perimeter player.
There's a chance Brooklyn will be so good offensively that it won't matter if it's average defensively, but it's hard to imagine nobody testing at some point, whether it's on the road to the Finals or in the Finals.
Either way, the Nets acquiring Harden is a fascinating deal. Not only because of how much work Nash has ahead of him to get Irving, Harden and Durant on the same page, but because of how much it could change the landscape of the NBA, both this season and next.
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