The reinvention of James Harden in Brooklyn

Originally posted on RealGM  |  By John Wilmes  |  Last updated 3/15/21

For his last several years with the Houston Rockets, James Harden was a hated man. A perceived foul-hawk, more interested in finding the logical endpoints in the NBA officiating manual than playing the beautiful game, his most rule-juking tendencies were maxed out as Rockets executive Daryl Morey seemed to encourage them. Popularly known as “MoreyBall,” the play style of the Rockets was a three-point and at-the-rim bonanza that eschewed the mid-range for its broader inefficiency. Harden, and briefly Chris Paul, had a mandate to instead operate the offense by calling for a series of high screens until they got the weakest possible defender switched onto them, and would work the mismatch toward an open three for themselves or someone else, or try to get fouled going to the basket.

Not everyone, as you may imagine, loved watching this. The offense inspired plenty of hyperbolic criticisms about the death of basketball and the sad triumph of math over artistry. And the style, and even more so the hatred of it, eventually became so ingrained that it was fair to wonder if there would ever be the chance to walk back from it, for anyone involved. When Harden put himself on the trade block at the beginning of this season, analysts assumed he would be bringing this way of playing with him, and cited the limitations of the MoreyBall approach in the cons column for any team looking to trade for the 2018 NBA MVP.

But now with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden has dispensed with the stale algorithms—which are undeniably effective at racking up numbers that include wins in the regular season, for what it’s worth—so quickly and so dramatically that few seem to have had time to notice it yet. A less predictable, more fluid player in his new home, Harden is the hub of the league’s best offense, which is surely one of the sport’s best ever. The league leader in assists (as he was in 2017), Harden is an unusually savvy kid in a toy store working with offensive talents like Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris, and, when he’s healthy, Kevin Durant. Perhaps if the Rockets ever had this wealth of weapons, Harden would have been instructed to play this freely—we’ll never know. 

What we are seeing now, though, are the multitudes of untapped possibilities in the bearded legend’s brain. A little-used floater has become a primary tool; misdirections are now infinite; there are many more outlet passes. On one especially rangy play in a recent win over the Detroit Pistons, Harden dribbled the ball aggressively between his legs as he stepped back behind the three-point line, leaving his defender desperately leaping in a way that was all too characteristic of his time as a Rocket. But then, instead of taking the shot, he bounced the ball to DeAndre Jordan in the corner, who passed it back to Harden as he cut to the rim for a give-and-go. But the action was not over. Lofting the ball up in a way that was, at first, impossible to determine as either a shot or a pass, it went back to Jordan as a lob

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