James Harden Is Headed Back to Houston. Too Bad He’s Not Staying.

The Nets haven’t achieved anything substantial yet. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the newcomer in their star trio, James Harden, haven’t even played 200 minutes together yet.

As flammable as the new Nets have looked at their best, in such an inviting Eastern Conference, what we’ve seen so far does not assure the three alphas and their rookie coach, Steve Nash, of meaningful future success.

One notable exception: Harden’s return to Houston on Wednesday, 50 days after his last game there, is certain to be triumphant.

Entering his first visit to Toyota Center since the weekslong mutiny he staged to persuade the Rockets to trade him, with his former team in the throes of a relentless losing streak, Harden appears reinvigorated, almost reborn, in the wake of the divorce. That was evident on Monday night in San Antonio, where Harden racked up 30 points, 14 rebounds and 15 assists — without a turnover — in an overtime victory against the Spurs.

“He can literally do almost everything there is to do out there,” Nash said.

Harden has been on his best behavior as a Net, embracing a much more watchable share-the-ball approach with a vigor some skeptics thought he no longer had at age 31. The result: Harden’s reputation has rebounded dramatically, with a swiftness and flair few predicted when the Rockets shipped him to Brooklyn in mid-January.

I say “few” because there were some, as confirmed when I went back and reread my post-trade analysis. I quoted a Western Conference executive who felt that Harden-bashers in the news media, including the guy who curates this newsletter, had gotten so lost in Harden’s various acts of sabotage that we had turned him into the league’s most underrated player.

The executive’s point, if somewhat theatrical, resonates pretty strongly now. As natural, and fair, as it was to fixate on the desultory manner in which Harden essentially quit on the Rockets, it was too readily forgotten that he remains an offensive force almost without peer. With these Nets, everyone, including Irving, saw it immediately: Harden had to have the ball.

The notion that he was some sort of luxury addition greeted Harden when he joined the two incumbent scoring machines at Barclays Center. The Nets then assembled an eight-game winning streak last month, with Durant — his spectacular comeback from a torn right Achilles’ tendon suddenly interrupted by a pesky hamstring strain — playing in only one of those games. Irving is on pace to shoot above 50 percent from the floor (.514) for the first time, and he routinely dazzles with his shotmaking, but by mid-February he was openly referring to Harden, rather than himself, as the Nets’ point guard.

It’s why Harden is now more commonly described as a durable, dependable necessity who, in the Nets’ dream scenario, just might make them so dynamic offensively that they don’t have to sweat their shortcomings in depth and on defense. He has seven triple-doubles in 22 games and, on the way to Houston on Tuesday, he was named Eastern Conference player of the month.

Rockets fans, of course, won’t need the up-close reminder of Wednesday’s game against the Nets to slam home the reality that The Beard is no longer theirs. They feel it every night.

Everything this franchise did revolved around Harden for eight seasons. Without him? While Harden was shredding the Spurs, Houston was absorbing its 12th consecutive defeat, squandering a chance to bring a halt to the skid against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are now 14-21.

Still reeling from the news that the city’s beloved football star J.J. Watt had just signed with the Arizona Cardinals, Houston has too many problems these days to know where to look first. The injury-hit Rockets have gone winless since Feb. 4, when their best player this season, Christian Wood, was sidelined by a sprained right ankle. Five of those 12 defeats came by at least 20 points — including a 49-point humiliation at home against Memphis on Sunday.

The Rockets are caught between a need to lose for optimum draft position and the emotional strain of getting reacquainted with losing for the first time in years. This franchise last endured a sub-.500 season in 2005-06, only to get a head start on this season’s losing through a steady stream of high-profile departures that began last September. First it was Coach Mike D’Antoni, then General Manager Daryl Morey, then Russell Westbrook and ultimately Harden.

There will probably be more, too, with the March 25 trade deadline looming. The Rockets are weighing whether to shop Victor Oladipo, the former All-Star guard who arrived from Indiana in the four-team Harden blockbuster. The bruising forward P.J. Tucker, one of the few remaining holdovers from a run with Harden that delivered two trips to the Western Conference finals, three scoring titles and one Most Valuable Player Award — but no championships — is eagerly awaiting his own exit in the coming days and a new start with a contender. John Wall replaced Westbrook but watched his close friend and fellow former All-Star, DeMarcus Cousins, negotiate his release last month, so Cousins, too, could search for a job with a playoff-bound team.

Teardowns are never pretty, but this one has even more layers than usual because it wasn’t the only option. The Rockets, remember, could have traded Harden to the 76ers for Ben Simmons, but rumblings persist that Tilman Fertitta, Houston’s owner, pushed for the Nets’ deal in part because he could not bear to send Harden to Philadelphia, where Morey landed after their frosty parting. Amid the Nets’ surge to No. 1 in the N.B.A. in offensive efficiency (117.9 points per 100 possessions) and the Knicks’ unforeseen rise to No. 4 in the cushier Eastern Conference, I hope you haven’t missed last month’s other major development in the East: Simmons has responded to the sting of bracing himself for a trade to Texas with the best two-way basketball of his life.

Last week, Simmons smothered Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks in a way that pretty much nobody else has managed. Simmons hounded Doncic for five of the Dallas star’s seven turnovers in a nationally televised game on TNT. That followed impressive clampings of Portland’s Damian Lillard and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell.

“I like taking those challenges,” Simmons said. “Just tell me who to guard.”

Ever since I watched Simmons make his case for the Defensive Player of the Year Award so forcefully against Doncic, with his offense also picking up, I’ve been thinking about the Rockets a lot. I was part of the December and January chorus touting Simmons as the ideal return in a Harden deal for Houston’s new front office, led by General Manager Rafael Stone. Now Simmons looks even more like the young franchise cornerstone that Houston had convinced so many rival teams it was holding out for in a Harden deal.

For all the inevitable curiosity about what sort of reaction Harden will get from an expected crowd of roughly 4,000 Houstonians, only one question really matters for the Rockets: Did they make the right trade? They can rightfully say it’s too early for final judgments, but the answer, thanks to both Harden and Simmons, is not trending in their direction.

The Scoop @TheSteinLine

Corner Three

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Responses may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)

Q: Fun read on Luka Doncic and Larry Bird. But I do have one quibble. You wrote:

Another key contrast: Doncic didn’t land with a franchise as close to title contention as Bird and, in Year 3, finds himself in his most challenging stretch since he reached the N.B.A.

There is a problem with that statement. Bird joined the Celtics in 1979-80 and immediately led them to a 61-win season after the team went 29-53. They won 32 games the season before that. I’m a lifelong Knicks fan, but I have also long recognized that Bird made his team dramatically better right away and for the duration of his time there. — Bill Dailey (Rye, N.Y.)

Stein: You are not the only one, Bill, voicing opposition to this sentence. I worded it without the requisite clarity and, as you suggested, definitely shortchanged Bird for the staggering improvement he inspired in his rookie season in Boston. But I’m going to push back on the idea that Bird alone put Boston back in the title mix, because the Celtics did have some things going for them in 1979-80 that you wouldn’t normally associate with a franchise coming off a 29-win season:

Dave Cowens and Tiny Archibald were future Hall of Famers and still quality starters, albeit late in their careers, when Bird showed up. Cowens and Archibald clearly could no longer lead a good team at that point, but Bird accentuated (and benefited from) their veteran know-how.

Cedric Maxwell, who inspired last week’s Doncic/Bird piece, was in his third N.B.A. season in 1979-80. The next year, Maxwell won the finals’ most valuable player honors. Dirk Nowitzki was in his 21st N.B.A. season when Doncic was a rookie; none of Doncic’s other teammates has looked like a future Hall of Famer or finals M.V.P.

The Celtics had enough draft picks stashed, before Bird played a game, to swing the league-altering trade with Golden State in June 1980 that brought Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to Boston. Before that trade, remember, Red Auerbach also won a power struggle with the Celtics’ owner John Y. Brown that kept Auerbach — perhaps the most successful team-builder in the sport’s history — from leaving Boston to take over the Knicks. Brown sold his stake in the team to go into politics, and Auerbach stayed to make the moves that flanked Bird with McHale and Parish.

When you take all that into account, I’d argue that the Celtics were indeed much closer to title contention than the two seasons pre-Bird would have suggested — and certainly closer than Doncic’s Mavericks. Don’t forget that only three of the East’s 11 teams in Bird’s first season had winning records. Philadelphia was a perennial power, but Milwaukee’s ascension, which made the East much more competitive, came later.

Q: Tree Rollins was a player/coach for Orlando in 1995. — @theregoeshappy from Twitter

Stein: This tweet came in response to the history lesson we reviewed on Friday about player/coaches in the N.B.A.

Despite the Rollins reference, players’ doubling as head coaches, even on an interim basis, was indeed deemed impermissible by the league office starting in the 1984-85 season after the N.B.A. implemented its first salary cap. The league wanted to ensure that teams could not circumvent the limits and provide extra compensation to players, since coaches’ salaries are not governed by the salary cap.

Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, in other words, was not eligible to be the Raptors’ interim player/coach when Nick Nurse could not coach because of virus-related health concerns — no matter how badly N.B.A. Twitter was rooting for that to happen.

Some of the game’s greatest players served as player-head coach before the salary cap era, including Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens, Dave DeBusschere, Bob Pettit and Bob Cousy. The last player who doubled as player and head coach in the N.B.A. was Boston’s Dave Cowens in the 1978-79 season.

Rollins functioned as a player-assistant coach for his last two seasons as an active player in Orlando, 1993-94 and 1994-95, but he appeared on the Magic’s payroll as a player in both cases and, again, would not have been allowed to serve as the head coach if asked.

Q: The Bucks at roughly the same point last year were 27-4 and had 15 double-digit wins. And the discussion was whether Khris Middleton would make the All-Star team as the Bucks’ second-best player. There was not even a discussion about Eric Bledsoe, who had similar numbers to Utah’s Mike Conley. I don’t think that Milwaukee team warranted a third All-Star, and I don’t think Conley should make it, either. I just don’t understand the double standard. — @JoohnSn from Twitter

Stein: This reader is questioning why I publicly lobbied for Utah to have three All-Stars this season. I can’t speak for every All-Star voter. I can only share the principles I use when I make my (unofficial) All-Star picks, which are similar to the principles I and many other voters apply in M.V.P. voting. In short: Every season is a story unto itself. The circumstances are never the same, especially on the All-Star front, so what may have applied one year doesn’t automatically apply later.

When choosing All-Star reserves, just like when trying rank five candidates on an M.V.P. ballot, many voters are trying to pinpoint who has assembled the strongest “best season” cases to that point of the schedule. I don’t think All-Star voters should be getting bogged down by the granular details about previous years when they make their selections. The number of worthy All-Star contenders in each conference fluctuates season to season, which is partly how Atlanta got four All-Star reserves in 2014-15.

I said Utah should have three All-Stars this season because the Jazz have been a runaway force in numerous statistical categories. Whether Milwaukee had three worthy All-Star candidates last season, or if you found it fair or unfair that the Hawks landed their four All-Star reserves six years ago, those seasons are largely immaterial to this discussion.

I made the case, in print and on Twitter, that Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Conley should claim three of the West’s seven All-Star reserve spots this season because of both Utah’s first-half excellence and the outstanding individual production all three have given the Jazz. I likewise did that lobbying, as stated from the outset, as one last pre-emptive hat tip, because I was expecting Conley to be snubbed and for Utah to get only two All-Stars.

There was no double standard at play, just one man’s opinion and voting approach. Western Conference coaches, who picked the reserves, clearly joined you in disagreeing with me.

Numbers Game

Stats entering Monday night’s games.

.402

Tuesday marked one full year on the job for Leon Rose as the Knicks’ team president. The Knicks are 18-17, better than many pundits predicted, but the history stacked against Rose is foreboding: This is the 20th season of James L. Dolan’s ownership, during which the Knicks are 661-982 — resulting in the league’s lowest winning percentage in that span, at .402.

3

The three best regular-season winning percentages during Dolan’s reign belong to the three Texas teams: San Antonio’s .688 (1,131-512), Dallas’s .599 (988-662) and Houston’s .576 (949-698).

19.8

When the Knicks selected Obi Toppin with the No. 8 pick in November’s draft, Toppin was billed as Julius Randle’s potential successor in the frontcourt. Instead Randle, who has a very friendly team option for next season at $19.8 million, will play Sunday in his first All-Star Game. Without warning, Randle has emerged as the offensive fulcrum for Coach Tom Thibodeau, who is the closest thing to a marquee signing the Knicks made in the off-season.

5

The former Knicks team president Dave Checketts will join Burnley’s board of directors in June and make it the fifth club in the 20-team English Premier League club with an N.B.A. connection at ownership level. Arsenal is owned by Stan Kroenke, whose son, Josh, is the Denver Nuggets’ governor and team president and also serves on Arsenal’s board. Aston Villa is co-owned by Wes Edens, one of the primary owners of the Milwaukee Bucks. Crystal Palace is owned by the Philadelphia 76ers’ duo of Josh Harris and David Blitzer. And the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James has been a minority owner of Liverpool since 2011.

16

The diversity of the N.B.A.’s big-picture landscape remained largely unchanged after coaching moves in Minnesota and Atlanta over the past nine days. Of the league’s top 60 positions, only 16 are held by nonwhite coaches and heads of front offices.

With a player pool estimated at more than 75 percent Black, the league has just seven Black head coaches. Nate McMillan has replaced the ousted Lloyd Pierce in Atlanta as the Hawks’ interim coach and joined Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff, Detroit’s Dwane Casey, Houston’s Stephen Silas, Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Tyronn Lue.

Charlotte’s James Borrego, who is Mexican-American, and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, who is Filipino-American, are the league’s other two coaches of color.

The six Black executives with lead decision-making authority in the front office are Cleveland’s Koby Altman, Detroit’s Troy Weaver, Houston’s Rafael Stone, Phoenix’s James Jones, San Antonio’s Brian Wright and Toronto’s Masai Ujiri. Minnesota’s Gersson Rosas was the first Latino in league history to run a team’s basketball operations.

Rosas hired Chris Finch, who is white and had worked with him in Houston, to replace Ryan Saunders as head coach of the Timberwolves on Feb. 22. Rosas has faced considerable criticism for hiring Finch, an assistant coach from the Toronto Raptors, in the middle of the season rather than promoting David Vanterpool, who is Black, from within, or commissioning a wider search. In the front office, Rosas has hired two Indian-Americans, Sachin Gupta and Robby Sikka, and Joe Branch, a Black former player agent.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].

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