The Nets and 76ers denied discussions were going on regarding a James Harden-for-Ben Simmons swap until just hours before the deal was consummated on Thursday.
Yet it was apparent for weeks that Harden being in Brooklyn was no longer working, for both sides. Privately, Harden was angry at teammate Kyrie Irving for deciding not to get vaccinated, which cost Irving half of the season before the Nets allowed him to play road games.
New York has mandated that those working at indoor venues be vaccinated, meaning Irving is not allowed to play home games. Harden, meanwhile, came to Brooklyn to form a Big Three with Irving and Kevin Durant.
Irving’s early-season absence changed the complexion of Brooklyn’s offense, forcing Harden to play mostly point guard. He reportedly wasn’t pleased that Irving was allowed to play road games, further disrupting team chemistry.
Durant then sustained a knee injury, forcing Harden into a solo act during home games, and a forced bond with Irving on the road. Harden wanted out, telling management this past week he wanted to be traded. This was after Harden forced a trade out of Houston roughly 13 months ago, clamoring for a reunion with Durant, his former Thunder teammate, and a chance to win a championship.
The Nets obliged Harden by making the Simmons swap in a deal that could alter the power structure of the Eastern Conference for years.
“Make no bones about it, we went all in on getting James Harden and inviting him into the group, and these decisions to move on from players of that caliber are never easy ones,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said. “I just want to make it clear this is not something we think is great, let’s just make a split decision and move on from that. I give James a lot of credit for having open dialogue with me over the last 24-48 hours. James was honest with us and we were honest with him.”
As he did in Houston, Harden began missing games because of injury in his final days in Brooklyn. He claimed to be troubled by a hamstring and did not play in six of his final eight games with the Nets. In the two games he played, he was 8 for 30 from the field and scored 26 points, including 4 in his finale. It’s difficult to determine when exactly a player gives up on his team, but that final game may have been an indication that Harden wasn’t giving his best.
“It’s a feeling when you know this is not working,” Marks said. “Whether it’s off the court, on the court in a variety of different circumstances. I give James credit for being open, upfront, and honest. The clock is ticking for him and he wants to win a championship, and we do, too. It was more of a sense of this is the right time and the right thing to do is to move on now. If he felt this was not the right place to win the championship, that’s why we made the deal.
“You’re forced to make a tough decision.”
The Nets’ biggest regret is Harden, Durant, and Irving never played a full season together. They could have been one of the best offensive teams in NBA history, but Irving sprained his ankle and Harden strained his hamstring during last year’s playoffs.
Irving then was banned for refusing to be vaccinated, and Durant sustained a significant knee injury. It will be nothing but what-ifs for Marks and the Nets.
Yet, they were able to acquire Simmons, who made a declaration of his own last summer when he vowed never to play for the 76ers again after a nightmare playoff series against the Hawks. The Nets also acquired sharpshooter Seth Curry and big man Andre Drummond, giving them a different look, with the hopes Irving may be able to play at home if the city reduces its COVID-19 restrictions.
“The Big Three haven’t had significant time to play together,” Marks said. “The frustration is more about that. We’re not going to make a decision over five games. [Harden is] a hell of a player. These are not easy decisions.
“This was something James and I talked about over the last few days.”
Simmons said he was experiencing some mental health issues and was not prepared to play this season. It’s uncertain when he will return to the court, but Marks said Simmons was excited for a fresh start. The Nets plan to pivot and make their new Big Three work.
MAN OF HIS WORDS
Garnett details time in Boston
Kevin Garnett will again be the toast of the town on March 13, when his No. 5 is raised to the rafters at TD Garden. Garnett was named to the Celtics’ 75th anniversary team, but the debate is whether he’s your starting center or backing up the likes of Robert Parish and Dave Cowens.
Garnett recently discussed his arrival in Boston, his impact on the game, and his unique style of leadership. Garnett did not play basketball to make friends or swap jerseys. He was an intense competitor and constantly used four-letter words on the floor.
But he is responsible for changing the culture of a franchise that enjoyed little success after the departures of the original Big Three.
On coming to Boston and his initial reaction: “The continuity and connection [was there] with everybody. I knew I knew how to play. I knew what I was bringing as far as demeanor and work ethic. I had heard nothing but good things about their young players, Tony Allen, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Rajon Rondo. I heard they were all great workers, so I was actually relieved and just looking forward to connecting with them.
“I was coming from a Minnesota team and I was frustrated with talent and work ethic, coming into a group of guys who enjoyed to work and were looking forward to working with me, which was refreshing. I’ve got to give props to Doc [Rivers] for bringing us all together, stimulating us, pushing us. [Assistant coach Tom] Thibodeau was another guy who pushed us. When I look back on the ‘07-08 days, they were really special days with a special group of guys. I knew we had something different.”
Garnett said he talked with former Celtic Antoine Walker, a fellow Chicago native, about the pros and cons of playing in Boston.
“After having those conversations with [Walker], I told myself I probably won’t be the best player on the court every night, but I’m going to play like it and I’m going to give 1,000 percent of effort. I wanted to be able to show people that I can play through injury, I wanted to show them, and teammates and coaching staff, that I could play damn near through anything. That I was mentally strong, that I had endurance and that I worked really hard, worked on my craft, that I had stamina, that I could play for a long time. I was very prideful in that approach. That resonated with the city.
“To this day fans come up to me, they dap me, they express their appreciation for hard work and passion.”
Only a Garnett knee injury prevented the Celtics from a rematch with the Lakers in the 2008-09 Finals.
“If there was load management back then, I probably would still be playing,” he said. “I should have listened to Doc.”
On forming a Big Three, and then watching other teams such as the Heat repeat that formula to win championships: “I think we were following history. I followed Magic [Johnson], [James] Worthy, and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. Larry [Bird], Kevin [McHale], and Robert Parish, I can go on and on and on, and name three on each team. Dennis Rodman, [Michael] Jordan, and [Scottie] Pippen. I think what we were doing was following the script. It just organically happened the way it happened. Having a future All-Star in the chamber with Rondo and having so many complementary pieces made the team that much more special.
“People forget we had great guys, like James Posey and Eddie House, we had those guys backing us up. The script is you’ve got to have two to three guys who can get you over the hump and have the confidence to hit big shots, and have a big that has a post presence. It’s no special recipe. I don’t think Paul [Pierce], myself, or Ray [Allen] actually initiated having three superstars. Why not take advantage of that?”
On his harsh leadership style and how it would resonate today: “I think the world is a little more sensitive and a lot more precious, so you have to approach it with that. You have to be conscious of people’s feelings. We all led differently and you have to be what you are talking about, period.”
On accepting all the post-retirement accolades, including the Hall of Fame and having his number retired: “I’m just trying to soak it up, trying to be very humble. It’s all a shock to me. When kids come up to me and they express their appreciation for different things, I don’t know what to say other than thank you. A lot of the things were just my makeup, a lot of the things I wanted to be innovative. In the world of so many styles or different influences, we’re all trying to be different, we’re all trying to stand out and be our own brand.
“I just stayed to who I was and what I was. I didn’t want to be something I wasn’t. I wasn’t going to cheat myself or cheat my career or take any shortcuts. I’m just glad that the young generation actually recognized it, I’m glad they know the history. I’m glad I inspired others to be whatever style they want to be. It feels good to have a sense of appreciation from another class or another group.”
Buyout market could be busy
Teams such as the Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls could be interested in the buyout market, players available most often on expiring contracts who were not traded and aren’t in the long-term plans of their current teams. Also, players such as Dennis Schröder and Tristan Thompson who were included in deals but who could agree never to play with their new teams.
Here is a list of potential buyout candidates who could help teams make a playoff run:
Kent Bazemore, Lakers — Los Angeles has been looking to move the swingman because he isn’t playing in Frank Vogel’s system. Bazemore, 32, signed for the NBA minimum, but his performance has been abysmal and he’s become a cheerleader at the end of the bench. Bazemore shot 40 percent from the 3-point line last season with the Warriors and would be an asset to a contending team off the bench. The Lakers will need to clear roster space to upgrade, so Bazemore could be waived soon.
DeAndre Jordan, Lakers — Jordan was added for big man depth, but he’s played just 31 games and now isn’t even an option when the Lakers need size. He’s 33 and is well past his prime, but Jordan is capable of providing a shot-blocking presence and defense. The Nets and Lakers both found out that Jordan is a part-time player at this point, but he could still be useful for a contender as a backup and mentor. It seems Jordan has more to offer than just being a cheerleader.
Tristan Thompson, Pacers — Less than two years ago, Thompson was signed to be a real asset for the Celtics. That was before a lost season in Boston and then a trade to Sacramento, where he was relegated to the bench. Now that he’s been traded to Indiana and the Pacers have little use for a veteran center with an expiring contract, Thompson could help a contender. Thompson isn’t what he was in Cleveland, but he can come off the bench for offensive rebounds and defense.
Dennis Schröder, Rockets — Schröder had his moments in Boston, mostly as a starter. There will be few teams that would offer Schröder a starting spot this late in the season, but if he can change his production as a reserve, he could be a valuable addition. He is an impending free agent looking for a lucrative multiyear contract, so there will be incentive. The question is whether Schröder will transform into more of a selfless player instead of going for numbers. It’s a difficult position considering this could be his last major contract.
Goran Dragic, Spurs — For some reason, Dragic wanted no part of playing with the rising Raptors and asked the organization to trade him. They moved him to San Antonio, where he doesn’t serve a purpose for a rebuilding team. But when healthy, Dragic is an impact player who can slash to the basket and hit 3-pointers. The prime candidates to sign Dragic are the Mavericks, who could use another ball handler behind Luka Doncic. Dragic is a quality player, even at 35.
Gary Harris, Magic — Harris was a potential cornerstone in Denver, but he could never stay healthy and thus became expendable. In Orlando, Harris is playing to show teams he is a dependable asset. He is in the final year of a contract that pays him $20 million this season and is looking for another multiyear contract this summer. Harris is a plus defender and slasher to the basket, with the ability to help a contender off the bench.
The Lakers stayed on the sidelines at the trade deadline and are sinking after another distressing loss to the shorthanded Trail Blazers. Portland, in total rebuilding mode after moving CJ McCollum to the Pelicans, played a group of G League players and second-rounders, and they still managed a 107-105 win. The Lakers are hardly expected to win a playoff series, let alone make a run at Phoenix and Golden State in the Western Conference. The Lakers will attempt to add a player in the buyout market, but their roster is already stuffed, meaning they would have to waive a player such as Bazemore or Jordan to make room for an addition. General manager Rob Pelinka’s offseason moves have mostly failed as he tried to gather a bunch of aging veterans for one last Finals run … The Knicks tried to move former Celtics Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier and appear to be sinking fast. Walker was signed to a two-year contract in the offseason, but he has been banished to the bench — other than when the Knicks had injury issues — and he could become a buyout candidate. The Celtics are fortunate they didn’t try to outbid the Knicks for Fournier, who signed a four-year, $78 million deal in July but has not proven to be the reliable scorer expected. Julius Randle also has soured on New York after the club signed him to a four-year, $117 million contract extension. There was speculation the Knicks were interested in swapping those three players for the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook, but that never came close to fruition. The Rockets wanted a first-round pick along with Westbrook for disgruntled John Wall, but the Lakers are done giving up future assets … The Jazz reluctantly parted ways with longtime swingman Joe Ingles, traded to the Trail Blazers in a deal that netted Nickeil Alexander-Walker, after Ingles tore an ACL and was declared out for the season. Ingles is one of the league’s better 3-point shooters and will be an unrestricted free agent.