Back in the days when “Nets” was a synonym for “slapstick,” there was the saga of Stephon Marbury’s ankle tape. Marbury was the latest Net to discover a little too late that playing in New Jersey was only slightly more relevant than playing in Wyoming if you happened to crave New York City.
One night, he uncapped a Magic Marker.
“All,” he wrote on the tape on his left ankle.
“Alone,” he wrote on the right.
James Harden isn’t there yet. In fact, Harden wasn’t prepared to validate the report that emerged Tuesday morning that he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Nets, who now play in Brooklyn and are trying mightily to narrow the relevance gap with the Knicks.
Harden, reportedly, has several laments: Brooklyn itself, for starters (he’s “not enjoying it,” according to Bleacher Report). Steve Nash’s rotation is reportedly “disappointing.” And Kyrie Irving’s part-time status is allegedly “frustrating.”
Harden himself decided to rip a page out of the screenplay to “All the President’s Men” after the Nets were handily dusted at Barclays Center Tuesday night by the Lakers, 106-96. Asked about the report, Harden provided a quintessential non-denial denial.
“Did you hear that from me?” Harden asked.
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We did not. We also did not hear this from Harden: “The report is false.”
We did hear this: “Of course I’m frustrated because we’re not healthy where there’s been a lot of inconsistency for whatever reason, injuries, COVID, whatever you want to call it. I think everyone in the organization is frustrated because we’re better than what our record is.”
Everyone in the organization, however, is not a key element to what the Nets aspire to be. Harden is. And right now, Harden is all alone, at least during home games, at least as it pertains to the Nets’ Big 3.
He was his usual superb self Tuesday, turning in a triple-double, his 33 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists a noble counterpunch to LeBron James’ scene-stealing and electrifying 33 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
It wasn’t near enough against the Lakers, who were at full strength for the first time since mid-December thanks to the return of Anthony Davis. Kevin Durant was absent because of a knee that will keep him sidelined another month. Kyrie Irving was absent because his refusal to get vaccinated prevents him from playing home games.
The Nets around Harden are actually a fun bunch to watch, to a man. But they aren’t what Harden signed up for. We know what the Nets can be when it’s Durant/Harden/Irving. We haven’t seen it a lot these past two years, and we won’t see it for a while as Durant recuperates.
But we have seen it enough, in bits and pieces and spasms, to know what it’s capable of, to understand what it can be. And you have to believe that’s part of what drives Harden when he ponders his Nets’ future. Of the Big 3 it has always been Harden who has sounded the most enchanted by what it’s like to play with the other two on those rare occasions when it’s happened.
After the Nets’ signature win of the season, a 138-112 thrashing of the Bulls in Chicago on Jan. 13, Harden’s smile was effervescent after he, Durant and Irving had combined for 54 points, and Harden had dished out 16 assists.
“We’re that good,” Harden said that night, beaming from ear to ear. “We have a chance to be that good. We just haven’t had enough of it.”
The Nets are still in fine shape, still in a virtual tie with the Bucks for the No. 3 seed in the East, a game behind Miami at No. 1, still 11 games over .500 at 29-18. They are also in a unique position because even if they scuffle between now and Durant’s return and drop to No. 5 or 6, all that means is that they likely won’t ever have to worry about playing a Game 7 without Irving.
Still, Harden didn’t sign his extension in October. He has yet to be a free agent in his career, though he holds a $47.3 million player option for next year and could command as much as $270 million from the Nets next summer. As another onetime Brooklyn icon named Red Barber might’ve put it, he’s in the catbird’s seat.
Will that be enough? Will that alleviate his frustration, his disappointment, his disillusionment with the big city? He was asked directly Tuesday night: is all of that true. He could have said, “It is not.”
He chose not to.