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.
It was demonstrative of how Harden, more than any other player, figures like an ace starting pitcher, whose wind-up can foretell several different forms of your death. Harden has always been the league’s master of deception and trickery, and for years he was limited to his fastball and change-up. Now the ball is curving and dancing and floating in many more terrifying ways for the opponent. His box score figures no longer require us to summon 1987 Michael Jordan for perspective—at 25.2 points per game, he is a mere 14th in the league in scoring, and second on his team behind the red-hot Irving. But the Nets, despite an extended absence from Durant, have won 12 of 13, and Harden is starting to make noise as an MVP candidate, with this as his most interesting campaign for the award yet.
More importantly, he is again a delight to watch. There is something symphonic about the way he composes the Brooklyn offense, plucking fruit from the generous tree of his roster. His creativity, and Irving and Harris as elite scoring threats—not to mention, again, Durant, who the team is thriving without—makes for a largesse that has pleasantly incorporated small ball wunderkind Bruce Brown, a 6’4” dynamo who plays like a power forward at the rim. Jordan and Jeff Green are showing late career flourishes, as well. Even forgotten young big man Nicolas Claxton is getting into the action, finding ample opportunity to sneak to the rim for the lobs in the splendor of Harden’s shadow.
If the basketball-watching world can get over the abuse of high-reward tactics that Harden subjected them to in Houston, there is now a player before them who is doing this basketball thing about as wonderfully as it can be done. More Nikola Jokic than Trae Young, he is expanding the game beautifully rather than bending its corners into distended statistical peninsulas. Whether or not Durant gets healthy, and whether or not Brooklyn becomes a true title team come summer, this renaissance is the kind of phase that even the best of stars rarely show us at the age of 31. My advice is to not miss too much more of it.