Ever since his Oklahoma City Thunder was ruled out in 2012 by a mission-possessed LeBron, Harden has valiantly tried to return to the NBA Finals. But just like Durant’s left foot, Chris Paul’s hamstrings had other ideas. The same has been true of a number of partnerships that have failed along the way.
A great player in his own right, during his entire basketball career, Harden was one of the unfortunate few who was never good enough at the right time. He failed more times than he would like to remember and ultimately got stuck between the margins as a number of his peers came out on the other side.
Between Durant and Irving, the two have three championship rings and more than twice as many final appearances. Believe it or not, this awareness keeps Harden from sleeping at night.
“It’s very important,” Harden replied, in a neutral tone, when asked about his desire to win a championship in Brooklyn.
“As a competitor – I feel like one of the best players in the league – that’s what you’re training for this summer. This is what you go through the hard times and the hard times, the hard days. ”
And, alas, he vowed to keep fighting.
“I’ve failed a few times, but it doesn’t stop me and it won’t stop me,” Harden said.
“I train every day with this mindset so that I can compete at the highest level and be the last team standing … For me, I just want to go out there and make my teammates better. [and] try to be the best player on the pitch every night … ”
While mostly successful in this quest, Harden, sadly, was the best player on the pitch most nights – but not April and May.
A nasty divorce from the Houston Rockets eventually saw him land in Brooklyn in January, but he’ll only play eight games with Irving and Durant before the playoffs start. And once they did, he and Irving couldn’t stay on the floor.
Harden has valiantly returned to his form of play and has been remarkably effective for a player struggling with his illness. Maybe, just maybe, if Durant’s foot found its way behind the line, Harden could have found his rhythm in the conference final against the Atlanta Hawks.
Turns out that thumb made all the difference.
About three months later, feeling like it was the first day of school, Harden was confident and upbeat, but satisfyingly realistic about where the Nets are as they prepare for the challenges that await them.
“I think my job is to make sure that throughout the year we’re all on the same page – obviously there will be ups and downs and tough times or whatever. either – but as long as we all have the same goal and that same sacrifice, it begins [Tuesday] at training camp … kind of instill that in the minds of the guys that we do this together, and until the end.
And together, they hope the end is farther than what it was last season.
There is no doubt that the Nets will enter the season as the most talked about team in the East, just as they were last year. But what Brooklyn has discovered – and what Harden has long known – is that it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be the last team standing when all is said and done.
In 2014, the San Antonio Spurs pulled off their revenge tour. The year before, a few missed free throws from Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard left the door open for Chris Bosh to catch one of the biggest offensive rebounds in NBA history. When Spurs started the 2013-14 season hoping to exorcise those demons, Danny Green admitted having nightmares about whoever escaped.
They did well. Now it’s Brooklyn’s turn to try and do the same.
Patty Mills, one of the most recent of the Nets, was with the Spurs during that two-year period. While he can’t share the pain the club have felt since their failure against Milwaukee, he can certainly advise on how to channel it.
Part of the reason the offseason is so long for NBA players is that there is no game tomorrow. That’s the beauty of ring hunting. No matter what happens on Monday or Tuesday, there is always a game on Wednesday. There is always an opponent to spot, a movie to dissect, or a game plan to discuss.
But those months between the end of the season and the convening of training camp?
These days are long and dark.
On Media Day, as Harden reflected on the previous chapter in Brooklyn, he looked to the future with renewed energy.
Stuck between the sidelines for far too long, his personal quest for basketball immorality begins again.
This time, he’s hoping he can crawl into the light – and better, wiser and more humble, that he can help his team out to the other side.