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What’s popping on Air-Ball

Sometimes in sports, we do a terrible job of understanding the value of a second chance or a new beginning. They can provide clarity, opportunity or even just a chance to reflect on previous mistakes. 

I bring this up to say this: the Brooklyn Nets are currently getting the best version of Kyrie Irving and James Harden I’ve ever seen.

Sure, they were great in Cleveland and Houston, don’t get me wrong. But the fluidity and understanding they have of themselves as basketball players is something we haven’t seen from them yet. 

In Irving’s case, his departure from Cleveland and Boston is well documented. After year’s stuck in the shadow of LeBron James, he wanted a chance to get away and prove himself. Admirable, but ultimately unsuccessful, Kyrie concluded two years in Boston with far more questions than answers.

After being one of the darlings of the league in Cleveland, Irving had become a villain in Boston. People wondered if the Celtics were better when he didn’t play and many blamed an obviously bad chemistry situation in 2018-19 on him. 

He needed a new chance to go somewhere else, get a fresh chance to prove to the world just how good he is.

Similarly, Harden after years of playoff disappointment hit a breaking point after the bubble. The Russell Westbrook micro-ball team was a playoff failure, another for Harden, and at 31, it was clear his basketball career was much closer to the end than the beginning. 

Years of outstanding numbers in the regular season had equated to less than ideal playoff results. Rightly or wrongly, Harden was staring Karl Malone and Charles Barkley in the eye and knew he needed to go somewhere else to try and save his legacy. 

Irving ended up in Brooklyn with Kevin Durant, another person many would argue was in need of a fresh start as well via free agency. Harden of course in a trade in January. 

When the Harden trade happened, the first person many thought would be disadvantaged by it was Irving. The theory was Irving had left Cleveland because he didn’t like his secondary role and that he would hardly settle for a tertiary role.

Here’s the thing though, after disappointing in Boston, it’s pretty clear Irving took some time and evaluated what really mattered to him. His charity work is way up and his feelings about himself as a player have changed. After once not liking to play off of a superstar, he’s now playing the most efficiently in his career off of one. 

Kyrie Irving has been unbelievable this season

Harden on the other hand, after years of being the Rocket’s entire offence, was believed to only know how to play one way. Sure, he had been much more of a facilitator in Oklahoma City but that was before he was Jame Harden, capital J, capital H.

Much like Irving though, it’s obvious Harden took a look in the mirror at his career before he requested a trade. Famously Kobe Bryant said Harden’s ball-dominant style couldn’t win and it seems like he agreed.

The evidence of this is pretty simple. Since arriving in Brooklyn, Harden has become the ultimate facilitator. With so much talent and shooting around him, each possession down the court he’s allowed to make the best play and unsurprisingly for one of the great offensive players ever, he more often than not does. 

James Harden in Brooklyn has been something else

What has surprised many, including myself, is arguably the biggest benefactor of this is Irving. 

As he famously said, he’s the shooting guard and he’s truly embracing it. In his newfound role, his efficiency is off the charts and time and again, his ability to attack is emphasized by the space Harden creates for him through a great pass or even just his gravity. 

I really can’t ever remember two ball-dominant players this talented playing off each other, it’s a treat to watch. Two guys, for the first time maybe ever in their careers, truly comfortable with who they are. 

Harden is all in on winning. Stats, MVPs, he doesn’t care about that in Brooklyn. The only thing missing on his mantle is the Larry O’Brien trophy. 

Irving meanwhile tried to do it without LeBron and realized his personality probably didn’t mesh with being a team’s best player. He has other interests outside the game and to be a team’s best man, it just wasn’t a match. Now understanding this, he’s playing with a level of peace that is downright devastating. 

Of course, some credit needs to go to coach Steve Nash and role players like Joe Harris and Bruce Brown. But, most of it should go to Harden and Irving themselves.

They’ve gone through long, demanding, successful and yet at times extremely disappointing journeys. Learned from it and arrived at a place in Brooklyn with Durant where they can together maximize themselves as basketball players. 

It’s a pleasure to watch and right now, feels like it has the potential to end up in a place where Harden fills the empty spot on his mantle. So is the beauty of learning from what didn’t work and taking advantage of one’s newfound opportunities. 


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