Inside Kevin Durant's Role in Brooklyn Nets' James Harden Trade

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IFebruary 15, 2022

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) and James Harden react against the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

LeBron James hid his laughter behind a clipboard during TNT's All-Star draft Thursday, but Kevin Durant kept his face steeled underneath a brown beanie. He withstood the onslaught of wry comments from Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith. Only when LeBron chose James Harden with the last selection did Durant finally crack a smile.

So with their teams picked, Ernie Johnson wondered if James and Durant had any interest in swinging a final trade.

Durant pursed his lips in thought. "What you willing to give up for [Darius] Garland?"

James grinned. "You're not done making trades for the day?"

"Nah, not really," Durant said. "I'm still working."

The internet had a good laugh, but the moment was more indicative of what happened earlier that day—when the Brooklyn Nets traded away Harden—than has been previously reported.

Based on conversations with Brooklyn figures and those close to Durant, it's clear the Harden blockbuster trade for Ben Simmons wouldn't have occurred without Durant's blessing. As more and more Nets personnel faced the reality approaching the trade deadline that Harden wanted out, Durant's approval mattered more than anyone else's.

"KD didn't want to get rid of James," one person familiar with the two superstars said. "But he knew it was over."

"Kevin was like: 'F--k it. James isn't bringing s--t," another figure with knowledge of Brooklyn added. "I don't think that would have happened without Kevin making that decision."

For weeks he had grown weary of Harden's purported commitment to the franchise. When Harden first took to the bench with right hamstring tightness, Durant was among the Brooklyn figures who were skeptical of the injury's severity.

By Thursday morning, Durant dialed Nets general manager Sean Marks, sources said.

While Durant had initially resisted swapping Harden for Simmons, Harden had finally forced his hand. Brooklyn's spiral of losses and Harden's freelancing behavior created an untenable situation.

"Kevin's the one that pulled the trigger with this," another source with knowledge of the situation said. "Kevin's the one that said, 'Do this deal.' There was growing concern that this entire season would be lost and then they'd lose James for nothing."

Durant insists he simply walks into Brooklyn's war room, offers his impressions and trusts Marks' decision-making that positioned the Nets for championship contention in the first place.

But Durant's strong connection with Steve Nash from their days with the Golden State Warriors played a critical role in Nash's being hired as head coach. Durant is consulted on every major decision. He was instrumental in Brooklyn's drafting Cam Thomas with the No. 27 pick in July, sources said, and Durant reiterated his desire for Thomas to remain with the Nets past this deadline.

Kyrie Irving only returned to Brooklyn's road lineups after Durant lobbied to scrap the organization's stance that, to play, Irving needed to comply with New York City's coronavirus vaccination requirements, sources told B/R.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/Associated Press

That may have been the final moment Durant and Harden were aligned. Harden also wanted Irving's help and made several public jabs at Irving's vaccination status during media availabilities.

But Durant had been discouraged by Harden since the Nets arrived in San Diego for training camp, according to sources familiar with both players.

The previous offseason, Los Angeles pickup runs with Durant and Irving planted the idea in Harden's mind to flee the Houston Rockets. This summer, Harden and Durant never entered the same gym, and Durant was disappointed by the poor conditioning Harden sported during those early Nets practices. Harden was also increasingly candid about wanting to test free agency for the first time.

It wasn't a concern at first. But Harden joined Brooklyn to be part of a Big Three. With Irving inactive, and a greater workload heaped onto Harden and Durant, a strain formed between the Nets' two active alphas.

"Kevin and James had a cold war going for the last several months that made everyone miserable," one person with knowledge of the situation said.

Come December, word started to percolate around the NBA about a mounting disconnect between Harden and Durant, which was buoyed by Irving's absence. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid was reclaiming his MVP-caliber dominance from a season ago.

Sixers figures spoke of how Embiid fully embraced becoming Philadelphia's lifeblood with Simmons out of the picture. Other league observers posited Embiid was auditioning for his next co-star. Harden saw another talent hungering for his first ring, according to several people close to him. Irving, on the other hand, was willing to miss half of Brooklyn's playoff games.

"Kyrie not being held accountable and Kyrie being allowed to do whatever he wants. James, being his age, knows he doesn't have any time to waste to get his first championship," one source close to Harden told B/R.

As winter arrived, Nets personnel started telling rival team contacts of the troubling dynamic between Durant and Harden, venting during social gatherings and pregame activities. Harden's poor conditioning didn't help his slow adjustment to the NBA's new foul changes. Durant and Nash wanted a free-flowing offense, which Mike D'Antoni had helped install last season, but Harden preferred his patented iso ball. Brooklyn coaches noticed Harden would roll his eyes when an after-timeout play was designed for Durant, sources said.

"Many of today's superstars are passive-aggressive," one NBA coach told B/R.

Then Durant's mid-January MCL injury added more stress to a starting lineup already depleted from Joe Harris' November ankle injury. Even with Irving's playing road games, Harden's solo act in Barclays Center felt identical to the setup in Houston that Harden fled last January. A year later, with Durant sidelined through the All-Star break, the hearsay of Harden's wandering eye for Philadelphia started to be echoed by Harden's actions.

Until the week of the deadline, Harden maintained his commitment to Brooklyn in conversations with Nets staffers, sources said. But he began distancing himself from the team with a similar pattern to how he forced a trade from the Rockets.

After posting an emphatic 37-point triple-double on 13-of-24 shooting at the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 21, Harden left the team for Houston and a night of clubbing, B/R has learned. He rejoined the traveling party in Minnesota for a Jan. 23 game against the Timberwolves and scored just 13 points on 13 attempts.

After playing as Brooklyn's lone All-Star against LeBron's Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 25, Harden dismissed that day's B/R story of his discontent as "reports," but people across the NBA noted his animation while he acknowledged his frustration. Harden followed that news conference by sitting out the next evening against the Denver Nuggets, leaving Brooklyn without all three of its megastars. It raised eyebrows across the franchise—Durant included—about Harden's wavering loyalty, sources said.

Yet MRI imaging showed inflammation in Harden's hamstring, sources told B/R. The situation reminded several Nets staffers of April. Urging Harden to play through injury could have been costly, despite serious doubts of Harden's intentions.

As last year's regular season wound toward the playoffs, there was some form of miscommunication when Harden was scheduled for morning treatment on his bothersome hamstring, sources said. After another late night out, Harden told Brooklyn staffers his legs felt fine. But after four minutes and 22 seconds of action against the New York Knicks on April 5, he reaggravated the injury that eventually sidelined him against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

James Harden defends Julius Randle in last April's game against the New York Knicks, when Harden injured his hamstring.
James Harden defends Julius Randle in last April's game against the New York Knicks, when Harden injured his hamstring.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Then Irving's ankle failed him. Nets staffers have wondered where their superteam would stand if their stars had been healthy. Would they have won the title? Would Harden and Irving have signed extensions?

Harden played against the Phoenix Suns in primetime Feb. 1, but that next night in Sacramento—which proved to be his final game in a Nets uniform—it became obvious to Brooklyn staffers that he was offering minimal effort, even less than he had in that subpar performance in Minnesota. He took just 11 shots and had more turnovers (six) than points (four).

When the Nets arrived in Utah for their fourth game of a five-game trip, members of the traveling party were openly discussing their desire to swap Harden for Simmons. Staffers and players had grown frustrated by the special treatment granted to Brooklyn's superstars, sources said.

Before Durant and Irving chose the Nets as free agents in 2019, Marks had constantly sold his vision of a culture rooted in family, an accountability to each other, an idea that nobody was bigger than the collective goal. That ethos had evaporated by early February.

"The temperature of the room said, 'It's their world, and we're living in it,'" one person who was present that evening said.

Harden didn't arrive at the Jazz game until halftime, sources told B/R. When it concluded and Brooklyn continued with its planned itinerary to Denver, Harden flew to Las Vegas, sources said.

When asked to confirm the account, one person close to Harden chuckled before responding, "That sure sounds like James, doesn't it?"

The short flight from Salt Lake City has made for frequent Vegas getaways for Harden dating back to his Rockets tenure, sources said. He would also stay behind following trips to Los Angeles and meet the team at its next destination. Daryl Morey afforded Russell Westbrook the same frequent flight privileges as Harden. And the Sunday before this year's trade deadline, Harden returned from Vegas to Denver but showed up late for the Nuggets game as well.

Brooklyn figures still wanted to trust Harden. They needed him healthy for their inevitable run at the championship that everyone had pledged to make together. By all accounts, Durant maintained that faith as long as he could. "Kevin always had a hope that this situation could get better," one source close to Harden said.

That is until Harden finally voiced what he'd been telling confidants for some time. He wanted to be traded to Philadelphia. He arrived on the Nets bench well past tipoff for the Boston Celtics game that Tuesday. Harden left Brooklyn on Wednesday and retreated to his old stomping grounds in Houston once more. While Durant and management labored over the Nets' impending conversations with the 76ers, Harden stepped into another night of clubbing.

"He knew [the trade] was gonna go down," the source close to Harden said.

As Harden distanced himself from the Nets, Philadelphia officials were indirectly establishing the parameters for their negotiations with Brooklyn. In each behind-the-scenes conversation, Sixers personnel were adamant they would never include Tyrese Maxey or Matisse Thybulle alongside Simmons but always expressed a willingness to attach future draft capital to land a superstar partner for Embiid. They just needed the Nets to listen.

Morey knows the fickleness of NBA alphas as well as any executive. Each of his pairings for Harden in Houston fell short of championship goals, but Morey stood defiant that his Sixers would trade Simmons for a star of Harden's caliber. Morey saw so many All-Star tandems combust with his Rockets that he may even have been overconfident that another marquee player would soon seek a new destination, either before the trade deadline or during the offseason. Harden, Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal were always at the top of Philadelphia's list.

Simmons' camp, however, and many rivals around the league, believe Morey was brought to Philadelphia primarily to bring Harden with him. Harden's connections with Sixers limited partner Michael Rubin and Philly-based rapper Meek Mill have been mentioned on repeat in conversations with NBA personnel.

After Morey departed the Rockets last October, the league braced for Harden's maneuver out of Houston. Weeks later, Morey was announced as the Sixers' president of basketball operations.

Daryl Morey, left, and James Harden, right, have a long history dating back to their days in Houston.
Daryl Morey, left, and James Harden, right, have a long history dating back to their days in Houston.Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

And only weeks after Morey's introductory news conference, the front office was in negotiations with the Rockets to swap Simmons for Harden. By July, Philadelphia hired longtime Rockets CEO—and Harden ally—Tad Brown.

Several teams believe the NBA should investigate Philadelphia's contact with Harden and his representatives. Of course, backchannel negotiations and conversations underscore most dramatic transactions in today's league.

This is the modern NBA, wherein LeBron and Anthony Davis essentially interviewed Westbrook, Lillard and DeMar DeRozan this summer to be their third co-star. The NBA set a clear precedent for the ramifications of purported tampering with Chicago and Miami, for their offseason acquisitions of Lonzo Ball and Kyle Lowry.

The Harden-for-Simmons saga captured global attention Thursday, and Brooklyn and Philadelphia got a satisfactory outcome—with the potential for a billboard-worthy Eastern Conference Finals. "Two massive media markets. What are they gonna do?" one veteran NBA voice said. "Penalize them some crummy second-round pick?"

When Durant made that fateful call to Marks, the Nets front office didn't know what Morey and the Sixers would offer. Brooklyn hoped to acquire another young piece, and the Nets gauged rival teams' valuations of Thybulle, sources told B/R, as Brooklyn and Philadelphia hammered out the particulars of draft pick compensation that met the Nets' asking price without including Thybulle.

Harden became a 76er. Simmons finally found his new home. And a few months now stand before the inevitable fireworks of another All-Star's change of heart.

"It's a players' league," one Sixers source said. "No doubt about that."


Jake Fischer has covered the NBA for Bleacher Report since 2019 and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.