It says a lot about James Harden that — despite being picked by the NBA GMs as the best shooting guard and tabbed by the league itself as one of the greatest players in its history — the Nets superstar is still more hungry than haughty.
After being hamstrung in his debut Nets season, and seeing the chase for his first title foiled by the Bucks, Harden still feels like he has a lot to prove.
A former MVP and three-time scoring champ, he is focused on winning his first championship. And despite not signing a contract extension by Monday’s 11:59 p.m. deadline, he intends on winning that Larry O’Brien Trophy in Brooklyn.
“Honestly, I’m just focused on getting healthy, getting my body right and then preparing for a great season. The contract, the money is going to be there,” said Harden, who can sign a four-year, $227 million extension after this season. “I’m not planning on leaving this organization and the situation that we have.
“So my focus, honestly, is just focus on the season and then winning the championship. The contract and all that stuff will bear itself out, but my focus is going to be locked on this season.”
Health will be key for the Kyrie Irving-less Nets in general, and Harden in particular.
The usually durable veteran — who had missed just 19 games combined over a six-year span — made just 44 appearances last season.
Harden admits poor conditioning led to the hamstring woes that cost him 20 of 21 games down the stretch and flared up again just seconds into the second-round series versus Milwaukee. When he returned in Game 5, he was as an immobile shell of himself.
“James was playing on one leg,” coach Steve Nash said.
This time around, Harden is using that experience as fuel to show he’s still an elite force in the game.
“Last year was a whirlwind for me individually, as far as my health and playing. So this year I need to come back and show I’m one of those guys. I’ve got a lot to prove myself and that’s all I’m worried about and focused upon,” Harden said. “I love it here. … From top to bottom, the communication has been unbelievable. It’s been amazing. I feel at home. It’s nothing to worry about.”
Harden opened the season watching the Bucks get their championship rings, staying on the court to watch the ceremony.
“They were the last team standing last year,” Harden said. “We’ve got to work toward the right direction and build to be that team this season.”
The 32-year-old has ground to make up, the hamstring woes having forced him to spend much of his offseason rehabbing. That’s cut into his conditioning, and he’s been working his way back up to speed.
Tuesday against the Bucks’ long, athletic defense, Harden had 20 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in a Nets loss. He didn’t explode to the rim much, but that will come later as he gets in better game shape. With the Nets playing at the 76ers on Friday, Kevin Durant said Harden will improve going forward.
“It was his first action in, what? Real action, because in the playoffs, he was hobbled,” Durant said. “It’s been a while since he’s been on the court feeling like himself again. So it was good.”
First Harden was tabbed as the best shooting guard in the annual GM survey. Then the league did one better, picking him — along with Durant and Nash — for the 75th anniversary team as among the best players in history.
“Ever? Wow. Where I come from, even just to be in the NBA was a farfetched dream. To be an NBA basketball player was unheard of,” Harden said. “Then not just making it but sustaining it was a different type of mountain you’ve got to climb. And to be one of the best basketball players is a whole different mountain.
“It’s a testament to the work I’ve put in and continue to put in until I can’t play anymore. Obviously I haven’t reached the ultimate goal, which is a championship; but that’s what keeps me working and going hard every single day. That’s the end goal.”
It’s an endgame he expects to come in Brooklyn.