Years before James Harden and Steve Nash took on the challenge of leading the Nets to an NBA title, Mike D’Antoni, who would go on to coach both, had a basic idea: Nash and Harden would work well together.
It was June 2016 and D’Antoni had just been hired as the head coach of the Houston Rockets, inheriting a franchise player in Harden. In Houston, D’Antoni looked to borrow elements from the “Seven Seconds or Less” style he deployed in Phoenix with Nash at the controls. The coach called his former point guard and offered him a consulting job focused on mentoring Harden, who D’Antoni envisioned turning into a floor general.
Nash declined. He already had a similar gig with the Golden State Warriors. He enjoyed the short flight every few weeks from Los Angeles to San Francisco. A month later, those trips would involve workouts with a newly signed star, Kevin Durant.
Not until last year did D’Antoni finally get to see his vision come to fruition. As an assistant coach under Nash in Brooklyn, he watched the Nets trade half their roster and a bevy of draft picks for Harden. That move united his two greatest disciples.
Before the trade, Harden and Nash didn’t know each other well. They played against one another over the years, but the relationship didn’t go much further. With the Nets, D’Antoni’s idea quickly became reality. Harden and Nash hit it off immediately, seeing much of themselves in each other.
Now, with Kyrie Irving away from the team indefinitely, the Nets need both Harden and Nash at their best if they’re to live up to their championship expectations. Luckily for Brooklyn, Harden and Nash have long been on the same page.
“I just quickly gravitated to the type of person he is,” Nash said. “He has a great passion for the game. He works extremely hard. He’s dead serious about the game, but he also enjoys it, has fun, so that’s the type of person that I have a lot of time for. That’s the way I was. I was very, very focused, wanted to win, loved to compete, loved to be a part of a team, but at the same time, I liked to enjoy it and have fun and have a laugh. So we’re similar in that way, and I appreciate that. I think he’s had an incredible impact on the group off the floor, as well, and that’s important to me.”
Harden was a student of Nash’s long before Brooklyn came onto his radar. D’Antoni’s first meeting with Harden was very millennial: a binge watch. Their introduction came in Houston’s Toyota Center. Together, they devoured film of the coach’s teams in Phoenix with Nash as the focal point.
As Harden watched his future coach run the offense, D’Antoni encouraged his new superstar to embrace his system and move from the wing to the point. The film showed Nash running a pick-and-roll-heavy offense while thriving as both a playmaker and scorer.
“James,” D’Antoni said. “You can do all of this.”
And he did. Harden went from averaging 7.5 assists per game to a league-leading 11.2, with his scoring numbers essentially unchanged. Houston went from being the eighth seed in the Western Conference to third. Coaches around the league noticed the change in Houston and compared Harden’s organizational impact to another floor general.