Ex-Nets star James Harden returns to Brooklyn, this time with the Clippers

NEW YORK — The Beard is back in Brooklyn. And while Wednesday’s game isn’t James Harden’s first at Barclays Center since his tumultuous Nets tenure ended last year, it is the star guard’s first time there in his latest uniform.

Wednesday marks Harden’s second game with the Los Angeles Clippers, who acquired him late last month from the Philadelphia 76ers. The 34-year-old made his Clippers debut Monday against the Knicks, recording 17 points and six assists in a loss at Madison Square Garden.

Harden’s short stint in Philadelphia ended similarly to how his brief time in Brooklyn concluded, with his team appeasing a trade request by the disgruntled 10-time All-Star.

His addition to Los Angeles created a big-name pairing with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook — just like how the Nets’ acquisition of Harden in January 2021 ushered in the ill-fated “Big Three” era of Brooklyn basketball also featuring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

The Nets traded ascending center Jarrett Allen, proven scorer Caris LeVert, three first-round picks and four pick swaps to acquire Harden from the Rockets after the former MVP declared Houston was “just not good enough” to win a championship.

That midseason trade solidified the Nets as championship favorites in 2020-21, reuniting him with a fellow former MVP in Durant, whom he played with in Oklahoma City, while forming a dynamic backcourt duo with the high-scoring Irving.

Harden and Durant, however, dealt with injuries during the stretch run of that regular season. Harden and Irving both missed games during the Nets’ Eastern Conference semifinals loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that postseason. And Irving missed much of the subsequent 2021-22 season after declining to meet New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The superstar trio totaled only 16 games together before the Nets agreed to send Harden to Philadelphia in the February 2022 trade that brought back Ben Simmons. At his introductory press conference with the 76ers, Harden contended Irving’s absence was only a “very minimal” factor in his trade request.

“I don’t mean to, like, just down talk to anybody or whatever,” Harden later told Fox Sports of his Nets departure. “It was just, there was no structure and even superstars, they need structure. That’s what allows us to be the best players and leaders for our respective organizations.”

The midseason trade to Philadelphia reunited Harden with president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, who served as Rockets general manager when Harden was in Houston. Before the 2022-23 season, Harden took a $15 million pay cut to help the 76ers build a better team around him.

But a maximum extension that would’ve helped him recoup some of that money never came, and in June, Harden picked up his $35.6 million option and requested a trade. As his trade request lingered, Harden became more vocal.

“Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of,” Harden said at an August promotional event in China. “Let me say that again. Daryl Morey is a liar and I will never be a part of an organization that he’s a part of.”

Harden, who didn’t suit up for the 76ers this season, finally got his wish, with the Clippers trading multiple players and picks to acquire him.

About a year after his exit, the Nets traded Durant to Phoenix and Irving to Dallas, bringing back Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith.

Wednesday marks Harden’s eighth time facing the Nets since they traded him and the fourth time at Barclays Center. His first game back in Brooklyn came last February, when he scored 29 points. His 76ers then swept the Nets in the first round of the playoffs.

The Nets faced Irving last month in Dallas for the first time since trading him, with the guard scoring 17 points in a Mavericks win. Brooklyn’s first time seeing Durant since that deal, meanwhile, is set to take place Dec. 13 in Phoenix.