BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
By any measure, James Harden has had a Hall of Fame career. He’s easily the best player the Rockets have employed this century, and the second best player in franchise history, behind only the iconic Hakeem Olajuwon. In the context of his place in NBA history, Harden can lay claim to being among the top 30 players of all time, and, at 31, he has several years left to add to his already staggering career achievements.
Harden led the NBA in scoring three times (from 2017-2020), and his career average of 25.1 ranks tenth all time. He won the NBA MVP Award in 2018, and has finished in the top three in the voting five of the last six years. He’s also led the league in win shares each of the past four seasons, and five of the last six. He is, by any definition, a superstar caliber player.
Houston qualified for the playoffs every year Harden was in town, and advanced to the Western Conference Finals twice during those eight seasons, being ousted by the Golden State Warriors both times. Along the way, the Rockets offense, run exclusively through Harden, became the most efficient unit in the league.
Their core philosophy, driven by their analytically inclined GM Daryl Morey, believed that the three point shot was the most valuable one in basketball, and that if the team could limit its efforts to three pointers and shots around the rim, they’d outscore their opponents.
Before Morey tried to explore the reality of that thinking, the 2009-2010 Magic held the record for the highest percentage of three pointers taken in a season at 35%. In Harden’s last two seasons in Houston, the Rockets took more than 50% of their shots from beyond the arc, and the Rockets led the NBA in three’s attempted and made in six of Harden’s last seven campaigns. From 2013-2020, Houston attempted 43% of its shots from downtown. The next closest team was more than eight percentage points behind.
Kevin McHale was the first coach to tinker with that strategy in Houston, but Mike D’Antoni, author of the “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns offense from 2006-2008 led by Steve Nash, was the wizard behind its ultimate expression. Harden was his instrument, using isolation basketball and his sublime ball handling skills to create three point shots (using his patented and controversial step back move), penetrate to the rim, and either finish himself, get fouled, or kick the ball out to a teammate waiting behind the arc for an open look.
Harden has led the NBA in free throw attempts the past six seasons, and has mastered the art of drawing contact during his many forays into the paint. His style, and his individual dominance on the ball was never popular outside of the Toyota Center, where the local fans worshipped his greatness, deaf to the rising cacophony of detractors who decried his play as artless, supported as it was by guile, rule bending and the exaggeration of contact.
Harden is an excellent passer, and led the league in assists in 2016-2017, so while he was a high volume scorer, he also provided significant opportunities for his teammates to contribute. The lack of off-ball movement characteristic of the Rocket offense with Harden at the helm was the antithesis of the beautiful basketball popularized by Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors coached by Steve Kerr, who also happened to be Houston’s playoff nemesis.
The full story of James Harden cannot be told without considering the context of the conference he toiled in, and the domination of that Western Conference by Kerr’s Warriors. Morey was constantly tinkering with his team, shuffling players in and out at a dizzying pace, searching for the right mix of talent to finally unseat Golden State. Harden was the lynchpin of the Houston franchise, and Morey tried to build a team around his star that would compliment his unique and considerable skills.
In his quest to finally vanquish the Warriors, Morey searched the planet for the assets to challenge their hold on the Western Conference. He left no stone unturned, and dealt current year and future draft picks to maximize the window during which Harden could lead his assault on another Houston title. That title did not come, and following another 2nd round playoff exit at the hands of the eventual NBA Champion LA Lakers in 2020, the Houston franchise began to reshape itself.
First, head coach D’Antoni resigned on the plane home from the Orlando bubble, frustrated that the organization did not seem interested in retaining his services beyond 2020. Soon thereafter, Morey himself, the architect of the small ball attack that the Rockets pushed to its maximum expression during the 2019-2020 season, decided to resign to spend more time with family. The organization was in a state of extreme transition, but there remained no doubt that Harden, with two years and an option remaining on the max contract extension he signed with the club, would once again be the centerpiece around which the retooled Rockets would attempt to compete in 2021.
Harden faced a choice. He would be working with a new GM, a new coach, and potentially new teammates. Over the course of the fall, Harden’s friend Russell Westbrook asked for a trade, and was accommodated with a deal to Washington, bringing John Wall to Houston. Robert Covington was traded for draft considerations. Other transactions included the Rockets bringing in emerging center Christian Wood as a free agent, and adding the enigmatic DeMarcus Cousins, who had missed much of the past two seasons with various injuries.
There would be new blood in Houston, and a new coach, ex-Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas to lead them. What was left unsaid was that Harden would once again be the alpha male of the franchise, and the offense would run through him, as it had for the past eight seasons. Since the player mix with Westbrook and Covington failed to advance past the 2nd round, the Houston brain trust, led by new GM Rafael Stone, was trying to assemble a roster that would give Harden another shot at the ring he so desperately coveted. Given the salary cap limitations the team faced, and the lack of younger, salable assets, significant roster additions beyond Wall, Cousins and Wood were unlikely.
Harden had been dubious about the direction of the franchise before the offseason moves, and said as much in the aftermath of the Morey and D’Antoni defections from the team. He informed the organizational leadership that he preferred a trade, optimally to Brooklyn or Philadelphia, teams that he perceived as being in a better competitive position than his Rockets-and teams that were in the Eastern Conference, away from the Lakers and Warriors, the teams Harden was unable to lead Houston past in the playoffs.
Instead of staying loyal to the franchise that had given him the keys to the entire organization, who had repeatedly mortgaged its future in terms of draft picks and younger assets to surround him with the types of players who could one day play for a championship, Harden indicated his desire to leave Houston for greener pastures.
When the team could not build a deal with his stated destinations, Harden chose to avoid contact with the club, and notoriously appeared mask-less at a party in Las Vegas when his teammates were gathering for training camp to prepare for the season. He had no intention of committing to another season in Houston, and his actions spoke volumes. His new running mates were not good enough, in Harden’s estimation, to be worth his time and effort. He missed most of camp because of COVID-19 restrictions, but was ready for the start of the 2021 season. After nine games, including back-to-back losses to the Lakers, who embarrassed the Rockets, Harden was quoted as saying his team is “just not good enough … I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can. I mean, this situation is crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed.”
He was traded 24 hours later. His new coach, Steve Nash, was quoted as saying, “I can’t comment on the rumors, but we know this is a star’s league.
There is an odious stench to the entire process Harden orchestrated to bring about his desired end. The modern NBA is being driven by a level of player entitlement and empowerment that leaves in its wake a complete disregard for the integrity and competitive balance of the individual teams that compete in the league. This is far from a new development, but in the ugliness of the Harden exit from Houston, it bears examination.
The biggest stars in the NBA have always sought to move towards the franchises that gave them the largest stage and the best chance to compete for championships. In just this century, several of the best players ever have chosen to relocate, either as free agents, or by leveraging their status to force trades to more favorable or desirable locations.
In 2004, Shaquille O’Neal demanded a trade away from the Lakers and Kobe Bryant, despite having won three championships in Los Angeles. He was traded to the Heat, and won another title in Miami. In 2007, Kevin Garnett was dealt from the Timberwolves to the Celtics, who won the NBA title the following summer. In 2010, LeBron James made “The Decision”, and left his hometown Cavaliers for the super team being formed in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The trio made the finals in four straight seasons, winning two titles.
In 2016, Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors, the team that had just beaten his team in the Western Conference Finals. Golden State, flush with Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, won back-to-back NBA titles in his first two seasons. In 2019, Kawhi Leonard left the defending champion Toronto Raptors to join the Los Angeles Clippers, who would also acquire Paul George to satisfy Leonard’s desire to play with the former Thunder star. And in 2021, James Harden wanted to leave the Rockets to play with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, and is now suited up to chase down that elusive title with the Nets.
It bears mentioning that one primary reason the Rockets could not make the NBA Finals, much less win a championship, was because Harden had some remarkably bad playoff efforts. Harden’s effective field goal percentage in his eight plus years in Houston was .526 during the regular season but only .495 in the playoffs. Harden drained his signature shot, the three pointer, at a 36.2 clip during the regular season, but only made 32.4% in the playoffs. In their best shot at a Finals berth, in the 2017-2018 season, he shot 12-29 from the field, and 2 of 13 from three point range in the Rockets Game 7 loss to the Warriors.
It’s pointless to lament the evolution of the league from the days when a maniacal Michael Jordan willed himself and his team to improve incrementally until such a time when the Bulls were good enough to win championships, eschewing opportunities to join great players on other teams. Jordan wanted to beat those players, not play alongside of them, an attitude that seems anachronistic just 30 plus years later.
Harden is arguably one of the greatest players in NBA history. He was never great enough, however, to lead his team to the NBA Finals despite the franchise’s constant willingness to accommodate his singular talents and build a team suited to compliment his unique skills.
When a player leaves the franchise that helped him become a superstar, providing him with everything he ever asked for in terms of teammates, in the fashion Harden did earlier this month, it’s fair to question the impact such behavior will have on his legacy around the league. While his new teammates in Brooklyn, including old friend and former Thunder alumni Kevin Durant, are surely excited to add his talents to their team, many players (and executives) around the NBA are likely wincing, lamenting the graceless and selfish manner in which he forced his way onto the latest iteration of the super team.
Harden is just following the road paved by many before him in a league defined by player entitlement and empowerment, rather than competitive integrity and team loyalty. In his wake, the vapors of his truly malodorous behavior hang heavy in the air above humid Houston, and won’t soon be forgotten-or forgiven-by the fans and the franchise left choking on them.