The Confounding Disappointment Of The James Harden Era

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As focus shifts from James Harden’s Game 6 stinker in Philadelphia to his future with the Sixers, the stench on the past 24 months of Harden’s career is pungent. He hasn’t been productive since suffering a hamstring injury last March against, coincidentally, the Houston Rockets. Since then, he’s been intermittently unfit, out entirely, or just plain bad.

Before jetting off to the east coast last winter, Harden already had a reputation for flaming out in playoff games; that he didn’t show up when his Houston teams needed him. He had several high-profile playoff failures, including in the 2012 Finals with Oklahoma City and two separate 2-for-11 elimination games in 2015 and 2017. And Harden burned through high-profile teammates such as Dwight Howard and Chris Paul in search of someone who would, seemingly, help him elevate the play of the team while also letting him do whatever he pleased.

It has often gotten ugly when a teammate didn’t check those boxes. A source told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo! Sports just before Paul was traded that “Chris doesn’t respect James’ standing in the league, and James doesn’t respect the work Chris has put in to this point.” The same type of falling-out happened between Harden and Kevin Durant this year in Brooklyn, where Durant reportedly questioned Harden’s dedication to being in great physical shape and Harden believed that to be, according to ESPN, “grating and self-righteous.”

The problem is Philadelphia’s now. There’s no indication Harden has a poor relationship with Joel Embiid, though Embiid did tell reporters postgame that it’s unrealistic for anyone to expect Harden to rediscover the MVP form he left behind in Houston. After reportedly failing to file paperwork on time on his $47.4 million player option for 2022-23 after the trade to Philly (which he can still pick up this offseason), Harden is up for a contract worth as much as $223 million over four years. Harden and longtime partner in crime Daryl Morey will spend the summer hashing that out, but where does it leave our relationship with Harden?

It’s no exaggeration to say Harden revolutionized basketball. Many have been called a one-man offense, but rarely was it meant so literally as when Harden dazzled as a Rocket. During his MVP season in 2017-18, Harden created 1.22 points per possession on 10 isolation tries per game. The next year, it was 1.11 on 16 such possessions per game. By themselves, those numbers would easily vault a team into at least the top 10 in offense. Coming in the halfcourt, Harden’s brilliance elevated Houston in a situation when NBA offenses typically get worse.

Watching Harden in those years felt impossible. Here was a guy who looked like an NFL fullback taking and making shots nobody in the history of the game had ever dreamt of, bending the officials to his will like nobody since Shaq, and looping miracle passes across court for his open teammates. Harden’s skill set felt at once like a 2K MyPlayer with too much VC spent on him and the future of basketball.

Harden and Houston pushed the Warriors dynasty to the brink in 2018, and only an injury to Paul and a historically cold-shooting second half at the worst possible time stole a trip to the NBA Finals from them. The next season, an untimely meeting with Golden State in the second round led to an early exit for the Rockets and the end of the Harden-Paul era.

Harden’s numbers were mostly very good in both series. He averaged 29-6-6 (and two steals!) in 2018, though he wasn’t very efficient and struggled with turnovers. Still, he posted 32 points in Game 7, including a 5-for-7 fourth quarter with 10 points. In 2019, Harden averaged 35-7-6 against Golden State, including 35 in a narrow Game 6 loss as the Rockets’ defense broke down.

As Harden’s performance has waned, it’s become impressively easy to clown him. Everyone with a Twitter account got a joke off at his expense after the Sixers’ second-round exit. But if this is the beginning of the end for Harden, it’s not only a lost opportunity for Embiid and the Sixers, but a remarkable disappointment for anyone who loves basketball.

Many have compared Harden to Karl Malone, another MVP who was less than his best when the stakes were highest. Malone was memorably below par in Game 6 of both the 1997 and 1998 Finals. But even Malone had the longevity to become the No. 2 scorer in the history of the league, winning two MVPs and becoming an All-NBA pick 14 times. Harden has half that many, and it’s hard to imagine more coming.

Maybe a better comparison is Patrick Ewing, who was also among the first of his kind as a talent and produced as much as anyone in the NBA for a half-decade. But Ewing’s Knicks were really only title contenders for four years, from 1991-95. Ewing’s dropoff wasn’t as sudden as Harden’s may be, but Ewing’s status as an MVP candidate and championship centerpiece faded after 1995, at age 33, and never returned.

Today, Ewing isn’t talked about much in debates over NBA history and GOATs. For all the greatness he displayed over a Hall of Fame career, on a national scale, he may be most remembered for a missed layup in 1995 against the Pacers, or for the fact that the Knicks made the Finals again in 1999 after he got injured.

After all the teammate beefs, playoff flameouts, and forced trades, Harden may ultimately occupy a similar place in NBA lore. He had as much game-breaking talent as anyone, and didn’t do enough with it to hang in the conversation with the best to ever play. Watching Harden now, it’s obvious that peak is behind him. Long criticized for dominating the ball, Harden in and after Game 6 against the Heat was passive, then blamed it on the ball just not coming back to him.

For years, many rooted for this. Harden’s style of play, particular his lack of defensive effort and aggressive pursuit of drawing fouls on offense, frustrated NBA fans outside of Houston to no end. But the league is at its best when everyone reaches their peak and gets to face off for mastery over the league.

Harden had a chance to be that type of guy. For all of two years, he was. Now, he’s mostly only associated with what he could have been, what he never was, and what he failed to achieve. There’s still time to change that in Philadelphia or somewhere else, but it will be as a much different athlete than Harden was in his prime, and as the sidekick or role player to someone much better than him.


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