The James Harden Blues

On a Las Vegas stage in July of 2015, James Harden accepted an award that validated the year he had just completed. He was awarded a trophy as the Players MVP, finally able to bask in some sort of glow for carrying the Rockets when no one else could, when Dwight Howard was injured and their cast of three point shooting role players depended on him. It was a defining moment.

Harden had a jagged road to stardom. Traded away from friend Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook where he was a happy Sixth Man, he was thrust into the role of star and leader. But still, the questions about Harden never disappeared, despite the Players MVP. Memories of Harden in the NBA Finals with a distracted and distant expression morphed around a lazy game remained a constant despite his award. And there was the issue of Harden and defense, his Achilles heel. Yes,  NBA players honored Harden that July night. But the basketball public? They took the long approach.

Oh, how things change is what was reflexively said about James Harden’s brilliant MVP worthy season of 2016-17. It is now replaced with oh, how things stay the same.

In the biggest game of the season in which Harden repeatedly wanted us to believe he was the MVP- he was often testy about the Russell Westbrook love- James Harden was invisible, small, irrelevant and just didn’t matter. There is a bunch of credit that goes Gregg Popovich’s way for what he did on Harden with Jonathan Simmons, a tough, hard as nails, I overcame adversity player, who got the start for an injured Kawhi Leonard. You can talk about calls James Harden didn’t get by the refs and that there are now the Harden rules.  But Harden cannot be given a pass for his lack of competitiveness and imagination and will. If you didn’t know this was an elimination game you would have thought it was the first game after the All-Star break. But go back to the NBA Finals of 2012 and look at James Harden’s play. Thursday night had a similar texture, a deer in the headlights oh f______ performance.

James Harden has not changed overall. Everyone likes to say he has. He is the same person. What he has done is add more responsibility.  He doesn’t have the luxury of a Russell Westbrook where he can take every shot and not consider teammates.  His attention to defense which was depressed last year spiked as he actually paid attention to the other end of the floor, rather than using it as an opportunity for a mini vacation in-game. He wasn’t negligent.

Naturally, when you play a team without two of their All-Star starters (Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) and are outplayed, out hustled, and no one can really explain why, there has to be a fall guy, blame.  People who played the game, in the playoffs, in elimination scenarios, are calling Harden a quitter, according to Stephen A. Smith. James Harden is carrying that burden based upon his talent and what we expect from someone who had a MVP season. Die on the hill. Don’t die hiding behind the bunker.

The playoffs are supposed to be, according to sports myth, a character test. Are you tough? Can you will yourself to shake off adversity? Do you have a pulse?

During the Spurs-Rockets game Mark Jackson said, “don’t tell me, show me.”

Two years after NBA players acknowledged James Harden was the best, he showed nothing and is now being held accountable for what he did not do, not as a shot maker, but as a leader. His performance brings to mind Kobe Bryant’s no show in an elimination game against Phoenix, and as egregious as that was, the Lakers were the 8th seed playing the best team in the West, the Suns, on the road. The Rockets were far from that. Not on the road. A skilled perimeter scoring team that was at the top of the conference in points and assists, the Rockets were an offensive machine when making threes. But they blew game 5 by their paralysis in overtime. And they blew game 6 because of James Harden.


Harden, it seems, always has the long walk. He has never been universally adored. He’s a dominant scorer. He’s not a defender. He froze in the NBA Finals. Of his peers, Harden’s overall critique is always harsher because of his flaws that are magnified, not suppressed, in the glow of his stardom. Harden has to prove he is who his game says he is. Other stars, coast. Last season when the Dwight Howard marriage blew up in his face, Harden was blamed for that as well. Not making an All-NBA team when he deserved to was the final humiliation.

Or maybe not. Maybe game 6 against the Spurs was the real final humiliation, worse than any other Harden error. His lack of urgency and failing the leadership test will follow him into next season. Remember when James Harden didn’t show up? It will be added to the list of his shortcomings.

Klay Thompson gets better reviews than Harden because he has a sweet shot, he defends his position and he plays with Steph Curry. Jimmy Butler defends, scores and has filled in nicely post Derrick Rose.  He plays angry. Bradley Beal is a shot maker, and paired with John Wall, is a blur on offense. But Beal is never judged harshly because he is not the best player on the team. Same with the Blazers C. J. McCollum, another shotmaker.  Other than Harden, those are the best shooting guards this era has to offer and every one of them has a teammate that is universally accepted as an All-Star. James Harden goes it alone.

These were the Rockets field goal attempts against the Spurs in their six game series.

  • James Harden: 111
  • Trevor Ariza: 65
  • Eric Gordon 65
  • Ryan Anderson: 53
  • Clint Capela: 52
  • Patrick Beverly: 58
  • Lou Williams: 51

Harden said, “everything falls on my shoulders. I take responsibility for it. Especially losing game 6 at home. It happened. It is frustrating. Especially in the way we were resilient all year long. It stings. We have to figure out a way to get better.”

He has it a little twisted. It is not losing at home that is the issue. Memphis lost a game 7 at home. Back in the day, the Kings lost their game 7 at home that would have sent them to the NBA Finals. The Warriors lost the NBA Finals at home. Home isn’t some magic serum. But it is the place you know. You play harder at home because everything is on your side: the fans, the rims, the familiarity. It is set up for you not to fail. You have the privilege while your opponent has the deficit.

At home, Harden didn’t attempt a shot until midway through the second quarter, in a place that he loves to shoot jumpers in.  Of course, he is being questioned.

In game 6, these were the shot attempts:

  • James Harden: 17 shots
  • Eric Gordon : 12 shots
  • Patrick Beverly: 13 shots

In game 5, these were the shot attempts:

  • James Harden: 24 shots
  • Eric Gordon: 13 shots
  • Ryan Anderson : 11 shots

What changed? James Harden’s early passivity. When his team took an upper cut he didn’t sop up the blood, and as Winston Churchill said about hell, he didn’t keep on going. He stopped. Why?

James Harden had the second highest usage rate in the league during the regular season. It’s a riddle: how do you make an isolation player not an isolation player? D’Antoni did a good job making Harden less of an isolation player but he didn’t finish the job. When Harden is off, then the whole team is off. It is Harden’s responsibility to resuscitate his game in-game. Breathe life into it when it is all going sour. The great players resurrect in the moment. They understand what is at stake.

The challenge for the Rockets is how Harden defines his brand of quiet leadership. He thinks leadership is aggression and doing more, more shot attempts, more points, more assists, more trips to the free throw line, more minutes, more of a burden placed on himself. But he didn’t stick to the more script. It was the opposite. Less scoring.  Less aggression. Less leadership.

The lesson about fighting yourself and willing yourself out of whatever that Game 6 was is one lesson Harden still has to learn even if it is in a humiliating way. The third worst elimination defeat in NBA history will forever be part of his bio, a dark moment, his 10 points the worst of times. Just as the Players MVP two years ago was celebratory and for James Harden, the best of times.


photo via llananba