James Harden 1 was a good player and then James Harden 2 showed up. The enhanced version of James Harden has produced an elite offensive player and a league MVP. Now he plays defense. To realize how miraculous this is for James Harden is to first accept the obvious: veteran players in their prime do not change. They reach their prime with a skill set that has worked well for them. They know their lane. They do what they do. They stay focused on their job to win games for their ball clubs, and if they are the face of the franchise like Harden, they feel compelled to live up to that contract by continuing what they did to get there. That is what makes this James Harden so extraordinary. He was once the third option. He was once Sixth Man of the Year. Jame Harden has indeed turned one page, added another. There is no going back now.
James Harden was reinvented by the same person who took it personal his trade from OKC. It’s not full circle. His defense is better but no one is confusing him with a stopper. But Harden, and give him credit, is not the same player media writers refused to put on All-NBA first, second, or third team in 2016.
It’s redemption. Whereas the Eurostep, the hesitation dribble, the step-back three, the finish at the rim was once mixed in with the Dwight Howard drama, the coming to camp out of shape, the Khloe Kardashian gossip, the Shaqtin-A-Fool laugh out loud he did what plays, the James Harden hagiography is so much more.
Despite his 82 games played in 2016, career-high shots made, career-high rebounding, career-high assists, his epic 29.0 points per game, his 25.3 PER, writers decided that was worse than six NBA guards who were selected above him, a laughable conclusion if it didn’t reek in arrogance, as in we are going to teach you a lesson. You don’t try on defense. Nothing else matters to us. But, there was more to it, of course. Harden has always had to do more; others have to do less. It is likability, not as a person per se, but the game. Where Steph Curry’s game elicits oohs and aahs Harden’s game has always been measure twice, cut once. When all things are equal, he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt because his game is looked at as manipulating the obvious to excel. Instead of excelling and manipulating the obvious.
James Harden 2 came onto the scene when Mike D’Antoni came to town. Their first game together Harden had 8 assists to 5 different players. That was a peek into what James Harden 2 was going to be about. It was the impact of the D’Antoni effect. On the Staples Center floor, in downtown Los Angeles, in Harden’s hometown, there was a birth. James Harden 2 came into the world.
What was James Harden’s 2 season this year? Five 50 point games. Sixteen 40 point games. Fifteen games with 10 or more assists.
His stepback is layup-efficient and is revolutionary. Harden is just as influential as an offensive whisperer as Dirk Nowitzki’s one-foot fadeaway or Kobe Bryant’s pump fake. Harden had the second-best offensive rating (120) of his career but his usage rate, still a Harden dilemma, was astronomical. He dominates the ball.
James Harden overcame misunderstood. The trade from OKC when the brass wanted Serge Ibaka more. That last horrible season in which he took the fall in the Dwight Howard fiasco and the Kevin McHale firing drama and the Rockets underachievement. Freezing in the playoffs against the Spurs. The Chris Paul divorce. His bricks against OKC. But that block. That block is all you need to know about James Harden 2.
Harden has crossed the popularity chasm into superstardom and regardless of his chances at the NBA Finals, he has done the impossible and really the unthinkable. He changed how people think of him and his game. This isn’t some mad scientist experiment concocted in a lab. Harden always had this in him but D’Antoni is the first coach to challenge him to move the ball and set your teammates up first. Harden is gifted enough to be that person and still drop thirty.
You can’t unring the bell. There is no going back. James Harden has the MVP in the back pocket and on the mantel. Whether he beats the Lakers or dies trying, James Harden has proven he is a generational talent, perhaps the greatest shooter we have ever seen. He’ll be judged like all modern athletes are judged, by the titles he collects. But that is misunderstanding everything James Harden represents in the modern era, the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object dilemma. He is, dare I say, both.