Honesty hour: James Harden represents the NBA at its worst

HOUSTON, TEXAS - MARCH 10: A spotlight shines on James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets as he reacts on the bench during a timeout in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Toyota Center on March 10, 2020 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - MARCH 10: A spotlight shines on James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets as he reacts on the bench during a timeout in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Toyota Center on March 10, 2020 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

Despite historical levels of NBA production, it is time we come to grips with the fact that James Harden was and always will be his team’s largest problem.

As the commander-in-chief of the Houston Rockets’ high-powered militia for eight consecutive playoff-bound seasons, James Harden has firmly cemented himself as one of the most indomitable offensive forces the NBA has ever known. Literal human napalm, Harden’s innate ability to effortlessly rack up 30, 40, 50 points on a near-nightly basis has earned The Beard a level of notoriety (in regards to scoring, at least) that only the league’s greatest bucket-getters – Jordan, Kobe, and Durant, to name a few – have earned before him. For good reason, too; Few players, both past and present, have produced on the historical levels that Harden has during his tenure in Houston. This much cannot be denied or refuted.

Yet despite his historically outrageous propensity to toss a round orange ball through a slightly larger, round orange rim, James Harden has received a similarly outrageous amount of criticism over the past half-decade. Akin to the aforementioned praise he has received, this disparagement also comes for good reason; His most effective style of play is borderline unwatchable, his inability to mesh with star teammates is borderline nonsensical, his team’s letdowns are borderline unexplainable, and his Houdini-esque disappearing act every postseason is, well, borderline hilarious.

So when Harden – along with his since-traded backcourt mate, Russell Westbrook – elected to request a trade out of a deteriorating Rockets organization, a reasonable “how am I supposed to feel about this?” vibe struck the core of countless NBA fans, myself included. This is a guy who single-handedly transformed the Rockets into legit Finals contenders and fully rejuvenated a declining fan base. Because of his efforts, the Rockets’ franchise and the city of Houston as a whole reciprocated tenfold. The Rockets dealt for whomever James Harden wished to play alongside, and the James Harden truthers descended deeper and deeper into their unhealthy obsession with each ankle-breaking step-back and 60-point blitzkrieg that their superstar could muster.

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Consequently, Harden’s sudden desire to spurn an organization and a fan base that actively provided him with everything he could want (high-profile free-agent signings, future-debilitating trades, massive extensions) doesn’t just look ugly from an optics perspective. At its core, and without mincing words, it’s morally detestable.

In a matter of months, Harden went from Houston hero to Rockets renegade; from baller to Bonaparte at the blink of an eye.

But that, my friends, is the cruel nature of the NBA. In this era of player empowerment and seemingly perpetual dissatisfaction amongst high-profile players, a select handful of these dominant figures wield significantly more power and leverage than their many teammates and employers combined. When said players choose to take advantage of such leverage, there is only so much their respective team can do to soften the inevitable blow.

James Harden’s power-play lays bare the ugliness

With Harden now on the fritz as he actively seeks a maneuver to any of the league’s most promising franchises (Athletic paywall), the talk-show topic of conversation has naturally gravitated toward the impacts that this booming era of player movement has on organizations, mid-market cities, and the NBA at large. Despite what many are so quick to tell us, though, the occasional selfish star looking for a brighter galaxy does not just extend back to the beginning of this decade. To wax historical, the desire for high-caliber players to find better situations has been ingrained within the NBA’s DNA for nearly 60 years.

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It occurred in the 60s with Wilt Chamberlain and the 70s with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It began to boom in the 90s when Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, Dennis Rodman, Alonzo Mourning, Steve Francis, Scottie Pippen, and Hakeem Olajuwon all demanded trades from their organizations – some before they had even worn their team’s uniform. This continued into the 2000s, most notably with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter, all of whom sought to move on from their respective situations to find greener pastures. By the time the 2010s began – when LeBron had taken his talents to South Beach, which is commonly but incorrectly referred to as the beginning of the player empowerment era – the groundwork for stars to forge their own paths had been a staggering 30-plus years in the making.

But in today’s day and age, with massive contracts, the global growth of basketball, the presence of social media and fast news cycles, and the never-before-felt closeness we feel to our favorite athletes, the player empowerment era appears to have reached its grandiose summit. This decade alone, more than half of the current top-30 players have expressed dissatisfaction with their organizations at one point or another, inevitably leading to a blockbuster trade or news-breaking free agency decision in hopes of finding their ideal form of basketball nirvana. Due in part to these many instances of unhappiness and disloyalty, countless viewers have begun to tune out the NBA entirely, crediting selfishness and a lack of competitive balance (at the hands of stars teaming up in large markets) as the NBA’s forthcoming downfall.

Despite that line of thinking, however, we should find little issue with players wishing to find their best possible situation, no matter how self-centered their demands may seem. If anything, we should view the NBA’s player empowerment era as a microcosm of our daily lives. We all understand what it feels like to want more, so bashing players like LeBron James or Kevin Durant for bouncing out of bad situations and diving into great ones is both senseless and downright hypocritical.

But in the case of James Harden, feel free to completely throw out every single thing I just said. As the residue of last season continues to permeate through the Rockets’ murky waters (waters that have been made murky by, you guessed it, Harden) and blend with the three upcoming seasons on Harden’s lofty contract, doesn’t something feel palpably different? It doesn’t feel like a normal trade request or free agency departure. Though I am unsure whether I can precisely place my finger on why it feels this way, it is certainly not difficult to conjure up a list of possibilities.

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Is it because of Harden’s egocentric style of play we have all come to loathe? Is it because of his recurring and predictable playoff meltdowns? What about his forceful demands to surround himself with desired teammates only to change his tune a year or two later, thus steering the Rockets into yet another fork in the road? Perhaps it is how Harden’s current contract situation – one in which the superstar remains tied to the Houston Rockets until 2023! – should automatically discredit him from having any leverage whatsoever? Is it his displays of selfishness, with this being the straw that broke the camel’s back? Or maybe it is his ongoing and genuinely abysmal handling of the current situation?

Realistically, we could hypothetically answer each of these questions with a resounding ‘yes.’ As a matter of pure opinion, I’d venture to say that the answer lies within some complex combination of some or all of the above scenarios. However, the fascinating, underlying detail of those questions does not lie within what Harden didn’t do to make his situation better. It merely lies within what James Harden did do, unknowingly or not, to make his situation worse. That is because James Harden – whether we wish to admit it and whether he even realizes it – is the problem.

Now, Harden’s employer and his neurotically loyal fans must either do one of two things: Cater even more aggressively to his wants and wishes in hopes of winning his loyalty back, or move on from the one singularity they have passionately supported for almost an entire decade.

Despite James Harden’s ability to make offense look easy, his many shortcomings should make this answer equally as simple.

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