The sad ballad of James Harden
How can a player who blows up his destinations be on anybody's all-timer list?
Though a point of some conjecture, the NBA’s claiming this season to be its 75th and in so doing, via a panel of current and former players, coaches and GMs, team executives, WNBA all-timers and few sportswriters, has listed its top 75 players in league history.
James Harden appeared.
The league’s list wasn’t the only one. The Athletic is in the midst of naming its top 75 and has had the temerity to rank them.
Harden came in 33rd.
HoopsHype, USAToday’s NBA central, has as well, ranking Harden No. 39.
Beating everybody to the punch, ESPN put out a top 74 list prior to last season, deciding Harden belonged 32nd.
He’s a 10-time All-Star, a six-time NBA first-teamer, the 2018 MVP and a three-time scoring champ.
More than all that, upon choosing not to remain in Oklahoma City way back when, he became, if we’re honest, the most dominant offensive player since Michael Jordan.
From 2012-13 to 2019-20, the eight full seasons he spent with the Rockets, he averaged 29.6 points, 7.7 assists and 6 rebounds. At his height, the last three of those seasons, it was 33.7, 7.9 and 6.2.
If Monopoly money were statistics, they’d be James Harden’s statistics.
It never added up to ultimate postseason success, though the Rockets came closer than most remember.
It was the 2018 postseason, the first edition of the Harden-Chris Paul pairing and Houston led Golden State 3-2 in the Western Conference finals, but with one big catch.
In Game 5’s final minute, after scoring 18 second-half points, Paul went down with a hamstring injury and was done for the series.
Golden State won Games 6 and 7, as well as Games 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, sweeping LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.
Given Paul’s Game 5 fall, perhaps the knock that Harden’s never won anything, or done what’s necessary to win anything, is unfair.
Or maybe it’s not.
The moment Paul went down on May 24, 2018, Harden was riding a run of 20 consecutive missed 3-pointers.
He was a non-factor in Houston’s Game 5 victory, making 5 of 21 shots and no 3s, and though he scored 32 points in both Games 6 and 7, he did it making 22 of 53 shots, 6 of 25 3-point attempts and was -19 in Game 6, a 29-point loss, and -13 in Game 7, a nine-point loss.
It was also the last season Harden demonstrated he was capable of co-existing with any other player in his area code for a full season.
The next one, injury limited Paul to 58 games and, though he missed just two from Jan. 27 forward, and was available the length of the playoffs, Houston’s 53-29 regular season became a second-round 4-2 playoff exit, again to Golden State, which then fell in the NBA Finals 4-2 to the Toronto Raptors, led by Kawhi Leonard, who would then bolt for the Los Angeles Clippers and begin his own soap opera.
Harden’s, however, has been longer, deeper and more destructive.
Because Paul George wanted out of Oklahoma City to join Leonard in Los Angeles, Russell Westbrook wanted out of OKC, too, and because Harden could no longer co-exist alongside Paul — and would you believe, at the time, many thought Paul the more difficult teammate — the Rockets and Thunder were in position to solve each other’s problems.
Westbrook went to Houston and Paul came to Oklahoma City, as did four future first-round draft picks, three — 2024, 2025, 2026 — yet to be exercised.
That worked for Westbrook for all of one season, and because he wanted to get away from Harden and John Wall wanted out of Washington, a deal was struck.
Yet, as luck would have it, Harden decided Houston wasn’t working for him either. He wanted to play with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn and the Nets were all-in, handing over their first-round picks in 2022, 2024 and 2026 as well as the rights to four first-round draft swaps.
Did that make Harden happy?
After averaging 24.6 points and 10.9 assists in 36 games last season in Brooklyn, and the Nets falling short in an epic Eastern Conference semifinal series to eventual NBA champion Milwaukee, Harden has decided Brooklyn’s not for him either.
The trade deadline was Feb. 10 and Harden’s now a 76er, sent to Philadelphia along with Paul Millsap, while Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks were sent to Brooklyn.
“[Harden] will opt into his $47.3 million contract for next season and can sign a four-year, $223 million extension at the start of free agency,” reported The Philadelphia Inquirer, as though Harden’s just the kind of dependable player and terrific teammate any team might want to lock up for another three or four seasons, even in his middle 30s.
What could go wrong?
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Here’s the question.
Is Harden the 32nd, 33rd or 39th best player in league history?
Or is he a team-killer, unable to peacefully share the spotlight very well or for very long, but who keeps finding another willing suitor nonetheless?
And, if it’s the latter, how can he be the 32nd, 33rd or 39th best or greatest player in league history.
You add value or subtract it, and you’re judged by how much you add, period, but also by how much you add vs. how much your skills and gifts ought to add.
And in Harden’s case, it’s fair, too, to take into account the destruction he leaves in his wake.
Houston gave away Chris Paul and four first-round draft picks trying to keep Harden happy. It then gave up Russell Westbrook trying to keep him happy.
Brooklyn gave up three first-round picks and the rights to four first-round swaps to make him happy, and have now sent him away for Ben Simmons, et al, and a couple of picks.
Given Simmons wasn’t playing, and it cost just the two picks, the 76ers may have picked up Harden cheap.
They better hope he tires of them before it’s time for another contract. Because if he doesn’t, and they pay him again in two years, they’re liable to eat it, finding no suckers left with which to deal.
Here’s a thought.
How high can the best sixth man in league history make it on an all-timer list?
Whatever it is, give it to Harden. As the piece that might make the difference in a championship chase, he could have been exactly that in Oklahoma City.
As the Thunder’s sixth man, he helped get them to the 2012 Finals. Had he stayed, and had he stayed in that role, maybe Kevin Durant stays, too, and who knows how many titles OKC wins?
The way Harden marginalizes the players around him, leading a second unit suits him.
Yeah, he could learn to play with others, for a cause beyond himself, for longer than a season here and part of a season there, but he doesn’t and he hasn’t.
How do you rank a player, no matter how skilled, who blows up his destinations?
Not in the top 40.
Or the next 40.