The Weird, Wild Ride of James Harden on the Houston Rockets

As the three-time NBA scoring champion finds his footing with the Brooklyn Nets, Patrick Johnson chronicles the peaks and valleys of his eight seasons in Texas.
By    January 27, 2021

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Patrick Johnson hasn’t shaved since his first pandemic stimulus check.

There are five minutes to go in the first quarter of James Harden’s first game as a member of the New Jersey Brooklyn Nets. He’s dressed in the glorious sky blue of the tragically short Petrovic era and I’m grimacing that the NBA’s official store lacks the number 13 jersey available for purchase yet. The cartoonish grey graffiti threads are there; the unforgivably busy Basquiat-inspired chevron option is up for grabs, but my impulse buy is going to have to wait. 

I’m not a Brooklyn fan either. Despite my decade gentrifying Bushwick and Bed-Stuy, I am a steadfast and unapologetic LeBron carpetbagger ever since he won my city its first championship on Father’s Day, bringing a woe-is-me Midwestern state and a father and son back together to remind us that sports can still be the great unifier despite a country that continuously proves otherwise. I want to show support for Harden’s third act as grown-man Big Three Harden, a 31-year-old eight seasons removed from Artest’s elbow, a bench role, Pizza Rolls and his underwhelming, lone NBA Finals appearance that culminated in “The Trade.” He seems excited too; his Twitter header image beams with Live, Laugh, Love energy.

I don’t give a fuck about the super team debate; I want it all. I want the drama of the 2015-2018 Cavaliers, the Reddit copy-pastas. The pairing of the most insufferable trifecta of All-NBA, ball-dominant, high-volume and high-percentage shooters figuring it out together. Durant’s moodiness and Instagram comment replies to any user that hashtags him in a negative light? Hell yeah. Kyrie’s random sabbaticals, his third-eye-open to a new anti-media stance and outward worry that he might be a third wheel? Yep. Harden getting super into organic wine bars once the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines hit and being spotted at Las’ Lap three times a week? Here for it. 

The Nets are now the uncharismatic villains. There’s enough animosity bubbling among Legacy Talk NBA Twitter to temporarily take the heat off of Paul George. Fans will likely reject Harden even more so than during his Houston tenure, for different reasons. The “easiest road” Durant chatter will rub off on him. The Nets defense is already reminiscent of the 1981-1982 Denver Nuggets. Can you blame Harden for demanding a trade though? Just look at the burden of his past usage rate.

Harden’s past accomplishments were often overshadowed by the Warriors superteam and the LeBron vs. Kyrie Cleveland soap opera. He was even historically snubbed from an All-NBA Team in 2016 even with a 29-7-6 average. If you were lucky enough to watch him from 2012-2020, don’t forget how special he could be. But more crucially, how patently weird it was. Harden changed the game. The lefty who perfected the Eurostep; he figured out how to get to the charity stripe 10 times a game with crafty incognito armbars, using his beard to sell a questionable foul by violently whipping his entire head back at any sign of contact. We didn’t even know if his stepback was within the NBA’s rules. He beefed with Dwight, Chris Paul and was indifferent towards Russell Westbrook down the stretch of the playoff bubble. Even though James folded late into the postseason, he kept the Rockets exceptional enough to make you wonder if this year was their year. 

Harden and those Rockets analytic misfits join the small list of what-if NBA teams that came within a few baskets of a Finals appearance and hypothetical Larry O’Brien Trophy. The Jailblazers, the turn of the millennium Kings and the 07 Seconds or Less Suns now have one more kindred spirit. Basketball fans will be talking about that 27-missed threes game forever, but those discussions should also come with the highlights. I once watched the man in real time single-handedly deflate a Portland crowd with 46 points and methodical ease, his languid strolls to the hoop materializing in near-slow motion. I remember leaving the stadium and hearing a 70-something fan in a Bill Walton hoodie laugh with his wife. “Well, what can you even do about that?” He asked. Nothing. James Harden was often unstoppable. His regular season self was inevitable.

I’m hoping somewhere down the road Michael B. Jordan or John Boyega can glue on a beard and make the NBA’s version of Moneyball with Paul Gimatti as Daryl Morey and Timothy Olyphant as Mike D’antoni. A fictional Harden brushes off hangovers and misses shootarounds, then drops fourty on the Hawks hours after downing Geechee wings at Blue Flame. Embrace the inevitable drama and success that awaits Brooklyn. Thank God New York’s strip club scene is woefully subpar, and closed until further notice — Harden will be fully tapped in for the championship chase. The trio of KD-Kyrie-Harden is just too talented not to create one of the best offenses of all-time. But remember the Rockets. 

In honor of the singular nature of James Harden’s time in Houston, here are the moments, both good and bad, that defined his stay. 

The Footwork: Harden’s Eccentric Innovation

An obituary for Wesley Matthews, Ricky Rubio, Jamal Murray, Patrick Beverly and so many others. Harden’s footwork, from step-backs and Euro-steps to hesitations, continues to marvel. I still struggle to follow the moves and can’t really comprehend them on first, second or third viewings. His step-back often looks like a glitch in the matrix. Harden spent off-seasons partying and reported for training camp out of shape, but occasionally workout footage flooded social media of a motivated James striving to get better. In one highlight, he wraps the ball around his back while simultaneously side-stepping an imaginary defender to create even more space. He pauses only momentarily, then glides to the side, shooting off one leg. (That move never really caught on.) It was his fearlessness to get flat-out weird with his skillset that made him so much fun to watch.

Scoring Streak and Volumes of Straight Buckets

Harden is the greatest scoring threat of basketball’s modern era. His efficiency from beyond the arc, how effortlessly he gets to the rim and the line, his ability to fill a stat-sheet, are all unmatched. Every true offensive juggernaut has a signature scoring streak. Kobe dropped nine consecutive 40-point games. LeBron’s February 2013 was defined by five games of over 30 points on 60 percent shooting in the middle of a 27-game win streak. Tracy McGrady had his own 14-game 30-point run in the early 2000s. Harden’s 32-straight games of taylling 30 points or more from mid-December 2018 through late February 2019 often goes overlooked. That period was good enough for second all-time, behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 65-game streak in the 1961-62 season (and you can debate the validity of that record as much as his 100 point game). That same year Harden joined the age-old tradition of having a signature game at Madison Square Garden with 61 points and a clutch performance in the 4th quarter. A few months later he matched his career high against the Spurs. The Houston announcing crew screamed, “Relentless! Spontaneous! Fantastic!” That about summed up the win.

Perennial MVP Candidate and an Infamous Snub

Harden’s finish in MVP voting during his time in Houston:
2012-13 – 8th
2013-14 – 5th
2014-15 – 2nd
2015-16 – 9th
2016-17 – 2nd
2017-18 – 1st
2018-19 – 2nd
2019-20 – 3rd

James failed to make any All-NBA Team despite finishing ninth overall in the voting for the 2015-2016 season. It amazes me that NBA media members, especially the old, crotchety, lazy local reporters who aren’t even tuning into games outside of their own beat, have a say in deciding who the 15 best players in the league are, especially when those selections often carry weight in contract negotiations and benchmarks to get players paid. Harden’s regular seasons campaigns were otherworldly. The kid who edited the official NBA Youtube account’s highlight reel for Harden’s MVP season didn’t have to try too hard to make it look like an And1 Streetball volume. James was even better the following year, increasing his scoring average by an incredible six points to land at 36-7-6 numbers, but missed out on another MVP award because of Giannis’ excellence, and in all likelihood his own failures in the playoffs the previous seasons.

The Playoff Folds

In more than half of the infinite multiverses that hypothetically exist, James Harden is a storied playoff performer with a championship ring or two — just not in this one. Harden set the NBA playoff record for most total turnovers each year from 2015-2018 with those lost possessions often coming at the most inopportune times. Daryl Morey, Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and the Rockets had the balls to go up against one of the greatest teams in history when the rest of the Western Conference plotted out the next half-decade after Golden State’s run was finished. Still, Houston fell short. You can’t talk about Harden’s Houston successes without bringing up his playoff failures.

Outplayed by Lillard and a Fourth Quarter Disappearing Act

2014 Western Conference Playoffs, Round 1: Rockets vs. Blazers

Harden was outplayed by Damian Lillard for the entire series, including the finale, where he made just one field goal in the last 18 minutes while Lillard’s series-ending game-winner will go down as one of the game’s most memorable buzzer-beaters. The shot jumpstarted two narratives: Dame’s proclivity for clutch moments, and James’ ability to shy away from them. I lost a bet on whether Mike Tirico’s excellent call was either, “Lillard, he got the shot off, OH MY GOD! GOOD!” or “Lillard… GOOD! GOOD!” You be the judge.

The Harden-less Comeback

2015 Western Conference Playoffs, Semifinals: Rockets vs. Clippers, Game 6

The Clippers’ 3-1 choke against the Rockets in 2015 should have been a cause for celebration for the Rockets franchise, but the iconic moment — that 19-point comeback in a series-saving Game 6 — happened with Harden sidelined, benched because he shot 5-20. Josh Smith and Corey Brewer morphing into high-functioning basketball players to embarrass the Clippers is one of my favorite what-the-fuck basketball memories, but it was an indictment to James Harden’s ongoing disappearing act in games that define legacies. Had he stayed in, the Clippers win that series 4-2.

Sonned by Old-Man Ginobli, Ends Season on a 10-Point Performance 

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, Semifinals: Rockets vs. Spurs

Game 5 of the WCSF was Harden’s shot at redemption. He kept Houston alive in the fourth but went scoreless in the extra period. The iconic moment of this series was on the final shot. Harden was blocked by a 39-year-old Manu Ginobli, the crafty European and fellow-lefty whose book of moves Harden earmarked and edited to become one of the league’s premiere players. Game 6 was even worse. With a chance to tie the series in front of a home crowd, Harden attempted only 11 field goals, scored just 10 points and turned the ball over six times. The Rockets lost by 39.

God Hates Analytics, James Harden, Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni

2018 NBA Western Conference Finals: Rockets vs. Warriors

Every almost-made-the-Finals kindred spirit has that deflating moment that will forever be etched in history. The 2000 Blazers, up 15 points in the 4th quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center had nobody to blame but themselves (sorry Portland fans). The 2002 Kings had their Tim Donaghy officiating conspiracy. The 2007 Suns had their Game 4 ejections against the Spurs and then their own Tim Donaghy officiating conspiracy (seriously fuck that guy but also fuck Joey Crawford). The 2018 Houston Rockets had Chris Paul’s hamstring injury. They also could blame the divine intervention of a cruel God that hated them with an invisible tupperware lid rejecting any open perimeter shot that they launched with growing desperation. 27-straight missed threes in a deciding Game 7. I give the Rockets credit for keeping one of the most Mamba Mentality Kobe quotables alive: “I would go 0-for-30 before I would go 0-for-9.” Well, Houston almost went 0-30. Once again, Harden’s best wasn’t good enough.

“They Ain’t That Good Man.” No Durant, No Game 7 Needed

2019 NBA Western Conference Semifinals: Rockets vs. Warriors

Chris Paul was finally healthy down the playoff stretch. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green openly hated each other creating a toxic work environment that showed the Warriors were more than tired of eachother. It didn’t matter. The utter failures from Harden and the Rockets against the Warriors in 2019 should hurt even worse than the year prior with how the team played with a lingering detachment, almost waiting for the guillotine to fall on their season. Durant limped off in Game 5 and gave the Rockets the window they needed. Then for the KD-less Game 6, Steph Curry went ice cold from the field, failing to score in the first half. But NBA fans had seen this story before. Steph dropped 33 points in the second half — 23 in the fourth — capping off James’ era of playoff failures.

The Long Goodbye

James Harden’s parting of the ways with Houston was so tumultuous that it dabbled in the surreal. Outside of the Harden-Westbrook Stankonia re-enactment and some impressive but meaningless bubble acrobatics, there wasn’t much left in the Harden-Houston tank. James accidentally wore a Blue Lives Matter COVID-19 mask in the midst of social justice protests that echoed throughout the world and was a main focus of his sports league in particular. It was literally written on the Disney World courts. Then Young Thug let everyone know that Harden “doesn’t go on the internet” and it was all one big misunderstanding.  

Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni’s departures left Harden alone to deal with Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s ongoing financial fuckery. Russell Westbrook wanted out. None of Houston’s off-season acquisitions impressed James and he turned down the opportunity to become the league’s first $50-million-per-year player. Instead of showing up for mandatory pre-season practices, he re-enacted Rodman’s Last Dance, gifting Lil Baby a $300,000 birthday present consisting of a Prada bag, $100,000 cash and a Richard Mille while new coach Stephen Silas waited to hear from him. Harden went on a maskless mult-night Las Vegas party spree with the 4PF crew and introduced caucasion sports writers the world over to the concept of a honey bun.

When Harden finally joined the team, he looked like this. Despite being noticeably out of shape, he dropped 44 on the Blazers in his first game back. He did that because he’s a singular basketball talent. Like Jordan or Barkley, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing the night before a game because the second his adidas hit the hardwood (outside of a playoff bracket) he will compete at the highest level. There’s a part of me that wishes the Harden fat-suit conspiracy is real, but anamorphic camera angles and black warm-ups’ reputation for being slimming are the most reasonable explanations for the viral before-and-after. I still daydream of Harden pounding Rick Ross proportions of crab legs and charcuterie boards held down by rare blue cheeses and Spanish ham hours before a game like he was Christian Bale putting on weight for VICE. Harden was a method actor, his role was disgruntled superstar. 

And as if he wasn’t explicit enough that he wanted to be traded with a stretch of subpar but still near triple-doubles, Harden went full Rush Hour Chris Tucker to Jackie Chann to spell it out for Houston. “We’re just not good enough. Chemistry, talent wise, everything. And it’s clear,” Harden said in his last press conference. He clasped his hands together like a deadpan HR person laying off employees via Friday afternoon Zoom calls in the middle of a deadly pandemic. 

There was something virtuous about going all in on Morey’s analytics with a lone superstar weighed down with the burden of an entire offense. It came so close to working. Harden’s stay in Houston was one of the most compelling second acts in a long and illustrious NBA career. A sixth man morphed into the league’s defacto offensive weapon, with one weakness: the playoff stage. The pressure now grows greater with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving as teammates. James Harden wants those raising stakes if it means a ring in Brooklyn. But don’t forget what a beautiful mess Harden’s Houston Rockets were.

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