Harden, so skilled and smart on a basketball court, would still be great if he played a traditional game. He has too many traits that translate to any style of play: balance, footwork, handle, shooting touch, strength, vision. But he can’t resist creating moves that befuddle all observers, including the referees, such as the double step-back and the Euro triple-step. He can’t resist using his talent to manipulate foul calls. He is a deadly scorer, though not necessarily an exhilarating one. If he must, he will kill your joy to get a bucket.
He doesn’t just play the game; he plays with the game. And now he is transferring his toying tendencies to off-court matters, doing everything in his power to compel the Houston Rockets to carry out his trade request, making a delicate situation uncomfortable and almost malignant in the middle of a pandemic.
Harden has become, sadly, a prisoner of his own greatness. He is addicted to getting away with whatever he can, whether it is a traveling violation or a desire to go play with two other ball-dominant stars in Brooklyn or a mini-holdout during which he was caught on video shunning coronavirus precautions and partying with a rapper.
Do not label this nonsense as just another flex in this era of NBA player empowerment. That’s what Harden may think he is doing, but in truth, he is holding himself back with a troubling sense of entitlement. This isn’t merely about Harden knowing his value and pushing back against the NBA system with a crystallized plan. This is a player who, over eight seasons in Houston, has been spoiled immensely, yet he still wants cake for dinner. And for what? Just so he can say he had cake for dinner.
Eventually, Harden figures to get his way — again. But his decision to report to Houston and at least start the coronavirus testing process indicates that he may realize he must play the long game. With the NBA rushing to start the 2020-21 campaign before Christmas, this is a terrible time to pull off a blockbuster trade featuring a player scheduled to make $41.2 million this season. Every team wants a star who produces like Harden, but I’m not sure how many teams actually want Harden right now.
While the gamesmanship from both Harden and the Rockets is understandable, the reality is that Harden should think twice about running away from a team that has given him nearly everything he has wanted and cycled through stars such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook in high-profile attempts to pair him with a championship-caliber partner. On the other side, the Rockets are reportedly seeking a treasure trove of assets if they were to trade Harden, acknowledging all the ridiculous deals teams have made for lesser players. But they’re going to have to grow more realistic about what franchises are willing to deal for a 31-year-old who hasn’t mixed well for long with the other stars Houston gave him.
Harden is a singular talent who cannot win his way. Oh, he can collect victories; the Rockets have a .639 winning percentage since he arrived in 2012. He can accumulate stats; he is a three-time scoring champion who also has averaged at least seven assists per game for six straight seasons. In the postseason, he can even lead a team to the cusp of the NBA Finals. But in career-defining moments, he hasn’t shown the grit to propel his team.
At this stage in his career, it is not a problem that patience and experience can fix. Harden is a finished product, and despite his robust scoring numbers, he is different from LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. It’s not enough for great players to want to win a championship. They all do. The question is what they’re willing to sacrifice to get it. Even at the elite level, NBA superstars are not created equal. There are tiers within the greatest tier. Harden lacks something — a kind of mental toughness, a level of flexibility to his game, a commitment to defense — that keeps him from reaching the very top.
He can be brilliant, but he is flawed. Houston created Harden Ball, the perfect system for him … but only him, really. Westbrook was the lone co-star in Houston who managed to average more than 20 points per game alongside Harden. In the past decade, just three teams have won NBA titles without multiple 20-point scorers: Dallas in 2011, San Antonio in 2014 and Toronto in 2019. But all those squads had good depth and multiple all-stars or future Hall of Famers on the roster. No matter how great your franchise player, it’s essential for championship teams to have multiple stars and role players maximizing their influence on the game as well. The Rockets’ failure to achieve such cohesion is not entirely Harden’s fault, but he is the common denominator.
Of course, Harden wants to be traded only to a contender. And those contenders would have to keep this history of incompatibility in mind. Considering his age, Harden probably is at the tail end of his prime. He is the best player potentially available this year, but for so many reasons, he is not a universal fit, which could limit his trade value.
It’s funny, this notion that Harden cannot blend. Eleven years and 11,000 step-back jumpers ago, he entered the NBA having convinced Sam Presti, the Oklahoma City general manager, that he was worthy of the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft because he was the ideal high-level complementary player to stand next to Durant and Westbrook. As Harden developed over three years there, he played that role just fine and won sixth man of the year for the 2011-12 season. He made the U.S. Olympic team. He was on a great ascension until the Thunder decided not to pay him the max. Presti traded Harden to Houston, and the Rockets unleashed his superstar qualities. But now he has trouble blending. And he will never win a title as the clear No. 1 option.
What to do? In the fickle climate of today’s NBA, it’s hard to imagine a reconciliation, especially with Harden prepared to make the situation ugly. It may take time for Harden to get his wish, but movement defines the league now.
Harden will get his way again, which means he will get away with the inappropriate manner in which he pushed his employer. After eight years, Houston must accept its role in squandering a championship opportunity with a marquee player. But when the end arrives, you must wonder how Harden, coddled for so long, will handle life without his enablers.