The weight a true NBA superstar holds on their shoulders is that of immense pressure and expectations. For every large contract, massive billboard promotion and endless TV and sneaker deals — the other side shows a more concerning reality — a story of falling short, media abuse and chasing the over-glorified NBA championship.
For the all-time winners, we praise for their historic championship runs, including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Bill Russell, we tend to under-appreciate the incredible contributions of great players who never hoisted up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy including Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson or Reggie Miller.
Enter James Harden: A superstar that has rewritten the record books with every dazzling performance he put on during the 2018-2019 campaign. “The Beard” as many tend to call him, is heading toward a potential career-altering season that will either put him in conversations more aligned with Jordan — or unfiled expectations like Barkley.
The pressing question is, how will Harden, 29, finish the final lap of his career?
Harden took his game to levels that caught many across the NBA landscape off guard in 2019. While Harden will be Hall of Fame-bound one day, he rarely is recognized amongst the top 3 in the NBA alongside LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Even with impressive numbers and winning league’s Most Valuable Player honors, Harden continues to face criticism for his postseason shortcomings than his regular season heroics.
This season, Harden averaged 36.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 7.5 assists. During a two month stretch, the MVP boasted a ridiculous 32 game streak in which he scored 30 or more points — making him second on the list behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 65 in league history. When it’s all said and done Harden will have better all-around numbers than Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade and many other First-Ballot Hall of Famers, but how will history remember him?
In 2017, Harden and the Rockets had a complete meltdown. One so historically shocking that legendary journalist Bill Rhoden couldn’t recall ever seeing in his 40-plus years of writing.
“I’ve never seen anything like I saw last week when Houston completely disintegrated,” Rhoden said on his podcast. “James Harden melted, Mike D’Antoni’s system melted.”
While Rhoden’s remarks are from two years prior, much hasn’t changed as the 2018 and 2019 Houston Rockets have faced disappointing defeats to the Warriors in playoff contention. Harden who averaged 34.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists in the semi-finals this year, still left much to be desired in critical moments — most specifically only shooting the ball once in the final seven minutes of regulation in game five.
The Rockets undoubtedly celebrated when Durant, despite his Achilles tear, departed Golden State in July to the Eastern Conference’ Brooklyn Nets, giving Houston its best shot of supplanting Golden State and reaching the NBA Finals.
While Anthony Davis is now in commission with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard joining forces with Paul George on the Clippers — the Rockets have a chemistry advantage and a younger, bigger and more explosive point guard in Russel Westbrook— who was recently traded to Houston for Chris Paul and draft capital. Harden now has a new running mate, but many of the same concerns linger.
For all the accolades and phenomenal statistics, Houston’s superstar continues to perform below the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders. In the last three postseasons, Harden has averaged fewer points, rebounds, assists on less efficiency, a noticeable decrease in all significant statistics in comparison to his regular season numbers over the same period.
Harden, who will turn 30 in August is reaching the now or never territory on an NBA championship run. While Houston has given the Warriors their most onerous task in the Western Conference to date, there are younger teams on the rise who have a brighter outlook than the Rockets moving forward including the Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpois is 24, Nikola Jokic, 24, Anthony Davis, the newest addition to the Laker family is 26.
This is the future of the NBA.
That goes without mentioning the strong off-seasons the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, Blazers and Spurs have had.
While the championship window grows thinner, a reported rift between Chris Paul and Harden is what likely ended any possibility of the backcourt tandem winning big together. According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Harden and Paul were at odds during the 2018-2019 campaign.
“There was something of a clash of styles brewing throughout the Rockets season, with members of the team — most notably Paul — having spirited discussions with Mike D’Antoni about the offense and pushing for more movement, league sources told The Athletic.”
“Harden and Paul had tense moments with one another throughout Game 6, culminating in a verbal back-and-forth postgame that went into the locker room, sources with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic. Sources said the verbal exchange between Harden and Paul was regarding the ball distribution throughout Game 6. By the time the remainder of the locker room was ready to talk, Paul and Harden had gone their separate ways, with Paul swiftly making his way to the postgame podium.”
With Paul out of the picture and Westbrook stepping into the fray, it is imperative for the two ultra-talented guards to ban together and win an NBA Championship. Their legacies are depending on it.