Another offseason has come and gone and James Harden has a new perennial All-Star teammate. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Yes, the year is 2020 and we are on new star teammate number four for Harden on the Houston Rockets.
Things started back in 2013 when Harden welcomed Dwight Howard to Houston. The partnership was clunky the entire time, peaked with a conference finals berth in 2015 and was over in 2016 with Harden calling it quits and getting Howard shipped away.
Then after a co-starless almost MVP season in 2016-17, Daryl Morey brought in Chris Paul. The Paul Harden fit was ridiculed from day one, with many asking if the Rockets were bringing in a second ball as part of their analytic movement. Flashforward eightish months later and the team was a win away from the NBA finals and all the preseason naysayers were nowhere to be found.
Sadly for Paul and Harden, that would be their pinnacle as the older guard was famously injured against the Warriors and was forced to sit and watch the bearded guard lose the 3-2 lead they had built together. There was hope for them the following season, especially when Kevin Durant went down in game five of a 2-2 series.
The subsequent next six quarters went about as badly as possible and left Harden saying there was one obvious problem that needed to be fixed.
That one problem was sent to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook, Harden and the small ball Rockets would have some fun moments but Westbrook injury and COVID or not, it was clear in the way the Lakers dismantled them they were never going to win a title even in an ideal spot.
So, after a fallout between Russ and Harden being Harden’s third of his career, at some point, we need to look at the recurring denominator in this equation.
People are going to blame Westbrook due to his polarizing personality and playstyle and the fact he did himself no favours in the bubble. Similarly though, neither Paul nor Howard did themselves any favours as well.
This brings me to the real question: how are we supposed to look at James Harden in 2020?
On one hand, all of Westbrook, Paul and Howard didn’t live up to the expectations we had for them while in Houston. On the other, is this really a coincidence or a comment on Harden and his game?
I don’t think we have the official answer yet. With these different but also less than ideal situations for Harden, I don’t think it’s fair to lump an excessive amount of blame on him for the Rockets never reaching the pinnacle.
It’s not his fault Paul hurt his hamstring when they were a win away from knocking off the by many’s estimations the greatest group of talent in league history. This past season, it also wasn’t his fault that Westbrook got hurt and never came close to the All-NBA teammate he needed to win a title.
Lastly, don’t get me started on Dwight “Feed me down low even though I have no post-game” Howard and what he did in Houston.
You just can’t blame someone in a team sport solely for disappointing when his teammates so clearly didn’t hold up their ends of the bargain. Unfortunately for Harden though, that doesn’t mean he’s blameless.
His individual playoff disappointments are well-known, easy to look up and all varying levels of catastrophic. There’s no doubt that despite all of his teammate’s shortcomings, Harden has taken the cake in Rocket playoff disappointments.
This is why, how we view him now is so fascinating. You can make a strong case for him to be an All-Time playoff failure but in a way that feels like it’s lacking context. If you go the other way though and say it’s his teammates who cost him, that doesn’t feel right either.
Instead, Harden is left in this purgatory of legacy confusion. Known to be disappointing but to what level feels up for interpretation.
At 31 he has time to rewrite the most important paragraphs of his basketball obituary. How much time he has though feels like very little.
Harden has played with more talent already than championshipless stars like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Steve Nash and Allen Iverson so to assume he’ll get another crack at a star-studded supporting cast feels in some ways unlikely. Luckily for Harden though, he remains a top-five player and therefore certainly a movable asset which gives me hope this isn’t it for him and his legacy.
I believe he’ll get one final shot with an All-NBA player somewhere. I doubt it’s in Houston but who knows?
All I do know is Harden is running out of summertime superstar breakups if he wants to be reach the top of the NBA’s mountain.