It's a name that incites tension with NBA fans everywhere.
How did we get here?
He's an MVP. He's a scoring champ. His beard is among the most distinguishing athlete features ever. He affably pokes fun of himself in commercials and he approaches actual NBA games how millions across the globe approach NBA video games. He's made the playoffs every year of his career so there's no "great stats, bad team" argument to be made. He's a former Sixth Man of the Year on one of the most exciting young teams ever, a lefty once known for his love of pizza rolls.
Take several steps back from the cacophonous chorus that bubbles up seemingly every time the Houston Rockets play and it's somewhat puzzling that James Harden has become the subject of such widespread polarization and target of #NBATwitter trolls.
Tension, of course, is nothing new in NBA circles as it relates to superstars. On-the-court rivalries drive off-the-court discourse and ultimately impacts the manner in which we talk about things like legacy and narrative.
It used to exist primarily between opposing superstars - Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell, Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird, Michael Jordan against the entire NBA, Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan, but then came a new kind of rivalry.
When LeBron James decided to join the Miami Heat in 2010, it wasn't LeBron against a particular team. It wasn't even like James' predecessor, Jordan, who so dominant against everyone to the degree that he simply took on the entire league instead of any one peer.
With James, it was something different, something that developed in part as a sign of the times given its timing with the rise of social media.
It was every single fanbase against LeBron and not just in arenas on game days. Visceral reactions by talking heads spewed into narratives spun in public forums to the point that he eventually was forced to take on the "Bad Guy" role which he tried to embrace but eventually let go. But even with LeBron, it still on some levels made logical sense. He was the proverbial golden child who was drafted no. 1 overall to play for his hometown team, announced his decision to leave on a nationally televised made-for-TV special on ESPN and famously declared at a welcome party with the Heat that his new team would win "not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…" championships.
Connecting the dots there wasn't hard.
James Harden didn't do that. Harden was shipped off following his only appearance, to date, in the NBA Finals. His former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, opted to save a few bucks and hold on to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka to move forward with their championship dream.
We all know what's happened since.
There's still no championship banner in Oklahoma City. Durant, Westbrook and Harden evolved into MVPs, Durant won two titles in Golden State, Ibaka won in Toronto, and Westbrook and Harden are re-united in Houston in search of their first rings.
In other words: the decision to move Harden seems sub-optimal.
In OKC, Harden had been Sixth Man of the Year and was already known for his facial hair.
In Houston, his game and his persona took an exponential leap as he became known to some as "The Beard" and went on to win the 2017-18 Most Valuable Player award. Although he's ultimately claimed that piece of individual hardware, it's in the MVP ballots that we begin to see the case against Harden develop. Harden has finished runner-up in MVP voting three out of the last five years. Unlike Durant, Harden was not able to launch a campaign about constantly finishing in second.
Kevin Durant on the cover of this week's @SInow: "I'm tired of being second…. I'm done with it." pic.twitter.com/5CWXO92udJ- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 23, 2013
In each of the three instances, there's a case to be made that Harden could have won.
Stephen Curry won in 2015 when he led to Warriors to their first Finals appearances in over three decades.
Russell Westbrook won in 2017 as he averaged a triple-double on a team that finished sixth in the West.
Giannis Antetokounmpo won in 2019 for leading the Bucks to a league-best 60-22 record.
I'm not here to relitigate the past as much as I am to point out Harden's case beyond the simple acknowledgement that he didn't win.
Meanwhile, all Harden's done is get better.
His per-game scoring has increased every season of his career with the exception of 2013-14 when his scoring took a precipitous plunge from 25.9 all the way down to 25.4 and he's currently north of 39 following a two week stretch in which he had not one, not two, not three, but four 50-point games. He nearly knocked off the Warriors twice, a team that when fully healthy looked untouchable against every team not named the Houston Rockets. He even changed positions from shooting guard to point guard, averaging an NBA-best 11.2 assists per game in 2016-17.
Regardless of which perspective you had, Harden was the most complete player for one of the most complete teams. Then came the critics.
Harden was able to get to the basket using the "euro-step" move which was made famous by Manu Ginobili. While Ginobili was lauded for using finesse as he sliced and diced defenses, Harden was mocked for "traveling" and ridiculed for drawing fouls.
We're even to the point that the NBA referees themselves are venturing into the wild wild west that is #NBATwitter to explain that what Harden does is entirely within the rules of the game even when he's mistakenly called for traveling.
He gathers with his right foot on the floor, then takes a step with his left and then right, for two steps after the gather. You're right Mark, traveling should not have been called. Appreciate hearing from one of the most informed media members! See you in the regular season. 1/ https://t.co/dTGVLajOb2- NBA Referees (@OfficialNBARefs) October 21, 2019
Harden's time at the charity stripe is a key component to his game yet one of the most controversial. If you were to believe everything you read, you'd probably think Harden's been subject to fines for incessant flopping and over-exagerration of contact.
But here's a trivia question: how many times has Harden been cited for a flopping violation?
You might be surprised to know that it's only happened once, all the way back on November 11, 2013.
On the other end of the floor, Harden hasn't always done himself any favors as he actually mocked the effort he gives when trying to stop others from scoring in a Foot Locker promotional campaign. Although Harden's defense has actually improved to the point where he's statistically one of the best pot defenders in the entire league, his reputation at least among many casual observers has not.
The NBA's best post defender each of the last 3 years in terms of fewest pts/play allowed.- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) December 3, 2019
2017-18 - James Harden
2018-19 - James Harden
2019-20 - James Harden
There's far more to post D than pts/play allowed.
But let's stop the "he doesn't play D" narrative. pic.twitter.com/h9rQ5GyGp6
All the hate and disdain seems to have recently boiled over the top. On December 3, Harden had a dunk that was ruled invalid despite going through the basket. At the time of the play with 7:50 left in the fourth quarter, the Rockets led by 13 points in a game they led by as many 22 points.
Although the Rockets appealed that play as Houston went on to lose the game in double-overtime, the NBA ultimately denied their request to replay the final 7:50 citing the opportunities that Houston had over the remainder of the fourth quarter and both overtime periods to win the game.
This unconventional and unusual process created one more launching pad for critics to if not discredit Harden, than find one more reason to fall short of truly appreciating his greatness. As so many of the sport's greats can attest, Harden will have to learn only two things can truly silence a basketball audience -- time and rings.
Harden and the Rockets are currently fifth in the NBA's Western Conference and seem destined for a postseason collision course with one of the teams from Los Angeles. Perhaps that will give Harden the opportunity to hush the naysayers much in the way that LeBron James did in 2012 when - still without a title - he went into Boston and delivered a 45-point, 15-rebound, five-dime Tour de Force.
Harden doesn't have anything that registers on that level.
Up to this point, his most notable performance may very well be when he was back with the Thunder and they took a 3-1 series lead against the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference Finals behind Harden's 20 points off the bench. Coincidentally, the Spurs have given Harden two of his more embarrassing losses as the aforementioned Ginobili blocked Harden's potential game-winner in overtime of Game 5 of the 2017 Western Conference semi-finals which San Antonio followed up by embarrassing the Rockets in a 39-point rout in Houston.
Although he unfairly gets knocked for playing poorly when he hasn't necessarily played poorly, there is truth in pointing towards the lack of a Herculean "get on my back" effort in May or June that we've seen him do countless times in February or March.
Winning big changes everything. Just ask LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki or even Michael Jordan himself who faced his fair share of Harden-level criticism until he could point towards his gaudy numbers with an equally gaudy ring.
And at this point, the tension in the public perception of Harden as likely won't change until he wins big.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.