The high-scoring, yet sad ballad of James Harden

Associated PressHouston Rockets guard James Harden (13) looks to pass the ball under pressure from Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Houston. Since, Westbrook has joined Harden in Houston, only to want out after one season, and has since been traded to Washington for John Wall.

It would be refreshing to hear what James Harden really wants for James Harden.

Most, trying to be thoughtful, even if they have no previous experience with thoughtfulness, tend to pull it off. Could Harden, trying to explain himself? 


I want to hear from him, in long form, explain why he wants out of Houston. Or, better still, explain the type of situation he might hope to inherit were the Rockets to give in to his trade demands.

He couldn’t want the ball any more, could he? Could he want it less? Could he just want to be one of the guys?

Harden, as you may know, is a former league MVP and the NBA’s scoring champion each of the last three seasons. And he hasn’t just led the league in scoring, but crushed it.

Ever since Michael Jordan turned to baseball following the 1992-93 season, the NBA’s leading scorer has averaged 30 points 16 times, 32 or more five times and 34 or more only three.

Kobe Bryant averaged 35.4 points in 2005-06 on a Laker team that won 45 games and failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Harden averaged 36.1 two seasons ago and 34.3 last season and that’s it.

He scores with abandon by always having the ball in his hands. 

Remember that time Harden came off three picks to get himself open in the corner to hit the 3 to win that game against …? 

No, you don’t. Because it’s never happened. Because, forever, it’s been the same with Harden. 

His teammates spread out, he handles the ball above the 3-point arc as though playing one-on-one after practice. Then he executes that step-back 3 of his that’s usually a travel but rarely called. Or, he threatens it and drives to the basket instead. He frequently gets fouled. Sometimes he dishes to a teammate.

What he does not do is share the wealth in any conventional way or even participate in any conventional way when the offense isn’t run through him. 

What the Rockets have done ever since he got to Houston is be all right with it, to the point of making personnel decisions according to his wishes, to the point of allowing Harden to make all kinds of non-basketball decisions, too, if the reporting of ESPN’s Tim McMahon is to be believed, and why shouldn’t it be?

“Whatever James wants,” McMahon recently quoted a former Rockets “staffer” on Houston’s organizational position on all things Harden since his arrival eight seasons ago.

Harden could not make things work with Chris Paul, who spent two seasons with him in Houston, necessitating Paul be traded to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook prior to last season.

Nor could Harden make it work with Westbrook, who asked for a trade after one Rocket season and got it, moving on to Washington in exchange for John Wall, who’s expressed his desire to play alongside Harden without receiving the same courtesy back.

No, despite being given the keys to the kingdom, getting everything built around him, watching a franchise sell out to the most selfish brand of basketball, all for him, Harden continues to want out of Houston himself.

He wants to be a Net, alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, like there are enough basketballs for that to ever work. 

Or he wants to be a 76er alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris. 

Or he wants to go to Miami to play alongside Jimmy Butler, who’d likely put up with Harden for much less time than Paul or Westbrook.

Some of the reporting around Harden’s whims has been to ask what team could possibly give up enough to suit Houston. But the truth is there’s no good reason for any team to try because there’s no way to add Harden without subtracting from the stars you want to surround him with.

Nobody brings it up, but the way Harden’s been allowed to play in Houston is the same way he played with Oklahoma City’s second unit, when Durant and Westbrook, his old Thunder teammates way back when, took a rest on the bench.

Perhaps one sound reason Thunder general manager Sam Presti didn’t fight harder to keep Harden is he knew Harden would never be happy dominating OKC’s second unit and he knew he couldn’t be allowed to dominate the first one.

Not many players in the history of the game can raise a team’s floor while simultaneously lowering that same team’s ceiling, but that’s been Harden, through and through.

It was only last September the league announced its official all-NBA first team, naming MVP Giannis, Antekounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic and Harden to the list. 

Now, picture that team playing itself, with one change: Harden on one side and any solid, medium-salaried role player on the other and who wins?

It’s the team without Harden, every time. It’s the team allowed to play as a team. Not Harden’s team. And this is the guy trying to hold up a franchise?

Come on.

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