It's not just the beard. Though it helps.
Unlike Ben, it's both on the top of Harden's head (a bizarre combination of a Mohawk and a mutant Fresh Prince fade) and the bottom (a beard that looks like the ones made of bees in the circus sideshows). And where Wallace's fans Feared The 'Fro, Harden's fans Fear The Beard.
A quirky look can certainly get you noticed in the NBA. But it can't make you the face of a franchise.
Ben Wallace remains the only man to win four NBA Defensive Player Of The Year awards. Simply put, his Afro didn't make him the face of the Pistons. His play did.
James Harden, night in and night out, can be depended on for scoring punch. Of the 23 contests the Rockets have been in so far this year, Harden has scored fewer than 20 points just five times, and fewer than 15 just once.
James Harden's face is not why he is the face of the Houston Rockets.
It's because Harden has played at a consistently high level this year.
In contrast, point guard Jeremy Lin, the franchise's face before Harden arrived, hasn't.
Lin really looks like he's coming on strong. He scored 38 without Harden in the backcourt against the San Antonio Spurs; it appears he's found his game and his groove in the last two games. But overall, the man everybody originally thought would be The Man in Houston has struggled this season.
Harden has not.
Want proof that Harden is the face of the Rockets? Watch this video...and note who gets the honor of being introduced first.
How did the Rockets go from being Jeremy Lin's team to James Harden's in the span of a few days? Let's trace the face.
Lin gets face time
When Jeremy Lin signed with the Rockets, he was instantly the team's biggest celebrity and star. His backcourt mates figured to be Kevin Martin—an eight-year veteran and solid, sometimes brilliant scorer, but whose fame was not remotely on Lin's level—and rookie Jeremy Lamb, the 12th overall pick.
Maybe the Rockets saw something they didn't like in Martin (his game is down significantly since the '10 - '11 season) or Lamb (he's spent most of the year in the D-League). Or maybe it was something the Rockets didn't like in Lin, who by all accounts struggled in the preseason.
Whatever it was, the Rockets' general manager, decisive riverboat gambler Daryl Morey, reacted—and fast.
Houston does an about-face
With the season less than a week away, Oklahoma City was becoming more and more worried that James Harden would not sign his offer sheet. Once the Oct. 31 deadline passed, Harden would become an unrestricted free agent—and lose all his value to the Thunder.
Morey knew this, and pounced, finalizing a blockbuster deal he'd been pursuing for a while. Leaving Houston were Martin and Lamb plus three draft picks. Riding into town was Harden and a host of backups.
It is difficult in the NBA to obtain a star. With Lin and now Harden, Morey had nabbed two of them.
And he had done it at a remarkably auspicious time: The fans were understandably bored out of their minds with the preseason. So, in truth, were the media. There are only so many "this year will be the year" stories a journalist can come up with.
We all wanted something to talk about. With the Harden trade, we got it.
For two precious news cycles, the blockbuster Harden trade was the NBA. Harden's recognizability soared.
Moreover, since everybody heard about the trade, everybody weighed in on it. The general consensus? "Houston was crazy to offer Harden a max deal." You heard it. I heard it. The shaking heads. The condescending chuckles. The Rockets were reckless. Maybe even stupid.
The thing is, when everyone weighs in on a topic, everyone wants to be right. So everyone was watching to see what happened in Harden's first game in Houston.
What did the bearded one give them? A face to be reckoned with: 37 points on 14-of-25 shooting, with 12 assists. And the next night, Harden followed it up with 45 points and seven rebounds.
The nation had to eat their words. And you'd be surprised what that does to a player's marketability.
Granted, those were Harden's two highest point efforts for the Houston Rockets. But national sports news turns quickly. After those two sterling efforts, NBA fans were duly humbled and duly impressed. The final verdict: Harden is a scoring machine.
Scoring machines generally become franchise faces.
The heat was off Harden, supplanted by the glow of stardom.
The Rockets replace their face
Heat, however, always seeks a target. Someone would lose face.
That someone was Jeremy Lin.
In those first two games, because all eyes were on Harden and whether he would justify his contract, all eyes were off Lin. Jeremy played solid ball those first two games for Houston.
After that, Lin's shooting touch, never the strongest part of his game, went off the tracks. And Lin had to face the music, because the media's focus and criticism, sensing their prey, shifted from Harden to Lin.
Unlike Harden, Lin's play in subsequent games has failed to shut the critics up. Until this past week or so, for every good game Lin had, there were three or four disappointing ones.
Lin had to face the music.
Or did he?
The case for who should be the face: Harden and Lin face off
Who deserves to be the face of the Rockets?
Lin is still arguably the most recognizable NBA face in the world. Between Harden and Lin, the latter is certainly more famous internationally, and probably still domestically as well.
But don't underestimate how much Harden raised his national image by dominating in his two games after the signing. The world was watching with skepticism...and the world had its skepticism stuffed down its throat.
That doesn't happen often in sports. And when it does, the public is humbled, and its perception changes.
I don't know whether Harden realized the opportunity that was before him in his Rockets debut. What I do know is because of his play in those first two games, the world's perception of Harden went from sixth man to front man.
And there's only room for one front man.
Moreover, in marketing a team, advertisers need faces who bring two things: recognition and respect. The public has to know that the featured player is going to deliver, night after night, including the night they're thinking about ponying up dough for tickets.
Lin wins the recognition game (though Harden's play immediately after the contract, combined with his unusual look, make him No. 2 with a bullet).
When one factors in respect, however, Harden is the clear winner.
Regardless of the reasons, no one can argue that Lin has been spotty this season. If you were the head of marketing for the Houston Rockets, who would you feature in your advertising: a well-known player who might thrill, but is just as likely to finish the game on the bench? Or an equally charismatic guy who's gonna go off for 20 or more most every night?
If you want to keep your job, there is no question who you choose.
It shouldn't matter to Lin, who lived most of his NBA career in anonymity. The less people expect of Lin, the more he can overdeliver. Down the line, he might even replace Harden's face as the team's brand identity.
For Lin, there yet may well be a time and a place as the franchise's face.
For now, face it: This is James Harden's team.
But if it were me, I'd market them both.
Standing face to face.