James Harden, this is the cost of being the man.
Winning a championship can’t be done alone, a point he had slapped across his head following his team’s 120-91 blowout Game 1 loss on Sunday at the hand's of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of his former Oklahoma City Thunder team.
Despite reaching the finals last season with the Thunder, Harden was too young and too good to be a third option. An opportunity to be the man elsewhere made the most sense.
And though it was unequivocally logical for Harden to move outside of Thunder land to earn max-contract dollars and the keys to a franchise, it also came with consequences.
When you rise to the top of your roster, even for an elite scorer like Harden, it often means falling in terms of team success.
Harden went from being a prince among royalty to the lowered status of jester, a moment emphasized on Sunday night:
No one wants Kevin Martin laughing at them.
Harden has plenty of talent surrounding him on the Rockets, but there’s a difference between quality and elite. Harden was one of three superstars on the Thunder. Now, he’s the only superstar.
And a quick map of history presents the clearest truth: No superstar can do it on his own, as seen through the results of the last decade:
|2011-12||Miami Heat||LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh|
|2010-11||Dallas Mavericks*||Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler*|
|2009-10||Los Angeles Lakers||Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol|
|2008-09||Los Angeles Lakers||Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol|
|2007-08||Boston Celtics||Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett|
|2006-07||San Antonio Spurs||Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili|
|2005-06||Miami Heat||Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal|
|2004-05||San Antonio Spurs||Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili|
|2003-04||Detroit Pistons*||Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton|
|2002-03||San Antonio Spurs||Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili|
The two exceptions of the last 10 years include, arguably, the 2010-11 Mavericks and, less arguably, the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons.
One could claim that Nowitzki did it on his own against the Heat, but that's forgetting that Tyson Chandler was Defensive Player of the Year that season and the team was also loaded with Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and the high-scoring Jason Terry. The 2003-04 Pistons are the only example since before the Michael Jordan years of a team winning a championship without a clear superstar.
That's not great evidence to support success from Houston in the immediate future.
Of course, none of this is to say that the up-and-coming Rockets won't one day have multiple superstars. Houston is young and, it could reach plenty more matchups against the Thunder in upcoming postseasons.
Jeremy Lin may have hit his ceiling, but Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons are absolutely capable of growing into superstar shoes.
Still, the growth could take a year, two years or never fully develop. And the youthful talent of the Thunder may always overshadow the Rockets.
That's the risk of going out and starting shop on your own. As Harden is realizing, you have to go up against the industry giants.
Playing with fellow superstars isn't an automatic ticket to a title, but there are plenty of superstars out there who can attest to struggles without first-class co-pilots.
Harden will be the next superstar to learn that lesson.