Remember when he was the Sixth Man of the Year for the Oklahoma City Thunder and a prize novelty with his ubiquitous beard? Harden was a universally beloved player, seemingly shielded against any real criticism.
For better or for worse, that’s no longer the case. He's left for a larger role.
"I grew in Oklahoma City," he told ESPN's Henry Abbott. "Now I've got my own, basically, my own team."
And with his new team, Harden is one of the high-usage players in the NBA, and although he’s largely met the challenge of leading these Rockets, there’s definitely been detractors.
Chief among them are those who’ve noted Harden’s defensive lapses. Previously known as a utility man with a full, balanced belt of basketball skills, he is now cited as a score-first ball-stopper who can sometimes drive his team into oblivion with his repeated calls for isolation play.
The Rockets’ Nov. 4 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers brought special attention to Harden’s play on the other side of the ball. Looking either frazzled, lazy, slow or all of the above, he was lost against the Clippers offense, and videos highlighting this soon ran through the news cycle.
While there are a slew of factors that may have caused this occasion—new teammates like Dwight Howard, the Clippers’ fresh Doc Rivers-led offense, the season having just started—the outcry and schadenfreude created by fans and pundits made one thing clear.
Harden’s now got a bullseye on his chest.
The less-than-joyous fervor about Harden's play is an award he incidentally earned by shaking the spiderwebs out of his stalled franchise last season, raising his profile considerably as he boosted his scoring to 25.9 points per game and took his team to the playoffs.
It’s not all good at the top.
Just ask Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was similarly the star-child of the league before being smattered with criticism, dubbed a dunk-only fluke and a celebrity wannabe. Then—especially under Doc Rivers' tutelage—Griffin has blossomed into a player potentially even more important to his team.
Harden is 24 years old and still has tons of room to grow like Griffin has. He could, alternately, pan out like Minnesota Timberwolves guard Kevin Martin: a cinch perimeter scorer who was exposed as having nothing more to his game when both the Sacramento Kings and Harden's Rockets gave him the chance to be more. It's unclear how far Harden's play will travel down either of these roads, or how long his negative feedback will last.
Some of the critiques of Harden are deserved, as he has evolved tremendously as a scorer, but he seems to have hit a plateau as a passer and a defender.
Part of this lopsided growth certainly relates to the prerogatives his team is giving him. The Rockets’ aggressively experimental style insists that basketball can be played ever faster and that no amount of three-point shooting is too much. And as the engine to this attack, Harden has spent a lot of his time in Houston racing against the shot-clock instead of working on the intricacies and wrinkles of team action that could maximize his roster’s talent.
This is not to say that James Harden is a relentlessly egomaniacal ball-hog, or even that he’s "the new Carmelo Anthony"—a light suggestion made by ESPN's David Thorpe, one taken too seriously and surely a compliment, anyway, as Anthony is a more proven star who easily exceeds Harden’s PER.
It's just that we don’t know where Harden's ceiling is. Symbiotically integrating team structures on defense and offense is a serious road bump for all young scoring superstars. We'll have to wait and see if Harden is up to the challenge of being utility man at the same caliber that he’s been a scorer for the Rockets.
But it’s clear that Harden has entered the fray of our strongest microscopes. He’s become that rare role-playing caricature in our NBA panorama to up himself to the level of the elite. For someone who can’t yet legally rent a car, he’s already had quite the professional sports ascendance.
How Harden performs over these next few seasons, running up against championship expectations with Howard and Chandler Parsons at his side, will determine if we still consider him among the league’s upper-crust when he signs a new contract—whether it’s in Houston or elsewhere.
Is Harden a true franchise man, or merely a scary scorer? Just how much should we fear this beard? Let's see what James Harden is made of.