Criticism Reaching Critical Mass for James Harden, But Is It Fair?February 23, 2016
The narrative may already be out of James Harden's control.
After leading the Houston Rockets to last year's Western Conference Finals and finishing second in MVP voting, Harden appeared bulletproof—that rare ball-dominant star who avoided criticism for a seemingly selfish style.
Now, with a disappointing Rockets season stripping away the flak jacket of team success, Harden is taking heavy fire as the worst kind of pseudo-star: a stat-hogging gunner who can't lead and doesn't make his teammates better.
Tainted. Maligned. Picked apart despite obvious talent.
Harden is in Carmelo Anthony territory. In fact, he's been there for a while. It's just that wins and the perceived potential that came with youth (he's still only 26) quieted the discontent for a time.
ESPN.com's David Thorpe had this to say of Harden two seasons ago:
There's a darker side to Harden's game, one that does little to engender a team concept and ultimately just makes him look selfish. Because of that, the Houston Rockets and their fans are fair to ask whether Harden is beginning to resemble a player maligned as a selfish, ball-hogging player -- the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony.
It may still be too early to permanently plant Harden in the Anthony club, but perception can steer reality, and the optics aren't good right now. The local hot takes border on parody, but they're out there, and they're shaping opinions (partially because they touch on feelings many fans share).
Consider this sampling from the Houston Chronicle's Brian T. Smith, who praised Harden's skills before digging in: "But Harden also conveniently forgets to try when the ball's not in his hand, often believes the most efficient way to find his shot is by calmly dribbling 18 seconds off the clock, and confused locker-room leadership in 2015-16 by co-signing Kevin McHale's pink slip and then further dividing himself from [Dwight] Howard."
And here's the haymaker: "Almost seven seasons into Harden's professional life, his 'team' resumes its pursuit after the All-Star break in ninth place in a weakened West and more fractured than it has been since the decade began. That's all on Harden."
It's worth mentioning otherworldly talent is a prerequisite for treatment like this. We don't pillory Marcus Thornton or Jamal Crawford or any of the league's lesser shot-hungry, ball-stopping, offense-only types. We reserve that for stars.
To whom much is given, much is required.
Though to be fair, it's not asking much for Harden to try a little harder than he did in a now-infamous catalogue of his defensive gaffes against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this year:
The relapse of defensive indifference is a big part of the attitude shift on Harden this season. But what's remarkable is the beating he's taking for offensive play that isn't much different from his more celebrated years in Houston, per Basketball-Reference.com:
Harden is, statistically at least, the same guy offensively. He leads the league in minutes, shots, free throws and turnovers. But he did that last year, too (except for shots, where he finished one field-goal attempt behind league-leader Russell Westbrook, but you get the idea). Maybe the broader acknowledgement that team play is the new winning model (thanks, Warriors and Spurs!) is cropping up at a bad time for Harden. Or maybe the problem is simply Houston's slide down the standings.
Harden has to hope a little objectivity will survive this shift in opinion and that people will remember things like this, from Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle: "Last year, with Harden leading the way, the Rockets won more playoff series than they had in the previous 17 seasons combined. Yes, combined."
He has to hope that if (when?) Howard leaves as a free agent, he won't be blamed for running off a star teammate with whom so much once seemed possible.
He has to hope critics will admit last season was an overachievement, that injuries and failed front-office gambles had a lot to do with the backslide in 2015-16.
Even then, many will view Harden much differently than the end of last year. And it's going to be tough for him to recover. The scene after many defeats for the eighth-seeded Rockets, as ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins relayed, feels like a microcosm of Harden's season—and even his career: "After some losses, Harden sits at his locker looking at the box score, sometimes in a daze trying to come up with answers to reporters' questions about what went wrong."
Maybe Harden will find some answers. Maybe he'll defend better. And maybe his teammates will follow suit.
That's his hope, as he told Mike Bohn of USA Today during the All-Star break: "Hopefully guys are mentally locked in and focused and ready to close the season out the right way."
Unfortunately, right now, that sentence feels unrealistic at best and hypocritical at worst.
But all hope isn't lost for Harden.
Anthony, long a favorite ball-hog pariah, is enjoying a small redemption this season. Though his New York Knicks are struggling, Melo has garnered praise for being a more willing passer and accepting the team concept more than he did in the past. It may not matter in the end; Anthony's late-career change will most likely be a footnote in the larger, more critical book of his legacy.
Harden isn't at the same point as Anthony, though. He still has time.
Recency bias is a powerful thing. If Harden spends the next couple of months defending a little, moving the ball better and, most critically, leading Houston to the playoffs (where it'd probably have to win a series or two, but we're dreaming here, so let's keep going), he could erase the story of the first few months of this season.
That's wishful thinking, and it may not even be enough to shift the tide of opinion gathering against him. These things take on powerful momentum.
Harden's legacy will depend on how effectively he reverses it.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com. Current through games played Feb. 22.