NEW YORK — The beard is still lush and vibrant, an impenetrable forest of facial camouflage. The man behind it, also known as The Beard, is equally spirited and inscrutable. But his steel-wooled facade has just cracked, albeit slightly.
So, about that 30th birthday you recently celebrated...
"Don't remind me!" James Harden interjects, as if the mere mention of the milestone might buckle his knees and send his hairline into recession.
The Houston Rockets star isn't here for your rocking-chair jokes, your stats on mid-career players or your musings on athletic mortality. He is, however, smiling wryly through this gentle protest, his defensiveness more than offset by his bravado.
Yes, Harden stared down 30 candles on Aug. 26, and yes, it was a bit jarring—"in the worst way," he tells B/R—but The Beard has never felt friskier or more confident.
And why not? The man has back-to-back scoring titles, a half-dozen All-NBA awards and a semi-permanent place in the MVP race. One of his best friends and fellow All-Stars, Russell Westbrook, joined his team this summer. And his greatest nemesis is in tatters.
There are no dynasties to topple, no superteams blocking the horizon.
And in Houston, James and Russ.
It's now the Rockets, not the Warriors, who boast two recent MVPs.
There will be an adjustment period, "a lot of ups and downs" through the regular season, Harden concedes. "But I'm more excited to go into war, postseason, with somebody that is, like, a dog," he says. "Somebody that's a killer, for real."
The Rockets will again be among the title favorites this season. Harden will surely be back in the MVP mix. But there's no satisfaction to simply being in the discussion, especially now that Harden is officially entering—yes, it's true—NBA middle age.
Most players start to decline in their early 30s, according to studies. The only real question is how much, and how quickly. Even the greatest stars begin to sense their athletic mortality, realizing they have more basketball years behind them than ahead.
"You reminisce and then you're like, 'All right, I was just an 18-year-old kid, and then I was just 21,'" Harden says, taking a break during a recent event to introduce his new shoe, the Adidas Harden Vol. 4. "Where the hell did nine years go? And then like, what's next?"
It's a dizzying sensation. Has it really been 10 years since Harden—his beard modest, his bowtie audacious—strode across the draft stage as the third overall pick? Has it really been seven years since that breakthrough trip to the NBA Finals with Durant and Westbrook in Oklahoma City?
It all seems like a blur.
He's achieved so much: Sixth Man of the Year in 2012. An assist title in 2017. MVP in 2018. And, last season, the highest scoring average (36.1) in 32 years.
Harden is arguably the most dominant scorer of his generation, so lethally efficient with his step-backs and sidesteps and clever drives that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey recently proclaimed him the greatest scorer in history—better than you-know-who.
"It's just factual that James Harden is a better scorer than Michael Jordan," the analytics-minded Morey said on the Selfmade podcast. ("Daryl's crazy," Harden says, chuckling.)
But there's a gaping hole in Harden's trophy case, and a gnawing sensation common to every aging star. What if I don't win?
It's not that the end is near for Harden as a supreme player. But it's surely closer than he'd like to think.
Michael Jordan was 35 when he made his last All-NBA team. Kobe Bryant was 34. Dwyane Wade was 31. Jordan won his last championship at 35. Bryant and Wade, at 31. Nearly every elite guard of the last 30 years has started to fade between 30 and 34.
Harden listens intently to the list, then smiles ruefully.
"You just messed me up with that one," he says. "That was some elite company right there."
When the end does come, Harden wants to keep being mentioned in that company. And that generally requires a title, or several.
"I still haven't accomplished half of what I want to accomplish," he says. "Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won't forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game."
At 30, Harden is old enough to understand how difficult it is to win and how foolish it is to define a career on rings alone. But championships do matter to a star's legacy, and Harden has reached the stage where the "L" word is increasingly on his mind.
"Of course it matters to me," he says. "I've been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I'm on the right path. You can't rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It's perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I've just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now."
Success once seemed routine. Harden won back-to-back state titles at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California, and he led Arizona State to the NCAA tournament as a sophomore. He made the NBA Finals in his third season, and who could blame him if he thought it would be the first of many?
But NBA careers are rarely so linear or predictable. The closest Harden has come to the Finals since then was 2018's epic Western Conference Finals clash with the Warriors, when the Rockets lost Chris Paul to a hamstring injury and let a 3-2 series lead become a soul-crushing seven-game defeat.
"Oh, it bugs him," Scott Pera, who coached Harden in high school and college and remains close to him, says of the lack of titles. "Obviously, he's won at a very high level everywhere he's been. ... And to be considered one of the best players of his generation and possibly all time at his position, he knows the importance of getting that ring. He doesn't lose sight of that."
Pera, who now coaches at nearby Rice University, says he has seen a more reflective Harden emerge as his 30th birthday approached.
"I think 30 is kind of that corner you kind of peek around," Pera says. "And you kind of see, 'Well, how close is the end?' You don't think about that in your 20s, really. I think that's probably kind of what he's doing. He's kind of peeking around that corner and wants to see how long is this going to go?"
Even Harden's new shoe line reveals a more contemplative soul. Harden placed two inscriptions in the interior of the heel: "106 Street," a nod to his childhood home; and "Hassayampa," his freshman-year dorm at ASU, "where I became a man."
And on the shoe's midsole, a hashtagged mantra: #GoWitYoMove. The phrase was a favorite of Harden's former security guard and close friend, Anthony George, a Houston fixture known to everyone as Big Tony, who died unexpectedly in July 2017. He was 38.
"It was sad, man," Harden says. "Everything that I do, my charity weekends and all that good stuff, is because of him. He pushed me to be out in the community and just make more of an impact. It's sad. So I got him with me everywhere I go."
As Harden describes it, "Go with your move" was Big Tony's all-purpose philosophy for life. "Like, however you feel at that time, just 'Go wit yo move.' And that's kind of how I live my life: Go wit yo move. Whether it's fashion, whether it's on the court, whether it's in life, every single day. Like, nobody can tell you how you're feeling."
Harden has always been involved in the design of his namesake shoes, but the personal inscriptions on the Vol. 4 were a first for him, says Cam Mason, Adidas' director of basketball footwear.
"He opened up a lot more," Mason says. "He was a little bit more emotionally invested."
Turning 30, Harden says, also means learning to brush off the usual slights from critics, fans and rivals.
"You try to just focus on what the thing is that's important to you, things that matter," he says, listing family, friends and his career. "And the things that don't really matter, like, keep them away, as far as possible."
"In my position, there's a lot of negative energy, or negative criticism ... that I would maybe try to feed into or try to protect myself, or try to explain myself," Harden says. "It's like, 'If y'all don't get it, y'all don't get it. That's on y'all.' I'm good where I'm at."
That's easier to say with conviction now than it was at 25, he says. Which is not to say that the old critiques don't still irritate him. He's admittedly tired of hearing about his defense, his playoff stumbles, old complaints of his playing style and the skepticism about his latest superstar pairing—first Dwight Howard, then Paul and now Westbrook.
Nor has he entirely let go of his irritation at losing various MVP races—to Giannis Antetokounmpo this past year, Westbrook in 2017 and Steph Curry in 2015. (And yet it should be noted, no NBA star has accumulated more MVP voting points than Harden over the last five years.)
Yet it's the playoff defeats that seem to sting the most, perhaps because they provide such easy ammunition for critics. The context that's often lost? Harden's path has been consistently blocked by historically talented superteams—LeBron's Miami Heat in the 2012 Finals, and the Curry-led Warriors, who eliminated the Rockets in four of the last five postseasons.
Sure, Harden has turned in a few untimely clunkers in his 116-game playoff career. It happens, even to MVPs. What irks him, he says, is the assertion by some critics that "James didn't show up."
"Well," Harden says, firing back at those same critics, "James averaged 31, seven and seven in the postseason, and we just didn't have enough talent around him, but I'm never going to throw my teammates under the bus."
He catches himself. "You see how I'm just explaining myself right now? It's like, all that stuff, I don't even need to do that. I'll just let them make up a story and just, you know, keep pushing, trying to get better."
There's the voice of perspective taking over again. Shutting out the negativity, it seems, is not as easy as simply declaring it. It's all a process, even at 30.
Yet what shines through most in this discussion is not any lingering bitterness or regrets, but the deep sense of pride in the path he has carved over these last 10 years. Just as much as Curry, Harden has changed the geometry of the game with his deep three-point shooting and the physics of the game with his innovative step-backs and sidesteps.
Love his game or hate it, Harden is an evolutionary NBA figure, one of the defining players of his generation. His impact is undeniable.
"Like, he did it another way," Harden says, pondering his own legacy.
In the historical sense, Harden has taken the baton from Jordan, Bryant and Wade, the greatest shooting guards of the last four decades. But his game bears little resemblance to any of them.
He enthuses about "creating waves" and "sparking conversations" and developing basketball moves "that people might call traveling, but it's not traveling. And that right there is dope. That's, like, legendary right there."
Go wit yo move.
Harden is also proud to have spent these last seven seasons in Houston, repeatedly extending his contract while some of his chief rivals changed teams (some multiple times) to join up with other stars and form superteams.
"There's other ways that I could have did it, and probably would have had a championship by now," Harden says. "But I'm fine with just being in Houston and figuring a way. ... I'm going to find a way to win a championship, at least one. I'll figure it out in Houston. But it's not going to eat me alive. Like, I'm comfortable in my career."
That comfort starts with a front office that has been hyperaggressive in chasing (and occasionally landing) All-Stars to aid Harden's quest. Morey has also given Harden a consistent voice in personnel matters.
"I trust the front office to go out there and get the best players that can help this organization win," says Harden, who says he'll retire in a Rockets jersey, whenever that day comes.
So far, Harden has also defied the NBA's other prevailing trend: load management. He logged the second-most minutes in the league last season while posting the highest usage rate—a "preposterous kind of workload," as Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney recently wrote.
Over the last five regular seasons, Harden has averaged 79 games played, rarely resting unless he's injured. It's an admirable figure, but supporters and critics alike have wondered if Harden's regular-season workload is responsible for those postseason flameouts.
That might be changing this season. Although the Rockets shun the "load management" label, team officials are formulating plans to ease Harden's burden. The goal is to keep Harden fresh for a title run next spring and keep him playing at an elite level for as many years as possible.
"I do think being intelligent about how we manage him through the season and even the playoffs makes sense," Morey says. "I think you'll see more than in the past. I don't know exactly how it's going look."
That plan is being developed by Keith Jones, the Rockets' senior vice president of basketball operations (and former longtime trainer), and Jason Biles, the head athletic trainer and director of performance rehabilitation. The intent is to be flexible, not dogmatic, but "we're going to follow that (plan) most of the time," Morey says.
The addition of Westbrook, an elite scorer and playmaker in his own right, should help ease Harden's burden. Though pairing two of the NBA's highest-usage players has provoked some skepticism, Harden says their familiarity will breed success. He and Westbrook have known each other since childhood, playing in youth basketball leagues in Los Angeles.
"Russ isn't just like one of my old teammates that I was in Oklahoma City with; Russ has been my brother since I was 10," Harden says. "Our communication is different. The way we talk to each other is different."
Adding Westbrook boosted the Rockets' odds of winning the title by about 30 percent, Morey says, citing internal calculations. It also helps that the Warriors aren't the Warriors anymore.
"Now is our best chance," Morey says with a chuckle.
The good news for the Rockets: Hall of Fame talents generally age better than average players, Morey says. And Harden's game in particular—which relies on footwork, basketball IQ and smooth shooting more than pure athleticism—should age well. Still, Morey concedes, "30 to 34 are extremely critical years."
"I think it starts to get harder at 34," he says.
How many elite years does Harden have left? How many more chances to chase a title? To grab another MVP? To satisfy his own soaring ambitions? To silence his pesky critics?
If we're sitting here again in 10 years, what is Harden discussing at age 40?
"Hopefully, it's a different setting," he says. "Business adventures and the great things that I'm doing after basketball, and finding ways to keep impacting the world."
He envisions a fair amount of jewelry—"two, three, four rings," and "a couple more MVPs" in the trophy case.
Oh, and one more thing.
"A lot of gray hair."
Harden laughs with delight at his own joke. He might be entering NBA middle age, but he still has the power to bend the game to his own creative impulses—still The Beard, not yet a graybeard.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.
Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney joins Howard Beck to discuss SI's ranking of the top 100 players in the NBA, why Giannis Antetokounmpo was No. 1, where James Harden fits now and what team doesn't have a single player on the list. All on the latest Full 48.