It didn’t take long for the jokes and memes to come after the Rockets fell to the Warriors to lose the semi-final series.
When Daryl Morey’s spreadsheet fever dreams and the modern basketball scientists created James Harden they cheapened out on the ‘fun’ setting.
Harden is a player designed in a lab, and labs are not places to party. For a four-year stretch from the start of the 2012 Finals until Dwight Howard’s merciful departure, Harden was a mostly joyless basketball player.
When he was bad, whether it was due to a lack of conditioning, growing smaller in big moments (those wide open double clutches in the Finals are still clear in the memory), or the comical lapses on defence (‘There’s my man, there’s my man, there’s my … I wonder if they’re going to bring The X-Files back again, Mulder is still …’ *bucket* ‘Guys, that was my bad.’), he became the internet’s favourite schadenfreude piñata.
And when he was good, he was good the way a solicitor is good – highly rational, relentless in an off-putting way, and generally unlikable.
Harden was the epitome of modern basketball, but except for the most ardent of followers, the ones who delighted in the guile and genius of his high percentage, high efficiency craft, the same type of people who tell you that the best aspect of ‘The Social Network’ is its ‘visual intensity’, he wasn’t especially fun to watch.
He stood around and dribbled a tonne in front of his defender, lulling them into confusion and us to sleep. His most transcendent skill was the one that makes you get home later than you want – getting to the free throw line. Between Harden’s journeys to the foul line via savvy, and Dwight Howard’s journeys there via incompetence, the Rockets were impossible to watch at times. And when a team is a chore to watch, their superstar becomes inextricable from that reality.
Now, though, Harden is living in the dreamland that always seemed possible. Empowered by Mike D’Antoni and Howard’s absence he’s become liberated with the team decisively moulded around him. Harden running pick and roll with a (willing) rim dasher surrounded by elite shooting is an unsolvable equation for defences.
The floor is less cramped, which means Harden doesn’t have to isolate as much, gifting more space to incorporate various moving parts with momentum. That early 2000s post-MJ era iso crap was the main thing holding back the aesthetic appeal of watching Harden, and now that he’s cut that out, all that’s left is 2017 Harden-era Harden – rim attacks, whizzing passes, and hellfire from deep – and as a result the scientists are finally listening to Big Sean and getting tipsy in the lab.
It feels odd to make the comparison, because beyond a shared name Harden and LeBron James don’t appear to have that much in common as basketball players. LeBron is the most imposing, impossible athlete of his generation – an Adonis from Akron carved in marble, who throws lightning bolts from the downhill freight train that is his body. Harden is a little doughy, and although his athleticism is underrated – those occasional winding lefty hammer dunks in the lane, and the quick-twitch first step remind us that Harden is no normal man – he’s hardly physically ‘intimidating’ by NBA standards.
But Harden has become the league’s closest facsimile of LeBron on offence. Unlike Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the two more conventional comparisons, Harden shares LeBron’s chess master magnificence. Like LeBron, when Harden runs a pick and roll, you can feel his genius in every breath, knowing that he knows more than you and everyone else on the court.
He reads the defence like prime Peyton Manning, understanding where all the pieces are, and how to leverage both his own movement and the movement of the nine other players to create the semblance of an opening, and once he sees it, you’re dead before you even know you’re in trouble. A step-back three, a drive and kick to the corner, a drive and dish inside, a lob to the rolling big man, a mid-range pull-up, a floater in the lane, a relentless rim attack – whatever the defence gives him most, Harden will take it, and he will succeed.
In the same vein as LeBron, he is unstoppable because he makes the right decision almost every time.
Now, having completely weaponised that cerebral intelligence, every night Harden is plain clowning dudes and touching God in the process. He’s one of the handful of best passers in the league and has his signature dish – the answer to LeBron’s speed of light two-handed whip/shove to the left corner shooter – that play in semi-transition where he faces and eyes off the shooter on the left side of the court and then bullets a no-look lefty frozen rope to the big man rolling down the middle of the lane for an open dunk.
Harden is pulling this sweet, magical nonsense on a nightly basis, making the Rockets one of the most fun teams in the league. Aesthetically, the free throws, once insult to a perverse basketball injury, are now totally bearable sans Howard.
Whether or not Harden is the MVP to date is debatable (in this space he is), as is the level of danger that his team will pose in the playoffs (one suspects that in a seven-game series the lack of secondary playmakers might burn the Rockets). But basketball, we sometimes forget, is not a series of endpoints. It’s the journey towards them, and James Harden is on one hell of a ride right now.