James Harden celebrates his 30th birthday after missing out on a second consecutive MVP despite another incredible season of scoring.
Harden, for all of his success and MVP votes in recent years, is a player who splits opinion. The number of free throws, the stepback threes, aren’t universally loved. Harden is heading to the Hall of Fame, he’s setting records every season, yet his game isn’t adored as widely as other elite players.
Second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019, victorious in 2018, second in 2017, the Houston Rockets guard has been a stalwart in the MVP conversation in recent years. The man who pipped him to the title in 2017, his former Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook, is his backcourt mate once again in Houston this season after the blockbuster Chris Paul trade.
Harden’s position among the greats to play the game is yet to be defined. Predominantly a ball handler, his role isn’t the same as other supposed shooting guards like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. His lobs are great, and have earned a place on many a highlight reel, but he isn’t exactly a point guard either. The nature of the modern NBA makes it particularly hard to compare players across generations – Harden is as good an example of this as anyone.
Without a title to his name, it’s impossible to put Harden alongside Jordan, Bryant and Wade. Harden’s postseason performances have been patchy. The Golden State Warriors have got in the way – and there’s no shame in that – while Harden has underperformed at times, often suffering from burnout after epic regular season displays.
His regular season CV is otherworldly. The shooting range, the unstoppable drives to his left hand, the improved defence. In another life, Harden has won three MVPs on the bounce. Only Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird have achieved that feat.
At the moment, though, Harden’s reputation isn’t perfect. The Houston Rockets’ public comments about his MVP candidacy haven’t always been popular. His game divides people. The lack of team success is an easy stick to beat him with.
While many will admire Harden’s production – as was most evident on their run midway through last season with Clint Capela and Paul unavailable – there’s a sense he isn’t adored, despite an undoubted Hall of Fame career and a potential place among the top 20 or so players in NBA history.
It’s a peculiar situation where we could even consider that a player with Harden’s record – statistically and award-wise – is underrated. It’s preposterous to suggest it, really, but there’s something about his career that doesn’t get the same admiration of his peers.
Harden has, in many ways, been unlucky. The Western Conference is historically tough, the Warriors were an unfair challenge. Paul’s injury derailed their best chance at success. Even his time with the Thunder was weird, with finances meaning he was traded away from a potential superteam. Who knows how the NBA could have looked if they kept Harden with Kevin Durant and Westbrook.
Can a player be underrated when they’ve been so close to winning three MVPs in a row? Do Harden’s postseason disappointments devalue his regular season displays?
Everyone will have their own answers to those questions.
Harden’s career, whatever each NBA watcher makes of it, is utterly fascinating. The perception, the performances, the records – James Harden creates debate in ways that other superstars don’t.
Heading into his age-30 season, who knows how long Harden has left as an MVP candidate. It’d be a brave decision to bet against him this season, but it’ll be the postseason when his partnership with Westbrook, and perhaps Harden’s own legacy, will be defined. With the Warriors weakened, this is Harden’s chance to consolidate himself as not just a regular season superstar, but an all-time great.