One of the things you could rely upon NBA fandom for is that while everyone had their own favorite players and teams and would argue ceaselessly about them as though they actually understood what they were talking about, everyone could agree that James Harden was a total joy-suck. The way he ate possessions, turned games into slow-motion pop-a-shot competitions at the most desperate county fair, and reduced an entire team to vassals if not outright props at the end of games—even the way he left the team that had been built to his specifications and needs—it was all a god-awful drag on the senses and sensibilities. He was a fine player, but he very definitely wasn’t a fun player. On this, there was rare unanimity in a sport enjoyed and covered by people who argue for other people who argue.
Well, his history is his history, but all of a sudden we must come to grips with the fact that Harden is now actually a delight to watch, and all it took was a different team in a different city with a different coach and different teammates and a different position and a different worldview.
His numbers, which have always been gaudy in isolation, are not radically better or worse from prior years other than his usage rate being about two-thirds what it was a year ago, and this is not the place to go for a more granular examination of the math. You want that, go find your old trigonometry teacher. He’s probably at a nearby bar wondering why he didn’t get into the private sector. Rather, this is about the visceral exercise of watching Harden play, and it isn’t done even in Top Shot or standard highlight form. It’s about watching a game with a new and repurposed Harden from beginning to end, invigorated by the challenges of being on a team where he isn’t the best option by default and where his new best skill is figuring out who the best option is on any given possession. Nobody has ever accused Harden of not being a smart player, but now his brain, directed outward to his teammates, is a worthwhile investment of your time. Unless, of course, you’re working on social justice, disease eradication, or time travel, in which case carry on.
For those of you invested in hating Harden, it is true that having a fully engaged Kyrie Irving and a healthy fraction of Kevin Durant ought to make any thinking human a better player. It is also true that the person who damaged Harden’s rep in Houston was Harden, and that he comes by your scorn honestly and deservedly. He is also not a noticeably better defender, which is to say his interest in that part of the craft remains sporadic. Continue to loathe him as you see fit. As the saying goes, let a thousand Venus flytraps bloom.
It is, however, equally true that this Harden is a vastly superior one because it has about 30 percent less Harden. He isn’t doing anything he couldn’t do before, but he is more devoted to not being the one who ends a possession, and it is an amazing thing to see the difference between the one who takes the last shot and the one who decides who should take the last shot. It is a greater level of individual power and control, thus satisfying your run-of-the-mill megalomaniac, but it is to the ultimate benefit to the collective, thus satisfying the responsibilities to one’s co-workers.
Put another way, last night Gregg Popovich was having the San Antonio Spurs double-team Harden with Irving on the floor, which would seem suicidal in most circumstances but made some sense here, in part because Durant is still out with his balky hamstring. It didn’t matter.
But enough faux tactical schmoozery. This isn’t about the mechanics of the new and improved Harden, but the fact that in his 12th year of play he has gone from a style of play that works mostly for him to a style of play that works for everyone else, too, including the audience. Forgive the default argument here, but since the usual gaggle of chowderheads are already arguing who should be the league’s most valuable player with the season not even half-over, but here’s a notion that it might very well be Harden, and for all the right reasons this time. He won his MVP in 2018, but that was actually the year after the best and most useful year he ever had in Houston, the year he lost it to Russell Westbrook in his role as Oscar Robertson.
This, then, is the year most like Harden’s 2017, before he became the most pathologically ball-dominant free-throw accumulator the game had ever seen and that the fans rejected as being gravitationally unwatchable. He has reacquainted himself to the actual zen of his game at its best, and that choice is serving his new team as well as it ever did in Houston, and far better than the last two years when he just became a festival of self-absorption.
Put simply, James Harden is fun to watch again, and maybe more fun than he’s ever been. We will leave that call to your own melted waxwork of personal biases, and if you still need to hate him because you can’t find full purchase hating Michael Porter Jr., or Ivica Zubac or either one of the Bogdanovicii, fine. Do whatever that camphor puck you call a heart desires; hate whoever you like, you lonely, desperate sod. Just know that the Harden you love to loathe is no longer on ready display, and that he is actually improving the viewing experience for the first time years, and as recently as two months that was believed to be metaphysically impossible. That development alone is so MVP-able.