Fans felt it was the start of something promising - a promise of greatness—when James Harden came to Houston to become the cornerstone of a new Rockets era.
The promise of greatness was fulfilled, to some measure. Harden has emerged from his cocoon and became an elite offensive player. But what was achieved was personal greatness only. Without a doubt, Harden will become a sure first ballot in the basketball Hall of Fame. He will be known as one of the craftiest offensive players who combined his hard-to-defend Euro-step style of attacking the basket with his just-as-difficult sidestep pump fake three-point shooting that he did so well and with such a high level of accuracy that he sort of normalized what was once considered rare—the four-point play after a made three and a foul on the shooter.
There was a lot of promise in Houston during Harden’s tenure evidenced by the fact that Houston was always seen as a legit contender in the West, and year after year, something is happening in Houston, and opposing coaches always made sure this reflects in the scouting report if they want to defeat Harden and his team.
Now with all the talks of Harden exiting for Brooklyn, it is apparent that his era in Houston is over, and with it the promise of greatness he brought with him the first time he wore a Rockets jersey. What was purchased by the long years of effort is a great consolation: despite its flaws as a unit, the Houston Rockets played an entertaining and exciting type of basketball.
But now, everyone moves forward.
I wonder if, in leaving Houston, Harden is also leaving his best years as a professional basketball player behind to start his proverbial ride towards the sunset.
And not that it is a bad thing because here’s the rub: prime James Harden may be a talented, elite-level competitor, but is it possible that him yielding touches, attempts, minutes, and roles could make him a better teammate and a better fit for a championship team? That has always been the main argument against Harden: his tendencies forced his team to be one-dimensional and predictable. He dribbles too much. He holds the ball too many times and for too long. He takes too many shots. He dictates the flow of the offense and everyone around him is forced to find their offensive rhythm based on the opportunities Harden allows, and sometimes, it is meager to none. And because of Harden’s offensive skills, you allow him that.
But year after year, one important—and oftentimes unseen—factor is slowly and slowly forcing Harden to change (and perhaps to his benefit without him knowing it yet). Years of wear and tear will make you more and more cautious as a player because injuries can sideline 30-year-old and older players, or worse, it can decommission them too. You change in small increments is hardly perceptible at first unless someone makes a close comparative study of your tendencies. Father Time will do (and influence) the rest.
These small changes force you to accept major changes in who you are in the team and how you play in a team within a system.
Maybe James Harden coming to Brooklyn is him coming full circle. He was an off-the-bench third option scorer in OKC who went out to begin his journey towards becoming a feared primary scorer, and he accomplished that. But unlike other players who did it before, he summited without a Larry O’Brien trophy in hand. This, the journey is incomplete.
If he joins champions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, he will return to his old role of having fewer touches on the ball as a secondary offensive option behind ball-heavy Kyrie and Durant who, once healthy, is without a doubt the cornerstone of Brooklyn’s offense.
It is not a demotion for Harden nor is it a humiliating slide to second-tier. Despite having to embrace a role similar to what he had in OKC in his younger years, there is one key factor that makes this return-to-an-old-role potentially rewarding for Harden:
This time around, he approaches this role with maturity.
And it will only be a rewarding transformation if Harden sees it like this, if he accepts it like this, and if he builds around this revelation.
He is not getting any younger. Those defending him are becoming more and more adept in forcing Harden to become less effective and less dangerous. He needs to change - his style of play, the burden he wants to take single-handedly, who he is around with, and the system he plays in, and more importantly, his mindset.
The good thing is he has proven himself capable of transformation. Who he was in OKC and who he has become in Houston is a testament to that.
For all we know, all he needs is one final tweak, and he could finally become a champion. And then his journey is complete.