James Harden's historic offensive mastery with Rockets will ultimately be overshadowed by postseason failures

 cbssports.com  01/14/2021 01:02:00 
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James Harden sat quietly in front of his locker at Oracle Arena cloaked only in a towel loosely fastened across his waist, like the loincloth of a gladiator who had just emerged victorious from the perils of the Coliseum. Minutes earlier, Harden had willed home a seemingly impossible 3-pointer over Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to give the Houston Rockets a statement win over the defending champion Golden State Warriors in overtime, and cap off a 44-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound masterpiece.

In the visitor's locker room afterward, all eyes were on Harden. And boy did he know it.

As media waited ... and waited ... and waited to get quotes from the man who owned the night, Harden casually sat, scrolling through his phone, occasionally chatting briefly with teammates. He finally rose, and as the scrum formed around him to gather his thoughts, he instead broke through and headed toward the shower.

This was Harden's moment, and he was milking it for all it was worth.

He eventually emerged from the shower as media deadlines passed and reporters grew increasingly frustrated, and Harden slowly adorned himself with fragrances, jewelry and eventually the fashion-forward, shiny green rain slicker with a piece of paper stapled to the back that had made the rounds on social media hours earlier when he entered the arena.

"I've got the total package," Harden said when finally addressing the exhausted scrum of reporters, assuming the nickname and grandiosity of pro wrestling legend Lex Luger. "I get to the basket aggressive and I shoot my shot."

The entire sequence encapsulated everything about Harden's tenure in Houston, which officially ended when he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets for a massive haul on Wednesday. His jaw-dropping offensive assault during the game. His defiance of standard protocols afterward. His pronouncement of his own abilities, with the chip on his shoulder bitingly glaring at any who dare question his place among the greatest basketball players of all-time.

But perhaps the most important part of the entire proceedings, as they relate to Harden's run with the Rockets, is the fact that one of his greatest moments and largest pieces of grandstanding came after a regular-season win. Despite his consistently historic offensive performances year after year, Harden's time as a Rocket will ultimately be remembered as a disappointment due to the one trophy that eluded him.

No matter your feelings about Harden, either the aesthetics of his offensive approach, his off-court reputation or the way that he has dealt with teammates, you cannot argue about his otherworldly offensive capabilities and accomplishments. An MVP who finished second in voting three times and third once. A three-time NBA scoring leader. A seven-time All-NBA performer. An All-Star for all eight of his full seasons in Houston.

In 2018-19, Harden joined Wilt Chamberlain (five times) and Michael Jordan (once) as the only players in NBA history to average over 36 points per game in a season. His 34.3 points per game in 2019-20 rank 15th all-time. He ranks second (378 in 2018-19) and fifth (299 in 2019-20) on the list of single-season 3-pointers made, with only Stephen Curry ahead of him. He's led the NBA in free-throw attempts in seven of the past eight seasons.

Harden is the Rockets' all-time leader in points per game (29.6), 3-pointers, free throws and triple-doubles, and his 26.8 PER and 88.2 win shares are far ahead of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon, according to Basketball Reference. It's hard to argue against Harden being the second-best player in franchise history behind Olajuwon, and the efficiency at least gives him an argument for the top spot.

More than the numbers, though, Harden revolutionized the way offense could be played. If Steph Curry is a human cheat code, capable of getting hot and flinging in shots that have no business going in, Harden is the kid who figured out the glitches in the the game, exploiting defenses surgically and relentlessly, knowing that the numbers will eventually tilt in his favor. His ability to draw fouls and finish at the rim were eventually buoyed by one of the most unstoppable shots in NBA history -- a step-back 3-pointer that has been copied ad nauseam by players around the world since Harden perfected it.

That shot, and empowerment from Mike D'Antoni, helped turned Harden into an isolation machine. He has led the league in isos in each of the last five seasons, but took things to the extreme in 2018-19, when he ran 1,280 isolations according to NBA.com. The closest player behind him was Russell Westbrook with 353. With all that volume, he still led the league in isolation efficiency at 1.11 points per possession.

Harden also held the ball for a league-leading 6.37 seconds per touch that season, and the methodic offensive style drew critics from every corner. But there's no doubting its effectiveness.

Yet by the end, Harden reached a place in Houston where none of that mattered. His success rested solely on postseason performance, both individual and team, and it's there where he developed a reputation that tends to diminish his regular-season exploits. Harden was unable to lead the Rockets to victory in Game 5 of the 2020 Western Conference semifinals against the Warriors after Kevin Durant left the game with an injury, when a win would have given the Rockets a 3-2 lead heading back to Houston. He scored five points in the fourth quarter and took just three shots as the Warriors pulled away, and the Rockets were eliminated at home in the next game.

The year before that, Harden had a chance to send the Rockets to the NBA Finals with Chris Paul injured on the sidelines against those very same Warriors, but he went ice-cold from the field -- like the rest of the Rockets -- making just two of his 13 3-point attempts as Houston watched their best chance for a title with Harden slip through their fingers.

Perhaps the biggest red flag on Harden's playoff resume, however, came in the 2017 Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. Harden had narrowly lost the MVP that season to Westbrook, and the third-place finisher, Kawhi Leonard, was out for Game 6 with an ankle injury. It was a fait accompli that the Rockets would win the home game, forcing a Game 7 in San Antonio with Leonard's status potentially up in the air.

What ensued was one of the most baffling NBA playoff performances in recent memory. Harden, who averaged 27.4 points in the first five games of the series, scored just 10 points and took only 11 shots (nine of them 3-pointers) as the Rockets lost by 39 points in a Game 6 elimination. It led to theories that Harden was concussed or otherwise physically hampered, and it fed into the belief that, while tremendous in the regular season, Harden's style of play would never lead the Rockets to a championship.

It didn't.

Whether that's Harden's fault is up for debate, but his efficiency has tended to dip significantly in the postseason.

Harden offensive efficiencyRegular season PPPPostseason PPP

2019-20

1.093

1.099

2018-19

1.073

0.98

2017-18

1.064

0.968

2016-17

1.007

0.96

2015-16

1.015

0.911

2014-15

1.031

1.024

2013-14

1.056

0.915

2012-13

1.027

0.924

As with most great players who have been unable to win a championship, questions abound surrounding Harden's conditioning, desire and ability to coalesce with teammates. A scathing report emerged following Harden's trade demand this fall detailing the "Whatever James wants" policy that had permeated the Rockets' culture over the past several years. Harden dictated travel schedules and forced the firing of previous head coach Kevin McHale, along with the departures of former teammates Dwight Howard and Chris Paul,ESPN previously reported.

The optics of attending a maskless social gathering amid the COVID-19 pandemic while the rest of his team reported to training camp certainly didn't help his prima donna image prior to the season. Nor did his final public act as a Rocket, disparaging teammates following a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers by saying they were "just not good enough," before walking away from the podium.

We don't know how time will shape Harden's legacy. Perhaps he, Durant and Kyrie Irving win a title or two in Brooklyn so Harden can finally add "NBA champion" to his long list of accomplishments. But as his new (and former) teammate Durant knows, not all championships are created equal.

Despite mind-boggling numbers and a lasting impact on the game that's already presenting itself, Harden failed in his eight attempts to lead the Rockets to a title. Any hardware that comes after allying himself with two of the game's best players in Brooklyn will come with an asterisk, and a lingering implication that he was "just not good enough" to do it on his own in Houston.

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