Culture of Hoops

Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century – #37 James Harden

Well hello there! Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 NBA Players Countdown! In case you are new here, or if you haven’t heard what will be different this time around, allow me to explain!

(That third exclamation point was not necessary)

Typically how this works is in the days leading up to the NBA season, I release a countdown of the Top 50 players currently playing in the National Basketball Association. This year I decided that it was time to remix this idea, expand the pool of players, broaden my horizons, and give myself an excuse to watch a bunch of old games on YouTube.

This time around I’ll be counting down the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s (this means we’re looking at a seventeen season sample size that goes from the 1999-00 season all the way through the 2015-16 season). I’ve detailed the criteria I used to make this awfully long list. If you want to check it out, you can do so by clicking here.

The Resume
7 years, 5 quality, 4 All-Stars … 4 Top Ten MVP Finishes (’13-’16), 3-time All-NBA (’13-’15), ’12 Sixth Man of the Year, 1-time Olympic Gold Medalist (’12) … Leader: Free Throws Made (2x), Minutes Per Game (1x) … Third best player on one runner-up (’12 Thunder) … ’15 Playoffs: 27-6-8, 44% FG, 38% 3PT, 92% FT (17 games)

Overall Averages: 21.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 33.2 minutes, 44% FG, 14.1 FGA, 37% 3PT, 5.7 3PA, 86% FT, 7.6 FTA, 534 Games Played

4-Year Regular Season Peak: 27.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 44% FG, 17.9 FGA, 37% 3PT, 6.9 3PA, 86% FT, 9.9 FTA, 314 Games Played

In an effort to keep this countdown fresh, today I’ll be conducting an in-depth investigation which will hopefully lead to the discovery of an answer to a question that has been becoming increasingly bothersome as I’ve put this list together. And allow me to be totally honest with you: I don’t have an answer planned nor do I have any sort of desired conclusion in mind for this column; I really just want to know the answer to the upcoming question, and I think the best chance I have of figuring it out is just typing things for a while and seeing what the end result is. So here goes nothing …

Why do I dislike James Harden so much? 

I’ve never been one to hide my personal biases in my journalistic endeavors, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I have Harden on the list, so clearly my personal feelings haven’t negatively impacted him in anyway (in fact, I imagine that if there is any sort of reaction at all to Harden’s placement on this list it will be that he should be lower on the list than I placed him). But as I buckled down and really began thinking about James Harden, the player, I thought more about why my feelings towards him were so overtly negative than where he belonged on the list.

So what I did was made a list of all of the things I thought I might possibly dislike about James Harden, and that exercise was telling in and of itself because A) I had to actively put thought into why I dislike this man, which makes me think my harsh feelings towards him may be irrational, and B) In the end I came up with six things I disliked about him, which seems like an excessive amount of things to dislike about a human being I don’t know personally, so maybe it’s not irrational at all. Regardless, these are the reasons I came up with, presented in order of “least likely to be why I dislike James Harden” to “most likely to be why I dislike James Harden.”

Possible Reason #1: His Left-Handedness 

After a very brief examination of my feelings about left hand dominance, I’ve quickly came to the conclusion that this is not the reason why I dislike James Harden. I have no ill-will towards lefties. Rocky Balboa was a Southpaw and he’s the most prolific fictional athlete ever. One of my best friends from high school (Crosby) is a lefty, and even though he once got pissed at me because I refused to squeeze into his father’s medium sized vest while we were golfing, I still love him like an annoying little brother. Additionally, after some quick research, I found that lefties are more capable of seeing underwater than people whose dominant hand is their right hand. Essentially they’re the closest thing to a marine animal that a human being can strive to be. That’s pretty cool if you ask me.

Possible Reason #2: His Beard 

In general, I don’t dislike facial hair. In fact, as someone who cares relatively little about their own appearance, my facial hair is the one thing that I take pride in and normally try to maintain to the best of my ability. If I were given the choice between having six-pack abs or a forever-perfect beard, I’m choosing the beard and not even thinking twice about it, even if my girlfriend forever-critiqued me for the choice I made.

 With that said, my feelings about James Harden’s beard are mixed. I like what it stands for. I like that he’s turned it into his own brand. Harden’s beard stands out the same way Ben Wallace‘s afro, Allen Iverson‘s cornrows, and Andrew Bynum‘s Frederick Douglass hair did. It’s a savvy business decision, and that’s the exact reason why Anthony Davis would be insane to lose the unibrow. However, the beard enthusiast in me doesn’t like it because it looks unkempt. Bugs and tiny animals have claimed residency in Harden’s beard. I just know it. If he ever trimmed it up it would be a colossal marketing mistake and a responsible sanitary decision at the same time.
Ultimately, the beard isn’t why I dislike The Beard.

Possible Reason #3: His Personal Life 

We’re getting closer, but this isn’t it either. I have no qualms with anyone who frequents gentleman’s clubs, nor do I have any issues with athletes/entertainers who get entangled with the Kardashian/Jenner clan. Though, it should be noted, that I would advise against it. The track record suggests that as soon as you appear on Keeping Up With The Kardashian’s, your life beings to resemble an actual fucking avalanche. Just ask Kris Humphries. Just ask Reggie Bush. Just ask Lamar Odom. Just ask Bruce Jenner.

Possible Reason #4: His Flopping/Style of Play 

For a long time I assumed that my vitriol towards Harden was the product of the way he played. You know the shit I’m talking about, right? The egregious flopping and wailing, the endless trips to the free throw line, the complete and total lack of shits given in regards to competing defensively, the dozens of iso-ball possessions the Rockets play each game that lead to either contested three-point attempts or the aforementioned egregious flopping and wailing, etc. James Harden is not fun to watch play basketball. I’m sure there are individuals who would disagree with my assessment. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if you come across an individual like that, just know that they’re not to be trusted. Maybe things will change now that Harden is playing Point Guard under Mike D’Antoni.

Here’s the catch: this is all stuff that is gradually bothering me less and less. Hating an NBA player because he flops is like hating an NBA player because his arms are covered in tattoos. There are so many dudes in the NBA who flop, and that’s more of an indictment against the refs than it is the players. My favorite player (LeBron James) has been accused of selling calls from time to time. And once upon a time, way back when I was playing high school ball, nobody in the county flopped more than I did. That’s a designation that I’m actually quite proud of. Just because James Harden has more success with it than anyone else isn’t good reason to penalize him. Former Grantland writer Kirk Goldsberry once said of Harden, “Perhaps more than anyone else, he understands the rules of the game and has engineered an approach to scoring that takes full advantage of these rules.” That’s a brilliant way to put it, and the way I’m going to choose to try to look at it from now on.
All of the stylistic stuff … it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Just because I don’t like watching it doesn’t mean it’s not effective, nor does it mean it’s predictable. Sure, Harden is getting the majority of his buckets out of iso-heavy sets. But what gets lost in the shuffle are all of the little things that have allowed Harden to continue to be so impactful when the league is moving away from iso-ball. His handle is super underrated. Just watch him dance with defenders, wait until they break, and then impose his well. It’s brutal and awesome. When he attacks the basket he barrels through defenders and he’s armed with a number of crafty, herky-jerky moves and finishes. And again, this all starts when Harden is sizing up his defender; if they press him too much he’s taking them off the dribble to the hoop. If they give him too much space he’s drilling a jumper no matter where he is on the floor. And God forbid you bend your entire defense too much to clog driving lanes. Harden’s most underrated skill (his passing) is perhaps the biggest reason why the Rockets won 56 games two seasons ago. Harden is great at creating open looks for teammates, particularly from distance. This is why there is so much optimism that Harden playing Point Guard for D’Antoni can be lethal.
So even if Harden’s style of play rubs me the wrong way (now it’s more so because he is such a shitty defensive player, mainly because of his own lack of effort), I don’t think it’s any longer the reason why I dislike him so much. The league is changing. Teams want to shoot three’s, get shots in the paint and take free throws. James Harden has mastered doing all three of those things in high volume. He’s the human embodiment of the direction that the league is going.
Possible Reason #5: His “Stir the Pot” Celebration 

Hey, now we’re cooking! (Pun intended) I hate this celebration. It’s the worst regularly used celebratory act in sports, and I say that without doing any serious soul-searching about celebrations that bother me more or as much as when James Harden stirs the pot. It looks stupid, he does it too often and I don’t really have any clue what it stands for. I guess James Harden is supposed to be a chef or a cook of some sort, which seems troublesome since that fucking beard will inevitably end up in any dish he serves.

Possible Reason #6: His Success 

Before James Harden, Dwight Howard was my least favorite player in the league. Needless to say, having to watch Harden and Howard (the least entertaining “great” player in the league over the last two decades) play together was like being put in a trap from Saw. But what I came to realize about Dwight Howard during his Rockets tenure was that I no longer disliked him anymore.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Dwight Howard. He’s constantly smiling (only crazy people smile as much as Dwight Howard), by all accounts he’s a shitty teammate, and he badly screwed over the Orlando Magic franchise with his whole I want to be here, no I want to be traded, no I want to be here routine. Something funny happened though … I stopped disliking Dwight Howard when I saw that he wasn’t “great” anymore.

Now, truth be told, the biggest reason I disliked Dwight Howard was because his ’09 Magic team upset the ’09 Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and that remains the most painful postseason defeat I’ve ever suffered as a fan of The King. It’s understandable that I would dislike the best player on that Magic team. It’s understandable (at least in my eyes) that I’d still hold that grudge ever after he left the team that beat my team. And in a roundabout way, I understand why I stopped disliking him as soon as I felt like he was no longer a threat to the success of my favorite player.

But what I don’t understand is why I dislike James Harden, a player than has only played my favorite player in one postseason series, and it happened to be the one where my favorite player won his first NBA Championship. Harden was a no-show in the 2012 Finals, but for some reason he’s been the subject of abject disdain for the better part of four years now. I’ve never viewed Harden as an equal to LeBron. Even during Harden’s MVP caliber 2014-15 season, when the Rockets beat the Cavs in a Sunday afternoon ABC game and the media started doing the whole “Who is the real King James in the NBA” thing, it bothered me, but not because I perceived Harden as a real threat to LeBron’s imaginary throne. It bothered me just because they were trying to swipe LeBron’s nickname.

Nothing about Harden’s degree of success in Oklahoma City or Houston has been particularly offensive to me. It’s never come at the expense of my favorite player, or even other players that I enjoy the on-court work of. So I sit here, still stumped as to why I have disliked James Harden so much for the last four years, and I don’t necessarily expect to figure it out any time soon.

Here’s the good news: Because of my past experiences with Dwight Howard, at least I know that when Harden stops being relevant, I’ll stop having an irrational problem with him, and I’ll gain even more of an appreciation for what he brings to the table than I already do right now.

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