May 3, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) reacts after a play against the Boston Celtics in the third quarter during game two of the 2023 NBA playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Rumors abound of a James Harden reunion with Houston, but should they?
If we are going to be fair and honest, James Harden may be the greatest regular-season performer and second-best overall player in Houston Rockets franchise history.
Harden holds the Rockets’ all-time records in a ridiculous 12 statistical categories: points per game (PPG), player efficiency rating (PER), usage percentage, offensive win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus, offensive plus/minus, 3-point field goals made, 3-point field goals attempted, free throws made, assists, and of course, triple-doubles.
Harden’s creative play in Houston had networks inventing statistics to track everything he did and constantly comparing his eccentric statistics to all-time greats. “No player has had X points, with X assists, and X rebounds, with X free throws in a game since…” became more of a norm than an occasional ‘one-off’ from ESPN Stats & Info during Rockets games.
But things didn’t end well in Houston for Harden. After chasing away every top running mate the team had ever put beside him, he forced his way out of town. The Rockets understood his message loud and clear eight games into the 2020-21 season when Harden quit on the team and demanded a trade to the Brooklyn Nets. Ultimately, Houston granted him his request.
Harden’s tenure in Brooklyn is almost legendary because the massive hype surrounding it was second only to the enormous failure that the trade was for the Nets. Three Nets first-round picks, four Nets first-round pick swaps, a first-round pick from Cleveland (via Milwaukee), and former all-star Victor Oladipo made up the noteworthy portion of the return for the Rockets, while the Nets assembled a trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving.
That trio was supposed to contend for multiple championships in Brooklyn. Instead, it didn’t play together for even a full calendar year. Harden and Irving were injured during the 2021 playoffs, and the Nets lost a second-round series in seven games (with Harden essentially playing on one leg and Irving out after Game 2) to Milwaukee.
The following season saw tensions rise so high between Kyrie Irving and James Harden while Durant was injured that Harden demanded, and received, a trade to Philadelphia before Durant could return. The implosion was mind-blowing. Brooklyn lost in the first round with both Durant and Irving. Harden and the Sixers bowed out in the second round.
This season, Harden and the Sixers had a chance to bounce the Celtics in the second round and get to the Eastern Conference Finals. Philadelphia even held a 3-2 lead in the series with Game 6 at home, yet the Celtics advanced after seven games.
Harden, as Rockets fans saw for years, did exactly what he always does when the stakes are highest: he played his worst.
Harden finished 3-for-11 in 41 minutes, allowing Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey to take more shots than he did in an all-or-nothing Game 7 in Boston. He was 1-for-5 from beyond the arc and committed five turnovers. He was “Elimination Game James” and his team got eliminated. He even posted a triple-single in the loss.
Playing alongside the best player he has ever played with, an in-his-prime Joel Embiid, in one of the biggest games of his career, Harden failed to show. Harden scored zero points in the fourth quarter, exactly as he had done in the fourth quarters of Games 5 and 6 in that series. Zero points in 32 combined minutes of fourth-quarter action in the final three games of a playoff series. He was “on brand”.
While Harden is still a very good player in the regular season, we know who Harden really is here in Houston. He is a player who shrinks when the stage is biggest and the lights are brightest. His teams are now 1-9 in his last 10 playoff elimination games.
The hot and heavy rumors of James Harden returning to Houston won’t stop. I have heard from several people connected to other teams in the NBA that they believe it is a foregone conclusion that Harden will return to Houston this offseason.
Is the man who quit on the Rockets the right man to teach Houston’s young players how to be NBA stars? The man who made a name for himself in Houston’s gentleman’s clubs as much as on the court – is that the man Houston wants to be a mentor to the young Rockets? The man who couldn’t succeed in the postseason in his prime will somehow do so at age 34 with a lesser supporting cast?
None of it truly makes any sense, and it never did. Harden is title-starved, on the decline, and needs motivation. The Rockets, who may be around a .500 team with Harden on the roster, will not teach their young players anything except how to go clubbing and fail in big spots.
For a young team that has been reported to have several discipline issues with its young core, bringing in a veteran star who has never been accountable for anything to lead the way is nothing short of begging for catastrophe.
It has been a painful rebuild for Houston, with three straight seasons as a bottom-three team in the NBA. That pain is a price one is willing to pay to build a potential championship roster, and it has been overwhelming. Short-cutting at the end for a quick fix with Harden would only derail every hope and dream that was created when the pain began. It would be the equivalent of the Rockets leaving any and all hopes for a title at the altar to run off for a Vegas bender that they will regret instantly. Houston will not get another shot at the altar for another decade-plus if it fails now.
Rockets, when it comes to Harden, remember Ron and Nancy in what may be your time of weakness: just say no.