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James Harden’s legacy shouldn’t be this complicated

Appreciating James Harden shouldn’t be this hard.

James Harden “big head” art.
James Harden’s legacy is under the microscope.

James Harden’s legacy, status, and reputation forced their way into the NBA news cycle during his recent on-camera interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. In it, Harden reacted to Nichols’ line of questioning with faux disinterest, as if feeding his own narrative was beneath him, while what he actually wanted was to set the record straight.

Harden addressed several topics, including the criticism that’s long-accompanied his results-oriented aesthetic, and his team’s stark decision to embrace small-ball with a tighter grip than any championship contender before them ever has. He accurately noted that teams cover him differently than everybody else, appointed himself as the best player in the world, and, of great interest to anyone who watched, took an unnecessary shot at Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning league MVP who’s a heavy favorite to win it again.

Harden’s nonchalance failed to mask a clear frustration with how he’s judged on the superstar spectrum, and the subtext of that sit-down revealed more about where he is in his career than any petty rivalry ever could. While there were certainly moments that didn’t paint Harden in the best light — his mischaracterization of Antetokounmpo’s skill-level was comical — he was right in many other regards, including how we are not properly appreciating his greatness in real time.

There was a simmering nerve that belied Harden’s audacious statements, an awareness of what’s on the line and what he’s actually up against. But Harden’s opponent is not Antetokounmpo. Instead, the NBA’s leading scorer is at war against time, precedent, and a grating perception that rarely aligns with how awesome he truly is. The man is 30 years old, on a team venturing into the postseason with no big man in their rotation. It’s all or nothing, largely on the back of his own absurdly efficient skill-set.

Segments of NBA Twitter see the Harden vs. Antetokounmpo debate as Gotti vs. Goodfellas, but arguing vociferously for one over another is like comparing the net worth of Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg: It actually means nothing. Both live on the “best player on a championship contender” island, where the margin between them is exhaustingly thin. The differences are myriad, but boil down to baggage and opportunity.

Antetokounmpo has zero postseason accomplishments worth speaking of, a monumental collapse that is rarely portrayed as a monumental collapse, and holes in his game which are harder to gloss over in the playoffs. But we collectively assume he will eventually get over the hump because his runway to do so is longer. There’s more time for present-day flaws to improve, and even though championships aren’t promised to any individual player, Antetokounmpo is as strong a bet as any to someday win one.

Harden is five years older than his rival. He gets no benefit of the doubt. Fair or not, the most glowing sections of his CV — i.e. he’s finished first or second in the MVP race in four of the last five seasons — have dimmed, and the accumulation of disappointment has taken its toll. All that’s left to change how Harden will be remembered is a championship, and that’s a shame. There should be no shame if he comes up short. The Hall of Fame is littered with household names who were tainted by bad timing.

Harden’s prime collided with the unforeseeable rise of a formidable Golden State Warriors dynasty, LeBron James’ remarkable third act, and another super team built overnight in Los Angeles that features two players (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) who can make his life extraordinarily difficult. Of course, Harden is not without blame, either. There are unforgettable, inexplicably poor postseason performances on his resume that could only be explained by a conspiracy theory.

Flashbulb memories of Harden getting benched during the fourth quarter of Game 6 in the 2015 conference semifinals as his Rockets stormed back to take down the Los Angeles Clippers. (Harden also played 44 minutes in Houston’s Game 7 win, finishing with 31 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and three steals.) Next up was the eventual champs. Harden was a monster in the first two games of that series, with 58.5/44.4/87.5 shooting splits to go with a 33-point triple-double. He was plus-9 while Houston lost both by a combined five points.

Game 3 was a dud (17 points on 3-for-16 shooting) in a 32-point blowout loss. Harden followed it up with 45 points in 40 minutes to stave off elimination, before Game 5’s infamous 2-for-11, 12-turnover fiasco that ended Houston’s season. I don’t remember thinking less of Harden after those playoffs, though. His best teammate was Dwight Howard. Jason Terry, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, and Josh Smith were key parts of Houston’s rotation. This was his first playoff run as an MVP candidate (he finished second behind Steph Curry for the award that season).

The following year was a nightmare, yet he still played in all 82 games and led the league in minutes. The Rockets fell once again to the Warriors in the first round; Harden shot 41 percent, averaged 26.6 points, 7.6 assists, and 5.2 rebounds. In the Game 5 series finale, he scored a game-high 35 points on just 23 shots. Terry and Michael Beasley combined to play 45 minutes.

His 2016-17 season ended with a genuinely perplexing 2-for-11, 10-point, elimination-game loss at home against the Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs. Harden fouled out with 3:15 on the clock and Houston down by 37. This was his nadir, and led to the Chris Paul trade, which pushed the Rockets as close to a championship as they could possibly be without actually winning it all. Harden averaged 28.7 points per game against the Warriors in that classic seven-game conference finals series, but only shot 24.4 percent from beyond the arc, including a 2-for-13 showing without Paul in Game 7.

There’s no excuse for these individual performances, but in 61 total playoff games since 2015, Harden has also averaged 28.6 points, 7.3 assists, and 5.7 rebounds. His usage was 34 percent and his True Shooting was a respectable 57.6. This is ridiculous!

Back to the present day, where Harden’s current season has been arguably his most impressive yet. He leads the league in Win Shares for the fourth season in a row, sits at the top in VORP for the third time in his career. His True Shooting is currently the highest it’s ever been, and no player in NBA history has ever hit that mark with a usage rate as high as it is. Harden also leads the league in Offensive Real Plus-Minus and RPM Wins. He impacts his team’s bottom line as much, or more, than anybody else, while the Rockets are better on defense when he plays for the very first time. (Look how far ahead of everyone else Harden is in RAPTOR wins above replacement, and Total RAPTOR. He’s annihilating the league.)

In February, Houston’s offensive rating with Harden on the court was a whopping 120.7 points per 100 possessions, and it plummeted 20.4 points per 100 possessions when he sat. The 1.13 points per possession he generates in isolation (at the league’s highest volume) are about as good as Milwaukee’s offense on the whole. While nearly half of Antetokounmpo’s baskets are assisted, Harden is only at 14 percent. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but his dribbles and seconds per touch are twice as high as the reigning MVP, and Harden has played over 400 more minutes, averaging more per game than everybody except Damian Lillard, whose body recently broke down.

Spacing matters for everyone, but Harden’s skill-set isn’t solely dependent on surrounding personnel. He’s launched 440 step-back threes this season — over one-third of his total shots; about six percent more often than last year — and made a ridiculous 38.2 percent of them.

All this is to say the ire Harden directed at Antetokounmpo was silly and there’s no excuse for slandering a fellow megastar, even one who cracked a joke at his expense on national television. But the resentment is understandable for a player whose greatness should, by now, overshadow stereotypes that cloud how he’s received, who doesn’t have time on his side, leading an unorthodox roster through the thick of what promises to be a particularly laboring playoff run.

Harden is one of the most influential, dominant, and self-contained players the NBA has ever seen, and his place in the league shouldn’t be as complicated as some make it seem. Few players have ever been so easy to appreciate, and it would be nice if Harden could find the proper amount in the moment, while he’s still this special.