NBA 2020-21: James Harden may have linked up with the Houston Rockets but is that what he really wanted?
While there's a collective sigh of relief that Harden's back, Houston's problems are still far from over
James Harden is back with the Houston Rockets. Somewhere there, Stephen Silas sighed with relief, and so have Harden's teammates. All said and done that he must six consecutive negative COVID-19 tests before the NBA will clear him to practice with the side, Houston is glad he's back. Forget that fact they're facing the Chicago Bulls a day from now as the preseason games tip-off, all that matters their star is back in the fold.
Now, for all the drama that unfurled, it's painfully clear that Houston will most definitely not see Harden in their setup next year. Whether he links up with the Brooklyn Nets, or the Philadelphia 76ers, or any team with superstars capable of dethroning LeBron James and his Lakers, he will not stay with Houston, and in his defense, it's a move that's worth it.
At 31, Harden has yet to have a championship ring. Destined for greatness, "The Beard" is perhaps one of the best offensive players the sport can boast of. He's the best shooting guard in the NBA. Period. But despite being the best, the Larry O'Brien Trophy has always been elusive and the closest he got to get his hands on one was when he was with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Following his shipping off to the Houston Rockets, 2020 was his best chance as the team made the playoffs.
Make no mistake, while Rockets fans and the Harden hater clubs whip him on a poor outing, he still had a great season. Rollback the clock to September 2 this year, an evening where Harden had a forgettable day as far as his scoring went. But he did what he had to do. Find a switch that saw him produce one of the best defensive plays in his career.
With 2.6 seconds left on the clock, Harden blocked Luguentz Dort's 27-foot jumper for a three-pointer that actually did the trick to help Houston notch up their win. Soon after, forward Robert Covington with 22 points for the night split a pair of foul shots to give the side a two-point lead with 1.1 seconds left. It was all happening with Gallinari missing a free-throw for Thunder. Harden didn't pull any punches during the post-game interview either.
"Offensively I felt like s**t. I couldn’t make a shot," he said. "Excuse my language, but I couldn’t make a shot, turned the ball over, just doing everything that was not supposed to happen, but I just kept sticking with it. My teammates give me confidence throughout the course of games, and defensively I had to make a play...Dort had been knocking down some shots tonight, so I wanted to get out to him."
Now, move forward by two more days. September 4 saw a tired Rockets unit take on a refreshed Los Angeles Lakers. Except, Harden was keen on making up for the previous game that almost saw them go home. By halftime, he had already scored 25 points for the Rockets. Ably assisting him were Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon. For those who caught the full game, there was intent in Harden's play. There was no doubt Houston was looking at pegging the Lakers on the backfoot and that meant creating a huge difference in points.
By the end of it all, the Lakers regrouped. Four games later, the Rockets were back home and plotting their next move. Mike D'Antoni made way for Stephen Silas. Daryl Morey switched bases and went east to work with the 76ers. Russell Westbrook wanted out and took his talents to Washington to play for the Wizards. By then, Harden was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Now, he's probably conceded defeat or maybe has plans of making Houston go the distance.
So did Harden return? He did eventually. It was a tantrum. Plain and simple. Whether he was forcing the Rockets' hand, or just trying to flex his power can be debated upon. Quite a few would agree with the former as he was still hoping to make something happen. It might have strained relationships, it might have given him a bad rap, but in all fairness, and in his defense, he wanted better. Would he have won a championship linking up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? Maybe. Maybe not, but he felt the need to go there or elsewhere where he has a winning shot.
And he was pretty clear about it. This isn't the first time he approached the Rockets to give him a team that would see them hoist the trophy by the end of the season. Players came and went, but Harden stayed, and almost every year, he was making headlines for scintillating performances, except the final report card had an A- for not taking the trophy home.
Scoffers and meme-men will go into an endless rant for this one, but it's a question to be asked. Does he deserve a championship team? For someone alien to Harden and his exploits, this question stems from the hype. The stats say it all. Last season, he averaged 29.6 points with 5.6 REB and 7.7 AST.
The year before, his free throw percentage of .879 was his career-best averaging 36.1 PPG. He's remained consistent and that's in a regular season. Come playoffs and his PPG from 2013 has been upwards of 25. He's been what LeBron is to the Lakers, what Giannis is to the Milwaukee Bucks, and in return, he asked for a team that could see him emerge victorious in the end.
Where does this leave him and the Rockets?
There's no concrete answer really. As far as Harden is concerned, he's done with the Rockets, or that's how the image is projected. Perhaps, the world may be wrong, he's conjured up a plan. He's a veteran, he's savvy and he knows his game. Would he put his commitment on the line and fight a one-man battle for the championship. It's difficult, but athletes have a way of dealing with adversity. Or, it's just commitment. Harden's in, Harden's played, Harden's out.
Right now, Harden's a constant topic of discussion, and the answer to all the questions lies with the Harden who shows up on the game day. Either way, "Houston, you still have a problem."