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James Harden and the legacy of the superstar underdog

How should James Harden be remembered?

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

There is an issue with history and legacy. These two work together, but they don’t tell the same story. History is the facts — who, what, when, where. Legacy is how those facts are presented.

Legacy isn’t always what you leave behind, but how your story is told.

Michael Jordan’s 63-point game against the Boston Celtics is considered one of the greatest single-player performances ever, and even led to Larry Bird saying “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan,” despite the fact that it came in a loss. If a 60-point outpour happened in today’s game to only end in a loss, no one would dare consider it one of the greatest games of all time, much less revere it — in fact, it would probably be ridiculed.

But because Michael Jordan was young, because it was against an all-time great Celtics team, and because it got that incredible soundbite from the opponent and one of the greats themselves, it will always be considered one of the most incredible games ever.

That’s how legacy works.

Will the stories told be that kind to James Harden?

At this point in time, it might be hard to feel bad for an 8x All-Star, 6x All-NBA, MVP, but it’s easy to forget that’s not how it started for Harden. He bet on himself. When the Oklahoma City Thunder made it clear they were prioritizing other contracts over the sixth man, he wanted to go where he’d be treated like the superstar he knew he could be. And the Houston Rockets, deep into their run of desperate superstar hunting, made a bet on him too.

We’re far, far removed from this point in history, but Harden’s success in Houston his first year was considered an over-achievement. Not only was the payoff of his signing fast, but it was substantial to a degree that didn’t seem sustainable. In fact, I remember explicitly, the offseason before his second year with the Rockets, Houston signed Dwight Howard, and I said to myself. “NOW, we finally reeled in our superstar.”

The fact that Harden went from expecting to play second fiddle to Dwight Howard to becoming arguably the greatest scorer and one of the greatest all-around players ever should be the gist of his legacy.

Instead, if it were to end now, it would probably be told as a player that underachieved — someone who couldn’t get over “the hump.” It would be told as a player who the Golden State Warriors had their card.

Let it be told accurately, and it’ll be a story of how the Golden State Warriors held all the cards in the league. It’s a story of how Harden didn’t do the one thing that every other team couldn’t do in a five-year span, and that it took a god-like effort from LeBron James and the Warriors missing two of their four All-Stars for them to be toppled twice in their dynasty.

Let it be told accurately, and it’s a story of James Harden leading a series of underqualified teams to incredible regular season records and deep playoff runs. It’s frequently a story of player who led his team to success only to be met by stiffer competition and more complete and experienced squads. Eliminate the blemishes of the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs from his history, and Harden as the No. 1 option has only ever lost a series to the Westbrook-Durant Thunder and the Warriors.

Instead of being praised for incredible regular season accomplishments and historic performances only ever achieved by the likes of Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, Harden instead gets punished for overachieving. He gets punished for daring to keep less-than-prolific squads competitive. He gets punished for beating the teams that he should beat and getting beaten by the teams that should beat him. James Harden’s greatest crime as a basketball player is that he dares to be there, competing for a championship.

Harden dares to be the underdog.

Even now, it seems silly to paint Harden as the one that is counted out, but that’s all his career has been. Who would have ever guessed that the man who played behind Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka would eventually become the league MVP and a generational player? No one, probably.

In the end, the legacy of superstar is a complicated one. If he wins a championship, all of his past struggles would be instantly vindicated. But if he were to never achieve the goal, would we stop to consider how insane it was the Harden was even there in the first place?