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The duality of James Harden back on the Rockets

Won’t the real slim Jimmy please stand up?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Philadelphia 76ers
Which version of James Harden might show up in Houston next year?
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Remember James Harden’s first year on the Rockets?

What a glorious season. In Harden’s debut game with the Rockets, he scored 37 points to go with 12 assists. At that very moment, we began dreaming.

This guy is an All-Star. That’s clear enough, right? It’s only one game, but he flashed that potential as the sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He’s going to represent the Rockets in the midseason dance on at least a few occasions.

As the season wore on, excitement mounted. OK, cool, we got an All-Star for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and a pair of first-round picks. Wait. Is this? No. I can’t believe it. I won’t believe it.

Is this one of the best players in the NBA?

Over the course of nine seasons, Harden would answer that question emphatically. At the same time, Harden was - and still is - a lot of things.

Harden, like humankind itself, is defined by dualities.

Harden defined the modern point guard for the Rockets

For my money, 2016-17 was the most egregious MVP robbery (sorry, Jokic enthusiasts) in recent NBA memory.

“But Westbrook averaged a triple-double! He had to win it”. Right. The two extra rebounds per game that Westbrook was grabbing over his former (and future) teammate were so significant. Harden was averaging 29. 11 and 8. Westbrook was averaging 30, 10, and 10. If only there was another measure that’s usually significant in the criteria...

Oh? Team success is generally a factor? Yet, somehow, the Rockets won 10 more games than the Thunder and Westbrook walked away with the award anyway. Some of us are still waking up in cold sweats.

I digress. Only, I don’t. To my mind, this was Harden’s best individual season.

That’s a controversial take. Many will point to 2018-19. To be sure, the 36.1 points per game Harden averaged that year were preposterous. He put a stamp on the record books that would have put him in his own tier if not for the ever-looming shadow of Wilt Chamberlain.

Still, his assists dipped to 7.5 assists per game that year. Obviously a strong mark. Still, Harden deviated from playmaking toward scoring as his time with the Rockets marched on.

Some will say that this was a strategic shift born from necessity. Perhaps. On the other hand, the 2016-17 Rockets were no superteam. Harden managed those 11.2 assists per game with Eric Gordon as his offensive co-star.

This is the first duality of Harden. The brilliance of his game has always been that on offense, he can get any look. Harden has always been able to put himself in a position where he’s got several “right” decisions he could make. Finishing the layup on his own would be good, and kicking it to the corner would be too.

Arguably, that’s changing. Harden’s burst is seemingly depreciating. His ability to generate paint touches may be waning.

Isn’t it?

A tale of two Harden’s in 2022-23 playoffs

Meanwhile, there have always been two versions of Harden in the playoffs, too. This is different, though. Sure, there’s a stylistic spectrum upon which Harden can seemingly play at will, but in the playoffs, he’s defined by a dichotomy. There’s good Harden, and there’s bad Harden.

This year with the Philadelphia 76ers, that distinction has never been more apparent. Harden is alternatively dropping 40+ and looking like he forgot how to basketball. It’s pretty confusing.

You may be asking yourself a question: why write about this? Isn’t this a Houston Rockets page?

Don’t be coy. You know exactly why I’m writing this.

Which Harden could the Rockets get next season?

It feels inevitable, doesn't it?

The rumors are We’ve almost never seen anything like it. If we woke up tomorrow to Harden giving a tell-all interview with Rachel Nichols about how excited he is to rejoin the Houston Rockets in 2024-25 even though he’s totally focused on the Boston Celtics, would you be shocked?

So if Harden is returning, which Harden are the Rockets getting? These playoffs have been stressful for Rockets fans.

They probably shouldn’t be. It’s obvious that Harden is not altogether washed. His burst may be compromised, but let’s talk big picture. This man has dropped 40-plus points in two recent playoff games against an elite defensive team. He can still hoop.

With that said, we’re likely talking about a max contract commitment to a 34-year-old. I’m going to table any discussion about whether that’s prudent. I’m on the fence (and frankly, leaning no) but it’s not the subject at hand.

If that’s the plan, it can be justified. Harden is coming to help the young guys. He’ll generate open threes for Jabari Smith Jr. He’ll find Jalen Green in transition. He will help will the team to the play-in, if not the playoffs, and get these guys some meaningful experience.

Fine - as long as that experience is meaningful. If this is the return of Helio Harden, it could be a colossal error.

He should not be scoring more points per game than Green next season if the idea is to groom Green as an alpha scorer. Harden can’t religate Smith Jr. to 6’10 P.J. Tucker duties. If the Rockets are bringing Harden back, they need floor general Harden.

If he can embrace that side of himself, this can work.

Even if it won’t win him a stupid MVP award.