Of course the main man for the Houston Rockets would be going last in our player preview series, and I think the biggest question for us to ask about James Harden as he enters into his eighth season in H-town is: where does The Beard go from here?
He’s already accomplished so much. An MVP. Several runner ups. Leading the Rockets to their most wins in franchise history (65 in 2018) and two Western Conference Finals appearances (in addition to one NBA Finals appearance with the Oklahoma City Thunder).
He’s won two scoring titles, an assist title, led the the league in win shares four times, led in box plus-minus twice, usage twice, PER once, and of course there was his streak of 30-points games (32), which is second all-time next to Wilt Chamberlain.
The Beard is a seven-time All-Star, a five-time First Team All-NBA selection, a one-time Third-Team selection, and he was named Sixth Man of the Year during his time in OKC.
He’s also gotten better and added to his game each year. His scoring has been on a steady upward trajectory, he’s massively improved his defensive play from just a few seasons ago to where he’s not only near the top of the league in steals, but he’s also one of the game’s premiere (yes, premiere) post defenders, he became a much better playmaker (and he was already a really good one) once Mike D’Antoni came aboard, and he’s continually added moves to his offensive repertoire (hello, step-back) that have elevated him to the most unstoppable one-on-one scorer in the league.
Despite this long, laundry list of accomplishments, Harden still gets inexplicable hate from both NBA Twitter (who cares?) and the national media (a little more disconcerting). I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of all of that, lest this turn into another Beard against the world article, and we’ve done more than enough of those at TDS. But there’s only one way to change any of that, and I think we all know what that is.
The Rockets currently have a window of opportunity. The Golden State Warriors dynasty, while not officially yet dead and buried, is likely on life support. That opens up a whole new world of possibilities in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Utah Jazz have all made major improvements. The Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, and San Antonio Spurs should all be good again. So there’s plenty of competition out there. But the Rockets have been arguably the second-best team in the West (and maybe the league) for several years running now, and they’ve only gotten deeper on paper this offseason.
Sure, there are questions about how Russell Westbrook will fit into this equation, but the Rockets have as good a shot as anyone to finally get over the hump and bring home the last missing piece of Harden’s legacy: a Larry O’Brien trophy.
It is fair to wonder, however, if Harden has reached his plateau. He’s now 30 years old, and has roughly two or three more seasons left in his physical prime. From an individual standpoint, what more is there to add or to accomplish? He’s not going to get the recognition he deserves unless the Rockets win a ring.
The Beard is going to finish with another dominant year statistically. The Rockets will likely once again win over 50 games. They’ll probably be seeded in the top half of the West. But what happens from there is what defines this season for the Rockets and for Harden.
Win it all, and those critics will have a ring to kiss instead of whining about travelling rules they misunderstand to begin with. Lose in the playoffs again, and it’s fair to wonder how much more sand of opportunity remains in James Harden’s career hourglass. It’s now or likely never for Harden (and by now, I mean in the next two or three years), and this season is their most open shot since The Beard arrived in H-town.
The only place left for Harden to go is to the ring maker to get sized.