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Rockets 2021 player previews: James Harden

The Beard is still a Rocket on NBA opening day.

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NBA: Preseason-San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden

I was holding out as long as possible on the Harden recap in case The Beard got traded, but here we are on opening day of the 2020-2021 season and Harden is still on the roster, so I figured it safe. Of course, in true Murphy’s fashion, he’ll probably now get moved 10 minutes after this goes live, but as of this writing, The Beard is a member of the Houston Rockets and expected to lead a revamped roster in a competitive Western Conference.

Not much is expected of Harden and his Rockets this season. ESPN picked Houston to finish 11th in the conference. Yahoo released their season predictions from five writers, and not a single one of the five picked Houston as a playoff team. In fact, three writers picked the Rockets as their “most disappointing” team. The only outlier was FiveThirtyEight (the most analytic of the predictions) taking Houston for fourth.

But the general consensus has been that Houston misses the playoffs this season, and quite honestly, that’s just fine by me. Harden and the Rockets are better when they’re disrespected underdogs, and as long as The Beard stays on the roster, I think Harden has essentially proved that he’s a playoff spot all by himself regardless of teammates.

But I expect Harden to have something to prove this season. If he really wants out of Houston, it will behoove him to give his all. The better he looks on the court, the higher his trade value will be. Harden likely comes out guns blazing this season.

For a guy who has won three consecutive scoring titles, having extra motivation, regardless of the details of the reason, should mean opposing teams are in trouble.

He did look a little awkward at times in the lone preseason game he played alongside John Wall, but I expect that to change tremendously as he and Wall spend more time together. At least on paper, the two are a better fit than Harden and Russell Westbrook.

The other thing to keep a close eye on — and potential trade partners will be too — is Harden’s attitude. Does he look fully bought-in despite the difficult circumstances? Or will he be a noticeable distraction?

There was already a report this morning from Shams Charania that Harden has been more animated and confrontational than in years past during practice, including an incident in which he threw a ball at rookie Jae’Sean Tate, which is of course being spun into negative in most of the national media and Twitterverse.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with seeing a little chuztpah from the notoriously laid back Harden. He already takes criticism for not being firey enough, with many claiming he doesn’t carry that “Mamba Mentality” in all facets of preparation which would help him to take things to the next level when it most matters. Then when he does something like Kobe would’ve done it — and make no mistake, a guy like Bryant had his fair share of disagreements with teammates — he’s chastised for acting like a prick. As usual, it’s lose-lose for The Beard.

I’m open to pissed-off Harden. I think it’s good for the Rockets, I think it’s good for The Beard, both which will result in one of two inevitabilities: the Rockets are successful and convince Harden to stay, or he still wants out but he raises his trade value through top-notch play and an image remake and Houston gets a haul.

But since this is a prediction piece for Harden, I’ll give you my prediction — which you can happily wave in my face if he gets traded in the next few days — but I think The Beard makes it the whole season with the Rockets. I think he has another fantastic year, where his scoring likely goes down a little due to an abundance of new weapons in H-town, but rebounds, assists, and steals still remain at peak Harden levels.

I think this new angry Harden leads Houston to home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs and the Rockets make some noise in the postseason.

Of course, if he gets traded, all bets are off on what that does to Houston’s season overall, depending on what they get in return. And who knows what happens to Harden’s individual season if he gets moved; it mostly depends on who he gets moved to. But as long as The Beard is in Houston, this is a playoff team.