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James Harden, the NBA's unlikely MVP

When James Harden signed with the Rockets, he wasn't sure he had what it takes to be a star. Now he's the MVP front-runner and the league is trying to keep up, step for Eurostep.

This article appears in the Feb. 23 edition of SI. To subscribe, click here.

The private plane that transported James Harden into Texas on the morning of Oct. 28, 2012, was silent except for the muffled beats leaking from his chunky headphones. He sat suspended in the soupy air between Oklahoma City and Houston, the NBA Finals and the lottery, the bench and the marquee. Behind him was the only professional home he’d ever known, stable and secure, with strong friendships and guaranteed success. Ahead lay a teeming city that he compared with a desert island, a land of opportunity spiked with expectation, where he would either build a new community or languish trying. He had just spent the summer on the U.S. Olympic team, with Thunder runningmatesKevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, fantasizing about the championships they seemed destined to capture. What do I do now? Harden asked himself. He was going from sixth man on a budding dynasty to leading man on a bubble team. His safety net, once as wide as Durant’s wingspan, had vanished. “I felt like I was by myself,” he says.

Memories of that flight, and the several days that followed, are as hazy as the view out his plane window. The black SUV, waiting at William P. Hobby Airport, to ferry him downtown; the conference room at Toyota Center, where club executives told him, “We’ve been looking for you”; a deep breath; the arena floor, ringed by more than 3,000 people, who turned a regularly scheduled fan appreciation event into a tent revival; another deep breath; his first practice as a Rocket, when he instructed new teammates to tuck in their shirttails, ignoring their sideways glances; the opener in Detroit, where he signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension less than an hour before tip-off, then hung 37 points on the Pistons. The team’s general manager, seated near press row at The Palace, declared a few decibels louder than he intended: “That’s why we f------ got this guy!”

That GM, Daryl Morey, had pursued Harden for three years and mined a plethora of statistics that indicated he would be a megastar. A point guard by nature and a shooting guard by trade, the 6' 5" Harden excelled at almost every offensive element prized in today’s NBA: orchestrating the pick-and-roll; getting to the rim; getting to the free throw line; creating and making three-pointers, especially the corner threes. But there is still no way to project whether even the finest part-timer can sustain such performance for 40 minutes over 82 nights against an array of bespoke traps and double teams. So when Morey sent Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to Oklahoma City for a package headlined by Harden, the GM was betting that a star lurked inside. And when Harden boarded the jet for Houston, having rejected a contract from the Thunder that fell $6 million shy of the maximum, he was making the same bet.

I’m talented, but what if I’m not talented enough? Harden asked himself. I’m smart, but what if I’m not smart enough? Then he eviscerated the Pistons, and two nights later put 45 on the Hawks, and some of his uncertainty evaporated. He made his first All-Star team that season, recorded his first triple double, had career highs in almost every category. But Houston finished eighth in the Western Conference, OKC first, and the Thunder took their first-round matchup 4–2. “I still had Oklahoma City in my head,” Harden says. “Did I make the right decision? Was it my fault? They were still winning. It felt like they didn’t need me anymore.” Scoring and playmaking came naturally to Harden, but a star’s other duties did not.

James Harden reflection

Two years and four months have passed since the trade, and Harden is now a 25-year-old supernova, not only the most prolific scorer in the NBA and one of the most productive passers, but suddenly a stopper and a leader to boot. “Our best player since Hakeem Olajuwon,” says Rockets owner Leslie Alexander. Houston sits tied for third in the West, Oklahoma City ninth. The Thunder did need him after all. “I still think a lot about the ifs,” Harden says. “But I’m good now.” A star does not reminisce about former employers who withheld max contracts. He haunts them without remorse. Welcome to the year of the Beard, the Mohawk and the Step Daddy, the year that slow became fast, that Compton became Euro, and that drawing a foul became an art form.

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Houston has unleashed what Morey calls “the modern player,” an exemplar of efficiency who actually scored 45 points in a game this season on 18 shots, a line that sounds mathematically impossible. Harden averages 27.4 points, but more impressive, accounts for a league-high 44.2 when including his assists. If Morey built a player’s operating system, it would perform a lot like Harden, who turns up his nose at midrange jumpers while generating foul shots and corner threes at remarkable rates. “If I knew then what I know now,” Morey says, “I’d have given up five more first-round picks.” Never mind that Harden’s supposed sidekick, center Dwight Howard, has already missed 21 games and is out another four to six weeks with a right-knee injury. The Rockets survive with a starting front line of Joey Dorsey and Donatas Motiejunas. “James makes it easy,” Motiejunas says, “because he gets us so open.”

The Man Behind The Swag: Nick Young

When Harden is rolling, he twirls his left index finger, like an egg beater on the fastest setting. “That means something’s cooking,” says his housemate and former high school teammate Greg Howell. It could be a number of specialties: one of his four variations on the Eurostep or his lurching straight-line drive or his super-slo-mo “step-back of death,” so named by teammate Jason Terry because the move leaves defenders staggering as if they’ve been shot. It could also be another leisurely stroll to the stripe. Harden invites abuse, stretching his body and extending the ball when he approaches the rim, baiting opponents to reach and slap. He proudly displays the scabs along his forearms. He jokes about affixing name tags of his assailants, who have helped shove him into the stratosphere previously occupied by Durant and LeBron James. “I see an opportunity to become one of the best players in the world,” Harden says. “I could be the best player in the world.”

Fans look at the overgrown beard and expect a similarly outsized personality, but Harden must be comfortable to reveal it. He often speaks in a convoluted lexicon that no one outside his inner circle can decipher. A standard salutation is “Woowoo.” Goodbye is “Curtains.” Harden is protective of the beard—not even his barber trims the stray whiskers—but he is also weary of the attention it commands. He can’t exactly slip on a baseball cap and disappear. “Sometimes I want to rip it off and be a kid again and hang around quietly,” Harden says. Brand managers everywhere would go ballistic. “To be honest,” he adds, “I’m scared of what I’d look like without it.” Then again, he notices the suspicious glances he receives, and experiences a different kind of fear. “People think I’m mean,” he says. “But if you spend some time around me, get to know me, you fall in love.”

Monja Willis raised three kids as a single mother in South Los Angeles, but James is the youngest by eight years, so he was easily mistaken for an only child. Willis lost two brothers in 1993, murdered in unrelated events, and after that she saw danger around every corner. When James grew old enough to explore his neighborhood, Willis rented out their house and bought a mobile home in a gated park in Rancho Dominguez, on the Compton border; most residents were senior citizens who complained about the noise when James rolled his portable hoop into the street.

Harden arrived at powerful Artesia High a set shooter and little else. “I just stood in the corner,” he says. “I didn’t dribble. I didn’t move. I didn’t do anything. I was lazy, really lazy.” He came with a recommendation from Derrick Cooper, president of the L.A. City Wildcats, who met Harden when he was a kindergartner trying out for an AAU team of 12- and 13-year-olds. “He was small, obviously, and not that fast,” Cooper remembers. “But when the big kids tried to double him and steal the ball, he understood how to kick it out and set up an open shot. He knew the game.”

Scott Pera, then the Artesia coach, recognized in Harden the same instincts that Cooper did. “Great athletes learn to play in the air,” Pera says. “James learned to play on the ground. He knew how to jump stop, how to pump fake, how to see time and space.”

To turn Harden from a sniper into a driver, Pera put him through daily X-out drills, in which Harden had to convert eight straight layups while Pera punished him with an arm pad. They made a standing bet: If Harden shot more than six free throws in a game, Pera owed him a hamburger; if Harden shot fewer than six, he owed Pera sprints. Harden discovered ways to contort his limbs through and around defenders, collecting whistles and patties. “He played like he was 30,” says Frank Burlison, who covered Artesia for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and now runs the scouting service Burlison on Basketball.