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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.

Harden’s mother was his motivation. Willis worked 28 years as a maintenance administrator for AT&T, commuting up the congested 110 North to Pasadena, then returning to help care for her own mom, who was dying of cancer. Willis earned enough to afford the mortgage and utilities, spending anything left over on cold cuts, ramen and milk. A luxury was a membership at L.A. Fitness, the health club where she exercised while her son joined pickup games with middle-aged men.

He developed a playing style that matched his disposition. “I like to be in my own world, at my own pace,” Harden explains. “Once I’m comfortable, once I know what’s happening around me, then I can attack.” When he dribbles atop the key, he looks as if he might nod off, and when he drives through the lane, he slams the brakes more than a cabbie at rush hour. He gets where he needs to be. He just takes a while, and occasionally, he requires a little push.

The rapid rise of Anthony Davis

Midway through his junior season at Artesia, Harden was taking as few as eight shots per game, and Pera begged him to let fly. From then on he was the best high school prospect in Southern California, more acclaimed than contemporaries such as Westbrook and Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. As a freshman at Arizona State, Harden was again reluctant to fire, until coaches gave him their approval. A year later he was an All-America, picked third in the 2009 draft by Oklahoma City. Keeping with his pattern, Harden failed to crack double figures as an NBA rookie, deferring to Durant and Westbrook. But he adjusted again, mastering Manu Ginóbili’s Eurostep in one summer and mimicking Paul Pierce’s step-back in another. Harden expanded on the originals—“Step Daddy,” he calls a new version of Pierce’s move—while discovering another maneuver all his own.

“Oklahoma City taught us to chin the ball, so when you lay it up, no one can strip it,” Harden recalls. “I did that for a while, but it didn’t work for me, so I started putting the ball out instead. People kept reaching for it and hitting my arm. It was like finding treasure, finding gold. Everyone thinks I’m looking for contact, but I’m not. It’s bait on a hook. You have the option to reach for the ball. But if you get my arm, it’s a foul.” This may not sound like a revelatory technique, but Harden has 127 more free throws and 125 more attempts than anybody in the NBA this season.

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His entire offensive approach is counterintuitive. When he wants to shake his man, he slows down. When he wants to protect the ball, he sticks it out. “He’s a boxer,” Terry says, “getting you off balance, luring you into a mistake and then going right at it.” In 2012, Terry played for the Mavericks, who were defending their title in a first-round series against OKC. “It wasn’t about stopping KD,” he remembers. “It wasn’t about keeping Russ out of the lane. It was, ‘What do we do with James Harden?’"

Harden portrait

Three years after Morey started his pursuit for Harden—Houston feverishly tried to acquire the No. 4 pick from the Kings in 2009—he called Oklahoma City. Morey was searching for a cornerstone, and the only ones available either weren’t cornerstones anymore or weren’t cornerstones yet. The Thunder seemed to have two ways they could go with Harden: They could give him the maximum deal he sought, exceed the salary cap and pay the luxury tax for a clean look at multiple championships. Or they could do nothing, let him become a restricted free agent the following summer and decide then whether to match what would likely be a max offer sheet. They chose a third option, proposing a contract below the max in hope that Harden would accept it. But by the fall of ’12 he had found his elusive comfort zone and felt ready to attack. He just needed that little push.

On Oct. 27, Morey watched his son’s soccer game from inside his car, a vantage point that allows him to writhe in private. “All the way to the end I thought they’d pay James the max,” Morey says. “I did not think they’d move him.” Oklahoma City extended a final four-year, $54 million offer and gave Harden an hour to mull it over. “I’m not the kind of guy who makes quick decisions,” he says. “I had to go too fast, way too fast.” The next morning he was on the plane.

Willis has followed her son from California to Arizona, Oklahoma to Texas, and everywhere they move she carries a note he wrote to her in the ninth grade. In it Harden asks for a couple of dollars so he can buy a snack after school, but that’s not why Willis framed it. At the bottom is a bold prediction: “P.S. I’m going to be a star.”

In the NBA everybody wants to be the face of the franchise, but few want to fulfill the responsibilities. Besides the points and assists, which can never wane, there are alphas to defend and appearances to make, team meetings to call and free agents to recruit. “I had to figure out how to be the main guy,” Harden says.

During his first two years in Houston he came across as slightly aloof, ducking out after practices and skipping treatment sessions. “I was being lazy, being tired, wanting to just go home and relax,” Harden says. “I let my body wear down.” He threw all his energy into offense, because that’s what he thought the team needed, and slipped badly on the other end. “I put defense on the back burner,” he admits.

Morey believed the Rockets could contend this season if Harden became a two-way player, but no one knew how to accelerate the process, and rushing him is risky. “To get there,” says coach Kevin McHale, “you have to go through some stuff.” One of McHale’s former assistants, Kelvin Sampson, worked daily with Harden over the past two years. “He’ll do it,” Sampson said, “when he decides it’s important.”

Pera, Harden’s former high school coach, moved to Houston last summer after he landed an assistant’s job at Rice and stayed in Harden’s guest house for seven weeks. One night Pera asked about the upcoming season. “LeBron, KD, the best of the best, they play both ends,” Harden said. “I’ve got to do it too.”

First, he had to prepare his body. He went home to Los Angeles and hiked in Runyon Canyon, ran the dunes in Manhattan Beach, took spin classes at Cycle House. He joined pickup games in L.A. and also at the University of Houston, where Sampson is now the coach. “He is treating every possession like the playoffs,” one Cougar reported. Sampson wondered if his star pupil had made the decision.

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​On Aug. 7, Harden was sitting in the parking lot of a Houston bank when news flashed on his phone: Durant was withdrawing from Team USA in advance of the FIBA World Cup. “I’m going to be alone,” Harden told Howell. “Maybe I should drop out too and get some rest.” He could kick back and roll a few hundred more frames at Bowlmor, where he is so prolific they gave him his own pin to take home. “Are you joking?” Howell asked. “This is the best thing that could have happened. LeBron’s not there, KD’s not there. It’s your time to lead.” Howell provided the final push. In Spain, Harden was the one who huddled teammates when opponents were making a run, and Harden was the one who spoke when coaches asked for players’ opinions. “The way he practiced, the way he was in meetings, he’s grown quite a bit,” says Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a Team USA assistant. “He led us.”

Harden will never be the loudest voice in the locker room—-especially not a locker room with Dwight Howard—but from the courtside seats at Toyota Center his mother can hear him getting in the ears of Patrick Beverley and Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza. She remembers how coaches used to ask her why he wouldn’t take charge. Go to work, she’d have to tell him. “He’s like a different person,” Willis says. Predictably, Harden tops the NBA in win shares this season, but he also ranks eighth in defensive win shares and second in steals. He is locking down despite the departures of Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin, whose exits left Houston even more reliant on Harden.

“You never take anything away from LeBron, but it’s similar in what we’re asking [Harden] to carry,” says Rockets assistant J.B. Bickerstaff. Houston is looking for another creator to help, but so far Harden is handling the triple teams and full-court denials sent his way. “Let’s say an opponent is showing hard on a pick-and-roll, and I beat it three or four times, they’ll switch it up and trap me,” he explains. “So I go to my big and I tell him, ‘I’m going to hit you with the pocket pass, and you either [pass] to the corner or attack and find another big.’”

It is sheer coincidence, Harden claims, that he creates so many layups, free throws and corner threes at a time when front offices are trumpeting the value of those actions. “How I always liked to play,” he says. It is also coincidence, Harden insists, that he Eurosteps across the floor at a time when coaches are hailing the fundamentals of European imports. “Good way to move without dribbling,” he says. And it is yet another coincidence, Harden maintains, that he sprouted the billowing beard in college, at a time when hipsters from Brooklyn to Berkeley were about to put away their razors. “I didn’t want to shave,” he says. Anybody who believes all that is underestimating his mysterious genius.

“I do feel like I can see some things before they happen,” Harden admits. His vision, from the sky over the state line, has come into focus: A sixth man as the new superstar, a desert island as the new destination, emerging with a whistle and a woowoo.