SANTA MONICA, Calif. — James Harden, like the designer shades covering his eyes and the giant pendant hanging around his neck, was reflective.
His pause for introspection was unusual and somewhat unexpected: The Rockets’ star loves nothing more than blowing off invasive questions, and his recent schedule has been a disorienting blur of Things Famous People Do. Last week, he was trendspotting in Paris and Milan. On Sunday, he returned to Audubon Middle School in L.A., where he arrived on a fire truck emblazoned with his image, danced on stage with Rick Ross, and paid a visit to his old locker room. Now, here he was in an airport hangar on Monday night, formally dressed in a beige and black flowery ensemble for the NBA’s Awards Show and finally clutching his first MVP trophy.
In each of the previous five seasons, Harden had finished in the top 10 of MVP voting: Eighth in 2013, fifth in 2014, second in 2015, back to ninth in 2016, and then second again in 2017. The L.A. native had made remarkably steady progress climbing through the ranks of NBA stars since his 2012 arrival in Houston, but there were fits and starts that often sidetracked or overshadowed his story. A poor match with Dwight Howard. Humbling playoff losses to the Warriors. A no-show Game 6 against the Spurs in 2017. A reputation for lackadaisical defense so widespread that Anthony Anderson, the host of the Awards Show, turned it into two punchlines.
Harden, 28, didn’t take Anderson’s bait, laughing off the jabs rather than defending himself or returning fire. He then delivered a tidy speech on stage, keeping it short so that he wouldn’t get emotional alongside his mother, Monja Willis. As he moved to a makeshift press conference room, though, Harden began to trace his path back to his early days in Oklahoma City.
“I was the third overall pick [in 2009],” he said. “I was coming in, thought I was going to be a starter. I had to take a back seat and play the bench. That humbled me from the beginning.”
For three years in Oklahoma City, Harden served as a second-unit playmaker, earning 2012 Sixth Man of the Year honors as teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook received All-Star nods. Together, the Thunder’s young trio went for an exhilarating ride to the NBA Finals, losing to LeBron James and the Heat in five games.
Less than five months later, Harden was traded to Houston amid reports that Oklahoma City was not willing to commit to offering him a max extension to his rookie contract. In his first game with the Rockets, Harden scored 37 points. In his second game, he dropped 45. By February 2013, he had earned his first of six consecutive All-Star nods.
“From being traded to having my own franchise, you have to figure out how to be a leader as a whole,” Harden said. “It took time, year by year by year. Just these last two years it's probably the most comfortable that I've been playing the game of basketball, and I'm sure you can tell that on the court.”
The Rockets’ arc has mirrored Harden’s rise, as they won 45 games in his first year in Houston, advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 1997 in his third year and won a franchise-record 65 games this season. Harden played well enough in 2017 that Chris Paul, the Clippers’ centerpiece, forced his way to the Rockets. Despite concerns over his ability to share touches with his new running mate, Harden captured his first scoring title this season, averaging 30.4 PPG, and led Houston to the NBA’s second-ranked offense. If not for voters rewarding Russell Westbrook’s historic triple-double season in 2017, Harden could be a back-to-back MVP, a fact that didn’t escape him.
“I felt like last year I should have won as well,” Harden said. “I didn't see a difference between last year and this year.”
But this year was different, not only from the 2017 season that ended abruptly against the Spurs but also from Houston’s 2015 trip to the conference finals. That team had squared off with the Warriors almost by happenstance, thanks to an unbelievable comeback against the Clippers, and had been routed in short order. This year, the Harden/Paul duo transformed the Rockets into a truly dominant outfit. They posted the league’s top point differential, smoked through the Timberwolves and the Jazz in the playoffs, and became the only team to win more than one game in a playoff series against the Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant Warriors.
Unlike in 2015, when Harden had been overmatched and flummoxed in the West finals, he appeared much calmer and enjoyed far better support. Despite losing Paul to a hamstring injury in Game 5, Houston took Golden State to seven games, throwing a scare into the defending champs before missing 27 consecutive three-pointers and blowing a double-digit lead in Game 7.
The consensus opinion that the Awards Show falls too late in the calendar is correct. The regular season is a distant memory, the league’s story has already shifted from the Finals to the draft, and free-agency rumors will be dominating news cycles for the next month. By now, Harden’s scintillating campaign—which included 11 40-point games, four 50-point games, and a career-high 60 points in a win over Orlando—is old news.
Even so, there is one clear benefit from the extended time off: Harden and the Rockets have had ample time to plot their next move. Will GM Daryl Morey’s “obsessive” quest to dethrone the Warriors lead to another escalation of the arms race? Could Houston become players for Paul George or pull off a blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard? Or, could Paul help lure the biggest fish of all: LeBron James?
If the Rockets harbor any hope of landing James, the MVP runner-up, they’re doing a tremendous job bluffing. Indeed, Harden’s message regarding this summer was simple: Houston doesn’t really need help.
“We were a half away from the Finals,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a piece that we need to bring in or take away. We’re great with what we have, from top to bottom. From the front office to the coaching staff to the players. Our main focus is getting better and getting healthier and do what we do. Chris, P.J. [Tucker], Luc [Mbah a Moute]—this was their first year and look where we got to. Imagine a little bit more time together. It could get pretty scary.”
Now compare that response with a more assertive one delivered by Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, whose Sixers are also potentially in the mix for James, George or Leonard.
“What pieces do we need? I think a little bit of time,” Simmons said Monday. “We don't have that much experience with Joel [Embiid] and I and some of the younger people on our team and guys like that. I think experience plays a big role. Obviously, some key pieces. Maybe that is a free agent, a big free agent who we can lean on and learn from. We don't really have that older, veteran guy who is a star like that.”
Simmons should be dropping breadcrumbs and diving headfirst into the recruiting frenzy: The 21-year-old just got his first taste of the playoffs, his Sixers are staring at a decade-long rivalry with the loaded Celtics, and the roster around him and Embiid has numerous holes and question marks.
By contrast, Harden has every reason to want to maintain the status quo in Houston. After all, he has everything a modern superstar could want: An organization that caters to him, a maximum contract that extends through 2022-23, a lucrative signature sneaker deal, a star sidekick, and a deep roster that complements his strengths and covers his weaknesses.
Harden has everything he could want, that is, except a championship ring—and that’s exactly where his evening of reflection landed.
“The last four years have been like knocking on the door [for the MVP],” Harden said, before ducking behind a curtain to take a series of official photos with his new hardware. “Now the moment is finally here. Just to be holding that trophy finally, it means a lot. But it doesn't stop here. We’ve got a long way to go.”