This story appears in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
When James Harden was traded from the Thunder to the Rockets, he once told Sports Illustrated, he felt like he was by himself. He was leaving the only NBA team he'd ever known, separated from a nucleus that was supposed to go to the next 10 Finals, expected to be the cornerstone of a new era in a new city. Daryl Morey, Houston's general manager, was also on his own when the trade went down. He was in his car, taking calls on his Blackberry, doing his best to keep track of his son's soccer game. That's where the deal was finalized. There was little celebration. "You don't get much time to do anything cool," Morey says now. "Once a trade is done, there's a cascade of about 30 things you have to do." Call the owner. Call the business side of the organization. Get a press conference scheduled. "Plus, I was by myself at a soccer game on a Saturday. Which shows you how much I knew it was going to happen. Our best guess was that [the Thunder] were using us as a way to negotiate with James."
An hour before his first Rockets game, Harden signed a five-year, $80 million deal—OKC had been offering $54 million for four years—and then he dropped 37 points in a win over the Pistons. Two nights later he scored 45 in Atlanta. "Back then," Morey says, "his ability to drive and be efficient was something like the best in NBA history. At least that's the data we had. It's always good to start with someone who's the best ever at something."
In the five years since, there have been blockbuster trades, playoff runs, coaching changes, annual MVP campaigns and two more max contracts, totaling $228 million. But there has never been a season like the one Harden is putting together now. "My first year," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni says, "he was arguably the MVP. Second year he was the MVP. This year he should be MVP. Night after night, you watch what he does, it's just ridiculous. So ... great, greater, greatest? I don't know how you want to put it."
At 29, Harden is at the peak of his powers. He's averaging 35.7 points, a threshold only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have reached. He has taken a depleted roster from the bottom of the West to the thick of the playoff hunt, and he's on the kind of run that produces mind-blowing stats at every turn. One week The Wall Street Journal notes that 86.7% of his threes are unassisted (an NBA record). The next, ESPN.com writes that a Harden isolation yields more points-per-possession (1.16) than the half-court offense of the Bucks (.99), who have the best record in the NBA. Or there's usage rate, the percentage of possessions that end in a shot or an assist by a given player. As Harden (40.1%) creeps closer to the NBA record set by Russell Westbrook (41.7%), comparisons between the two former teammates are unavoidable. But OKC's offense ranked 16th when Westbrook ran wild in 2016–17; Houston's is second.
"I'll tell you what," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said before a game earlier this month. "I'm on the plane, I'm in my room last night, I'm watching Harden. Each clip, I get a little bit more nervous." Later that night Denver double-teamed Harden almost every time he crossed half-court. "It feels like every single game," Harden says, "I see two on the ball. Mostly every possession." He scored a modest (for him) 32 points but had 14 assists. And late in the second quarter, when Denver stopped doubling, the 6'5" Harden went to work.
First, he was 25 feet from the hoop on an island with Jamal Murray. After a violent crossover sent Murray sliding to the floor, Harden stepped back and connected from 26 feet, adding a particularly cruel and-one as Murray scrambled to recover and nicked Harden's midsection. Then came another step back three on the next possession, this time over 6'7" defensive specialist Torrey Craig. Then one more three just before the end of the half. He shook his head after that last one. "You can't guard me," he told Craig.
Denver was leading the West at that point, and a close game through two quarters became a 10-point Houston lead at halftime. The Rockets won by 12. At practice the next day, informed of Malone's film session anxiety, Harden said, "That's a good thing, right? It means just continue to go. Continue to be great. Continue to keep giving the opposing team hell."
There have been a dozen challenges for the Rockets since last year's playoff run ended in Game 7 of the conference finals: limited money to spend this summer; a Carmelo Anthony experiment that was aborted within three weeks of opening night; a new injury every 10 days or so; a conference that has 14 teams that expect to make the playoffs.
At one point in mid-December the Rockets were 11–14, sitting in 14th place, ahead of only the Suns. "I knew we were going to turn it around," Harden says. "It was only a matter of time." Forward PJ Tucker adds, "We were still only four or five games out of fourth or fifth. So it was, 'We're good. We're good. Just keep fighting.'"
On the other hand: "I was worried about it," D'Antoni says. "But they never lost their confidence. We just had a really slow start. A little bit of it was probably a hangover from the year before. New team. Back then, not a very deep team. And then we got into some injuries, some suspensions. It just kind of snowballed, and we couldn't get out of the spiral." Along the way, the coach did his best to keep things in perspective. "Last year was a storybook," he says of Houston's 65-win season. "That was not a normal year. This is normal. We got problems, we gotta get lucky, do this, do that. We've been around long enough to say, 'This is normal, guys. We'll figure this out.'"
Some of the challenges were plain to see as early as July. With the fourth-highest payroll in the NBA, the Rockets were entrenched in the luxury tax zone, and huge offseason contracts for point guard Chris Paul (four years, $160 million) and center Clint Capela (five years, $90 million) meant that attrition elsewhere was inevitable. The team decided not to offer a long-term deal to 33-year-old defensive anchor Trevor Ariza, let forward Luc Mbah a Moute walk and traded three-point specialist Ryan Anderson. Houston's $5.37 million mid-level exception went unused. As team CEO Tad Brown explained, some of the value in this summer's restraint was preserving money for opportunities that could make a bigger dent in the team's title odds. "If there’s somebody out there to go get," Brown says, "Somebody that will change our odds, we’re gonna go for it."
In the meantime, the Rockets hoped to piece together the rotation with Anthony on a veteran's minimum here, James Ennis on a minimum there and a handful of younger players in between. Says D'Antoni, "You look out and we'd have two rookies on the floor at one time. Well, in this league that's not good enough."
"You want to have elite players," Morey says. "They are going to make a lot of money. Then you have to find players who fit in. So, yeah, people have made a lot of the players who left, and in a perfect world you might be able to keep everybody. But the reality is, there are NBA rules that make it hard to keep everybody for a reason."
Morey says the Rockets may still use some of the midlevel money to improve the roster later this season, but they'll have to be judicious about the commitments they make. "When you're this deep in," he says, "you have to be more careful in what you use [money] on."
When Paul went down with a hamstring injury in mid-December, Houston looked sunk. The team was 16–15, and the next nine games were against the Spurs, Thunder, Celtics, Pelicans, Grizzlies, Warriors, Blazers, Nuggets and Bucks. Then the story changed. Harden opened that stretch with 39 points and continued to dominate. The Rockets went 7–2. Fourteenth place in December became fourth place in January, and Harden was so good, it became impossible to worry about anyone else. "Once he got rolling," Tucker says, "I told the guys, 'Lock in. Get the 50-50 balls. Do the little things.' Everything else will take care of itself."
If there's any signature that makes this Harden season different from his MVP efforts of the past, it's the step-back three. He's shooting them at a higher volume and with greater accuracy than anyone else in the NBA. "Look up the league-average on a step-back three-pointer," Morey says. "It's crazy low. I don't know how he does it."
Before a game on Jan. 9, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was asked whether Harden's avalanche of stepbacks is establishing a new blueprint for youth basketball players to emulate. "You're asking the wrong coach," Bud said. The Bucks take 38 three-pointers per game (second in the NBA), but no one on that team is capable of taking contested pull-up threes all season long. And to that end, when Milwaukee guard Eric Bledsoe talked later about keeping Harden off the three-point line and away from his favorite weapon, he couldn't help but marvel. "As much as those are terrible shots," Bledsoe said, "he makes them."
Harden took 0.9 step-back threes per game in 2016–17 and 2.4 last season. He's now taking more than six. The shots have become a convincing response to anyone who wants to complain that all Harden does is pound the basketball and exploit the most efficient shots on the court—layups, threes and free throws. In the past those aesthetic criticisms were petty, but not without merit. Harden's approach was effective, but it never felt as inventive as Steph Curry's, and there was less raw energy than Russell Westbrook's. In fact, it looked so effortless and routine that it was hard to appreciate how impossible what he does is. Draining 26-foot contested jumpers, over and over again against defenses whose sole purpose is to stop him, has helped solve that problem.
For his part, Harden denies any conscious emphasis on the step-back. "I'm just taking what the defense gives me," he says.
Morey remembers first seeing him practice the shot a few summers ago, but he and his data-conscious staff never encouraged it. "When he was first here," Morey says, "we told him that shooting farther away is fine, because he could make them. But we were assuming he was open. The idea of jumping farther back and then shooting off the dribble ... I mean, just off the dribble is hard. Doing it stepping backward is even harder. It wouldn't be something that we'd go in and say, 'This is something to do.'"
D'Antoni certainly didn't order up any step-back bombs—but neither did he tell Harden to stop launching. "No," he says. "Hell, no. He's on a different level. We don't talk to James about what he does. Because nobody knows. I mean I could coach him to mediocrity, but that doesn't seem like the right idea."
However it started, when the step-back three is falling, Harden becomes impossible to stop. He's already one of the most powerful players in the league, with a first step that allows him to blow by any defender who tries to crowd him on the perimeter. As Morey noted, he's been historically efficient on drives since OKC. If the jumpers fall on top of all that, it's over for everyone else.
Tucker, in his second season with the Rockets, expands on this point in the home locker room at Toyota Center. He tells me to take a step back and pretend to shoot. "To contest it," Tucker says, stepping in and putting a forearm to my chest, "You gotta go under him." Recovering at full-speed after a Harden crossover means that a defender's momentum is working against him. This is the Jamal Murray problem. "Even if you don't hit his arm," Tucker says, "you're under him and a lot of times you're hitting the bottom part his legs. That's how he gets those fouls." This is why, in addition to making more threes than any player in the NBA, Harden is currently drawing more three-point shooting fouls than almost every NBA team. It's all part of the most prolific scoring binge we've seen in years.
This is a run that will be mentioned when Harden makes the Hall of Fame one day. There have been doubts about Harden's ceiling as a superstar since Morey was at the soccer field in 2012, and come April there may be renewed questions about how much of this dominance will translate to the postseason. But over the past month in Houston, there's been nothing to do but appreciate what Harden has been all along.
His body control at the rim, the ease with which he feels his way through a double team, the way he exploits even the slightest contact, or the way he dominates the ball and somehow produces some of the most efficient offense in the league—almost every Houston possession is a variation on the same equation, but Harden has turned basic math into its own art. "Whether you press up on me and allow me to get to the basket," Harden says, "or you give me space and allow me to get my step-back. You pick your poison."
We're watching one of the greatest scorers the NBA has ever seen, and that's what the Rockets need. Paul is still out, guard Eric Gordon missed a few weeks with a knee contusion and last week the team announced that Capela would miss at least four weeks with a thumb injury. "It's been a little bit rough," Morey said on Jan. 14. The next day, the Rockets failed to agree to a long-term deal with Danuel House, a G-Leaguer who had provided some much-needed athleticism as a starter playing on a two-way contract. So he is back in the G-League for the remainder of the season—another apparent concession to Houston's precarious financial reality.
For now, the team will stick with journeymen like Kenneth Faried, Gerald Green and Austin Rivers, who arrived through the waiver wire in late December and immediately began playing 37 minutes per game. "He's perfect," Harden says of Rivers. "He fits with what we're trying to be and where we're trying to go." There's also the 6'5" Tucker, who's averaging a career-high 35.4 minutes, throwing his body all over the floor, harassing guys twice his size. "I relish it," Tucker says. "Coach will talk about, 'PJ, we gotta get your minutes down, blah blah blah.' I don't want to hear it. If I have to be out there, I'm gonna be out there."
As for Harden's workload, his league-high 37.4 minutes per game has already raised questions of whether his burden this winter will lead to burnout this spring. "We gotta win games," D'Antoni says. "We can't say, 'Let's be real careful, and then come in eighth and get knocked out in the first round.' That doesn't make any sense." The Rockets are confident they're making the right trade-offs. They have lighter practices than most teams and rarely hold shootarounds, and they'll often travel to road games a day early if it means more rest for Harden and Paul. After tip-off, though, negotiations can be tricky. "I always want to bring him out during that final timeout in the first quarter," says D'Antoni. "Then he looks down the bench and says, 'No, I'm on a roll, I need to stay in.' We had a talk where I had to say, 'James, you're always on a roll.'"
For now, the roll continues. "We've seen the traps," Harden says. "The big [man] back, the switching, double teams. We've seen everything. We've just gotta figure out what it is and have that confidence and swagger. Once we get everybody healthy, things will come together."
The Rockets lost Capela and responded the following night by platooning 36-year-old veteran Nenê and a 24-year-old undrafted rookie, 6'8" Gary Clark, as their centers. Harden scored 57 in a win over the Grizzlies. He scored 58 when Houston lost to the Nets later in the week and then added 48 as Houston beat the Lakers in OT. "Our chemistry took time," Harden says of the season so far. "Adding new guys, figuring out what they're trying to do. And for me, it's just being a little bit more aggressive. Whether it's taking those shots, or getting to the rim, or making the assists. Just a little more aggressive."
With Harden this aggressive, the Rockets have cheated death for a month. "If you don't have a player in this echelon," Morey says, "you're sorta spinning your wheels. He makes everything possible." And that's the blueprint in Houston this season. "I still only know like three or four plays," Rivers admitted in the locker room before the Denver game. "Mike [D'Antoni] just lets us go. And, obviously, James Harden. Just get the f--- out of his way. Let him do the heavy lifting."
The next day D'Antoni chuckled when he heard Rivers's explanation of Houston's system. "He's got good grasp of the offense," D'Antoni said. "He has a real good grasp."