James Harden has been a household name for nearly a decade, truly entering the limelight after winning Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-12. His third season in the NBA marked the Thunder’s lone Finals appearance in franchise history, and coincidentally, the closest Harden has ever come to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Harden was shipped to Houston four months after the Finals, and despite eight straight playoff appearances, Harden enters this postseason seeking his first championship as a leading man. Will Harden have his career defining moment in Orlando? The 2020 playoffs may be his best chance.
To be clear, it’s not as though Harden is exiting the superstar stage anytime soon. He is all-but-guaranteed to win his third straight scoring title in 2019–20, and he’s likely to log a top-three MVP finish for the fifth time in the last six years. Harden may be peaking at 30-years-old, but a player of his caliber is likely to age gracefully into his post-prime. Harden doesn’t rely on his speed, nor is he an elite leaper. His step-back should remain elite, and his bag of tricks in the lane isn’t going anywhere. 2020-21 could very well mark his fourth straight scoring title.
Harden is already arguably the greatest scorer of the 21st century. He could very well retire in the top five on the all-time scoring list. His legacy as an all-time great is secured even without a ring. But even one championship could make him a top-20 player in NBA history.
Perhaps Harden snags an easy ring if he latches onto a title contender late in his career, but as a leading man, 2020 is his best chance at a championship. There are two key factors that stand in his way in the next decade: the competition, and the roster. Let’s start with the first obstacle.
The Western Conference is certainly a gauntlet in 2020, continuing a tradition that is effectively two decades old compared to its junior varsity counterpart. Both Los Angeles teams sport All-NBA duos. The Nuggets join Houston as a fringe Finals contender, as did the Jazz prior to Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending surgery. Even the Mavericks can be competitive in the right series. The Rockets’ road to the 2020 Finals is certainly tenuous.
And the conference isn’t getting easier anytime soon. LeBron James will have to fade from All-NBA status at some point, but frankly, it could be a half-decade before that happens. Besides, when James becomes a second option, it’s like Anthony Davis will be a top-five talent. Both members of the other Los Angeles duo will remain elite, keeping the Clippers in the title conversation barring a surprise departure in free agency. Then there’s the pack of youngsters approaching the throne.
Dallas remains the most dangerous future power, armed with Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and enough flexibility to quickly add a third star. Nikola Jokic is firmly in his prime. Donovan Mitchell is approaching his. It may be a few years until the phenoms in New Orleans and Memphis hit their primes, but they could arrive sooner than later. Not every team will reach its full potential, but the point is clear. The Western Conference is only getting tougher in the 2020s.
Houston won’t fade from the Finals conversation if it falls short in 2020. Harden and Westbrook aren’t leaving the franchise anytime soon, and if Daryl Morey is kept aboard, the Rockets will continue to hunt for the next blockbuster acquisition. But making a splash deal may be easier said than done.
Eric Gordon is the most likely contract to be dealt–his $17 million salary in 2020-21 makes for an easy match–though his recent injury history (and shaky performance in 2019-20) has diminished his trade value. P.J. Tucker is more valuable to the Rockets than anyone else, and Danuel House is more a contributor than a headliner. Perhaps Robert Covington is appealing to the right team, though it’s hard to see Morey pulling the trigger unless a true star comes to Houston in return. There may be tinkering on the edges for Houston between 2019-20 and 2020-21, but a fundamental shift in the roster is hard to see. Harden will likely run it back next year with the same supporting cast. As for the rest of the league, most teams are only getting better.
The NBA’s current crop of talent is perhaps unmatched in league history, with few tankathon teams and a fierce All-NBA battle in both the backcourt and the frontcourt. There are aging Hall-of-Famers still atop the league’s hierarchy. Both conferences are sprawling with young talent and potential future MVPs. The coming champions are more likely to be true superteams than flawed overachievers.
Harden and Co. fall into the latter group, and they have an outside chance of sprinting to the Finals in Orlando. But after 2020, the road will only get tougher. The time may be ticking on Harden to put an exclamation mark on his Hall-of-Fame career.