What Is James Harden Willing to Sacrifice?

If and when he changes teams, can Harden, one of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history, scale back, adapt, compromise, evolve? Does he even want to?
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Before the euphoria of a championship, before bonding with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to restore Celtics glory, before all the joy and pride and fulfillment, Ray Allen felt something else back in 2007. Something sharp, stinging.

Frustration. Discomfort. Maybe even doubt.

Allen was 32, a seven-time All-Star and already one of the greatest shooters of all time. He’d been a franchise centerpiece in Milwaukee and Seattle, the leading scorer on nearly every team he’d ever played for. When Allen took the court, he did so with the gravitas and credibility of a made man.

Yet here was Celtics coach Doc Rivers, screaming at Allen—excoriating him —for doing what he did best: shooting a three-pointer. Sure, it was early in the shot clock, and a deep, pull-up jumper was perhaps not ideal. But, well, this was practice. And, well, he was Ray Allen.

No matter. Rivers unloaded.

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“Doc is screaming my head off,” Allen recalls, “telling me that my first look is always on the post, always down low.” Always Garnett, that is.

But until Allen’s trade to Boston that summer, he had never played with an elite post player. And he’d always had the freedom to shoot his way into a rhythm. Now Rivers was demanding that Allen break habits he’d built over 11 seasons. Forget the pull-up three. Feed the post.

“It was extremely frustrating,” Allen says, “because I had to readjust to how I thought about offense, and how much about my offense, to play the game.”

You already know how this story ends—with champagne and cigars and Garnett’s bellowing “Anything is possible!!!” into the Garden rafters. And you know how they got there, with Allen, Pierce and Garnett each giving up something precious—touches, shots, stats, control, status—to forge themselves into something greater.

Each man sacrificed some part of his game, because they all saw what they could accomplish together. It was a difficult but logical trade-off. Each had achieved individual glory—All-Star Games and All-NBA awards and max contracts—but none had won the ultimate prize, or even made the Finals.

As early thirtysomethings, they were at the right age to recalibrate: old enough to sense their athletic mortality, young enough to still dominate, wise enough to understand the virtues of sacrifice.

Which, in the context of the current NBA season, begs a logical question: Is James Harden there yet?

The disgruntled Rockets star turned 31 in August, suffered another playoff flameout in September and issued a trade demand in November. As of today, he remains a (presumably still-disgruntled) Rocket, while team officials strain to extract fair value from a cautious NBA marketplace.

Since the moment Harden’s demand became public, we’ve obsessed over potential destinations: Brooklyn? Miami? Philadelphia? Milwaukee? Portland? But the most critical question isn’t “Where will Harden land?” but rather, “What he’s willing to do when he gets there?”

If Harden gets to Brooklyn, reportedly his top preference, would he give up shots and some control to mesh with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two of the league’s most dominant scorers?

If it’s Milwaukee, would Harden be comfortable playing off two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who controls every aspect of the Bucks’ offense, and whose usage rate last season (37.5) was even higher than Harden’s (36.3)?

If it’s Miami, would Harden bend to the discipline and structure of #HeatCulture and an offense that thrives on beautiful ball movement?

If it’s Philadelphia (and presuming Ben Simmons is sent to Houston), would Harden feed franchise savior Joel Embiid enough to keep him happy? Or reduce him to a glorified screener?

Can Harden, one of the most ball-dominant players in NBA history, scale back, adapt, compromise, evolve? Does he even want to?

As ESPN analyst Jalen Rose recently put it, Harden’s game is “an acquired taste,” whose style doesn’t easily mesh with that of other stars.

James Harden attempts layup against the Blazers

What does Harden want? It’s not altogether clear, because he has not publicly explained his trade demand. The presumption is he wants to win a championship and has lost faith in the Rockets’ ability to get him there. But is that truly his goal? And is he willing to make any concessions to achieve it?

For eight-plus seasons in Houston, Harden has enjoyed absolute control on the court and, well, “Whatever James wants” off it. He did not bend for Dwight Howard, or for his erstwhile buddy Chris Paul, or for his childhood bestie Russell Westbrook. When the Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni—who gained fame with a ball-sharing offense that is the antithesis of Harden’s iso-ball domineering—it was the coach, not the player, who compromised.

For eight years, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey made every trade, signing and draft pick with Harden in mind, massaging and sometimes contorting the roster to maximize his franchise star (and keep him happy).

On balance, it worked out pretty well. The Rockets had the league’s third-best record (behind Golden State and San Antonio) over that eight-year span, made the playoffs every season and advanced to the Western Conference finals twice.

In that time, Harden has registered three scoring titles, seven All-NBA Awards, an MVP trophy... and zero Finals appearances. He is one of the greatest scorers of all time and still one of the most feared players in the game. But that greatness does come with caveats and concerns.

Harden leads the league in usage (the percentage of team possessions used) over the last five years, and his ball dominance only increased when he was paired with another All-Star guard, first Paul (in 2017), then Westbrook (in 2019). Harden’s usage rate from 2017–18 through last season is an eye-popping 37.7—a full four points higher than the next batch of players (Antetokounmpo, Westbrook, Luka Dončić and Joel Embiid).

Usage rate is an imperfect measure of ball dominance, or success. But it’s worth noting that no NBA player has posted a regular-season usage rate over 35 and won a title the same season. (Only one even made the Finals: Allen Iverson in 2000–01.)

It’s perhaps reductive to say Harden’s hyperdominance has held the Rockets back. They might well have won a title in 2018, if not for Paul’s hamstring injury in the conference finals. They might have won multiple titles if not for a salary-cap fluke that allowed the Warriors to sign Durant.

But these counterfactuals ignore Harden’s role in the Rockets’ postseason failures. He’s dominated the offense, but often misfired in big moments. Whether that’s due to fatigue, predictability or defenses keying in on him, it points to the same issue: An offense tailored to a single individual has little room for error.

James Harden guarded by Damian Lillard

To win a championship, Harden probably has to sacrifice a bit—and there’s considerable skepticism around the league that he’s willing.

“I don’t think he is,” says a veteran executive with an Eastern Conference team. “James is like Allen Iverson: He wants to win his way and put up historical numbers while he’s winning. I would never question their desire to win, but they all want to win on their terms.”

A Western Conference exec echoed those doubts, saying, “It’s hard for me to envision him playing any other way,” although he added, “I’m not sure if that’s him or the Rockets” insisting on that style.

Harden’s advocates point to his Sixth Man of the Year award as proof of his selflessness and adaptability. But that honor came in 2011–12, when Harden was a 22-year-old reserve for an Oklahoma City team led by Durant and Westbrook. When you’ve been a franchise star and a perennial MVP candidate, it’s hard to take a step back.

Scott Pera, who coached Harden in high school and remains close to him, says the Rockets’ star absolutely wants to win a championship.

“He wants to win,” says Pera, now the coach at Rice. “People can say whatever they want. That, I know.”

What’s Harden willing to do to achieve it? What’s he willing to sacrifice? How many shots? How much control? Would he play off the ball? Those questions are more difficult to answer.

“There’s just only so many guys in the history of the league who can do what he does,” Pera says. “So it’s an interesting question. It all comes back, though, to the same thing: I believe winning is the central focus for him. If that’s true, as I believe it is, then he will do what it takes for that to occur.”

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Harden isn’t the first NBA star to struggle with sacrifice.

Iverson was never entirely comfortable as Carmelo Anthony’s costar in Denver—and his later refusal to become a sixth man cut short his stints with Detroit and Memphis, hastening his (arguably premature) retirement at age 34.

Anthony struggled to mesh with Westbrook and Paul George in Oklahoma City, and also bristled at the thought of playing off the bench before finally accepting a complementary role with Portland.

Kobe Bryant dominated the Lakers’ offense long after serious injuries had reduced his effectiveness—making it tougher for the franchise to attract other stars. But Bryant, by then, also had five rings and had made his share of compromises to win with Shaquille O’Neal and later Pau Gasol.

When you’re one of the greatest athletes on earth, it’s hard to willingly do less. But there’s a reckoning that every star has to have, Allen says. It often comes in a player’s early 30s, after he’s satisfied all his individual goals.

“There's a point where you have to be real with yourself and ask yourself, `What do I need to do to move to the next level?’ ” Allen says. “A lot of guys say they will make those changes and adjustments. But it’s a difficult, difficult process, and you have to make a huge sacrifice.”

There are plenty of recent examples: Stephen Curry’s, a two-time MVP, recruiting Durant to the Warriors in 2016; Dwyane Wade’s ceding the alpha role to LeBron James in Miami in 2010; and of course, the harmonic convergence of Pierce, Garnett and Allen in Boston in 2007.

All of them sacrificed some individual glory. All of them won titles.

Boston Celtics big three

The Celtics made it look easy—three stars with distinct skill sets, each able to shine without infringing on the others. Garnett was the defensive genius and post scorer who didn’t need many touches; Pierce, the isolation specialist, who could create shots from anywhere; Allen, the long-distance sniper who just needed a little daylight. But it was never that simple.

In Seattle, Allen had been the engine of the SuperSonics’ offense, running high pick-and-rolls to his heart’s content. He averaged 21 shots and 26.4 points per game in his final season there, both career highs. But in Boston, the offense mostly ran through Pierce and Rajon Rondo on the perimeter, or through Garnett in the post, while Allen snaked through screens, hoping for an open shot.

Allen averaged just 13.5 shots per game that first season in Boston. He attempted 20 shots just three times. He had 16 games with 10 shots or fewer —“so I had to learn to be even more efficient,” he says.

Sometimes, Allen barely touched the ball in the fourth quarter—until crunch time, when the Celtics needed his crisp free throw shooting.

“It was it was very unnerving, because now I don’t have a rhythm,” Allen says. “It was pissing me off because I was like, ‘You want me to win the game, or help win the game, but yet you’re not putting me in positions to do that.’ ”

But he adjusted. So did Pierce, who took just 13.7 shots per game in 2007–08, down from 18.1 the prior season. Garnett averaged 13.9 shots that year, down from 17.6 in his final season with Minnesota.

The Celtics’ story is instructive, but not an instruction manual. Every star is built differently. And Harden has long taken pride in cutting his own path.

James Harden drives to the basket against the Nuggets

In an interview last year, Harden said he wanted “multiple championships,” to be in the conversation with Wade and Bryant, to build an enduring legacy. He insisted he would do so in Houston, that he had no interest in joining a superteam somewhere else.

Fourteen months later, Harden asked the Rockets to trade him, preferably to a team with multiple stars. Things change quickly in the NBA. Perhaps it’s not too late for James to evolve on the court, too.

“Would he be willing to come together with a new group of guys and trust that they can carry him as much as he thinks that he can carry them?” Allen says. “Everybody gives something up that they don’t want to give up.”

In another context, maybe Harden would play more like Curry, alternating between primary ballhandler and roving marksman, shimmying through screens in a flowing offense. Maybe he’d shave a few percentage points off that usage rate. Maybe he’d stop chasing scoring titles.

“I believe he’s capable of doing it,” Allen says. “You got to ask yourself: What do you truly want?”

Where will Harden land? That depends on some ineffable mix of market forces, leverage, patience and negotiating tactics. Will a championship follow? That part is up to Harden.

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