James Harden, one of the greatest Rockets in the history of the franchise, got his wish on Wednesday afternoon as he was traded to the Nets in a multiteam, league-altering blockbuster. After more than two months of uncertainty that hovered around the franchise, a star player’s trade request was once again met. Harden’s departure from Houston was unquestionably unceremonious. On Tuesday night, he called the team’s situation “crazy” and admitted he didn’t think it could be fixed.
On Wednesday afternoon, he was asked not to attend Houston’s practice as trade details were ironed out. By Wednesday evening, one of the most riveting chapters in Houston’s basketball history had concluded, an ending that Harden sought. Still, over time, the countless moments of greatness that Harden achieved with the Rockets will resurface. “Our best player since Hakeem Olajuwon,” former Rockets owner Leslie Alexander once told Sports Illustrated. Or at least the memories should not be forgotten entirely.
Harden arrived in Houston as a spry 23-year-old, one who had come off three seasons with the Thunder when he averaged 9.9, 12.2 and 16.8 points per game, respectively. Back in October 2012, as Harden sat next to then Rockets general manager Daryl Morey at his introductory press conference, Harden said the organization made him feel welcomed. “We can have something special here,” he said. Later adding: “We’re gonna grow together. It’s gonna be a building process, but we’re gonna grow and we’re gonna get better. That’s all that matters." In the end, they grew plenty.
In the coming years, seemingly everything about Houston’s process revolved around Harden. The team worked endlessly to make him feel more in control—a truth that would remain in full force last season. It was largely worth it. Between the year 2000 and Harden’s arrival in 2012, the Rockets had missed the playoffs in more years than they had made it. With Harden leading the way, Houston made eight consecutive postseason appearances.
The Rockets saw their win total increase in each of Harden’s first three seasons with the club and made their first conference finals since 1996–97, when in 2014–15 they were among the NBA’s final four teams. Following a disappointing—by modern Rockets standards—2015–16 season that saw head coach Kevin McHale get fired just 11 games in and interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff go just 37–34, Houston continued its deep playoff runs, making at least the conference semifinals in each of Mike D’Antoni’s four seasons with the club.
“I don't know how you get any better," D’Antoni said after Harden’s 61-point game in March 2019. "Whoever was in the gym tonight probably [saw] something they have never seen before.” On a nightly basis, though, dominant offensive performances became an expected occurrence.
Harden encountered nearly every kind of defense as he steered the Rockets’ offense to new heights. He fought through traps on the perimeter and punished bigs who switched onto him. He popularized the stepback three-pointer and lived at the free throw line, six times finishing the regular season averaging 10 or more attempts per game. Harden orchestrated pick-and-rolls and attacked the rim with a vengeance, even as opposing defenders occasionally guarded him entirely perpendicular to the basket so that the league’s best lefty was forced to go right. All told, he grew from a bench spark plug into one of the greatest scorers in the history of basketball. “James is probably one of the best offensive players that we’ve ever seen in this league,” Lakers star LeBron James said last September. Maybe Harden would have grown into that on any team. Nevertheless, he did it with the Rockets.
In Houston, Harden scored 50 or more points 23 times, reaching the rarefied 60-point plateau on four occasions. Twice he pulled in 17 rebounds, and eight times he finished with 17 assists. With the Rockets, Harden emerged as a foundational star that played at an echelon few players ever reach. As a reflection of his greatness, his résumé is littered with individual accolades: seven All-NBA team appearances, three scoring titles and a 2017–18 MVP award. That’s the player the Nets are expecting, especially considering the haul they surrendered. However, through his recent actions, Harden’s earned a new level of scrutiny.
On May 29, 2018, Harden and his teammates walked off the court of the Toyota Center, dejected by the historic event that had just taken place. Houston, coming off a franchise-record 65-win regular season, shot a jaw-dropping 44 three-pointers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, but made just seven and, at one time, missed 27 straight. That night, the Rockets lost 101–92 to the Golden State Warriors, who went on to sweep the Cavaliers and claim what became their third title in a five-year span. It was a disappointment at the time, and the series remains a sliding-doors moment in Harden’s career. Because of their battles, the Warriors and Rockets will forever be intertwined. While Harden’s Houston teams never got past the Warriors when the series mattered most, they proved to be Golden State’s toughest opponent, with Harden’s 2017–18 Rockets team finishing with the best net rating (+8.6) of any of the Warriors’ most prolific postseason foes. Yes, there countless playoff moments in which Harden failed to live up to his star-billing, but Houston competed while some other teams tanked. It believed it had a chance because of its star guard.
One would assume that Harden will eventually get his jersey retired in Houston. One day, perhaps sooner than later, he will again look back fondly on his time with the Rockets. But in the present, a sour ending waxes over any greatness with his last organization. Back in 2012, when the 23-year-old guard arrived in Houston, he asked himself, What do I do now? That answer is clearer today: The Nets are looking to win an NBA championship, something that, despite Harden’s eight-plus years of greatness in Houston, he was never able to accomplish. Still, let’s not forget what he did.
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