In the age of Twitter and instant social media reaction, there are many false narratives floating around about Houston Rockets guard James Harden.
One narrative that has been in the media and online the last couple of years is that Houston Rockets superstar James Harden only cares about MVPs and not actually winning. Much of this stems from the Houston Rockets’ front office and players openly campaigning for the last few years for Harden and not necessarily him doing so himself.
Also, quotes are often taken out of context any time the question is asked directly to Harden. The issue results from only one side being presented, but Harden’s own words that dispute this claim are not always mentioned.
There aren’t many situations in life where finishing second is a good outcome. In the last four years, Harden has finished second three times while winning the MVP in 2017-18. The constant runner-up finishes would leave anyone with a bad taste in his mouth.
So when Harden was asked yet again about the latest MVP second-place finish in an interview with 97.9 The Box as transcribed by NBA.com, Harden stated (starts at the 6:11 mark):
“Once the media creates a narrative about somebody from the beginning of the year, I think they take that narrative and just run with it the entire year,” Harden said during the in-studio interview . “I don’t want to get into details. All I can do is control what I can do, and I went out there and did what I was supposed to do at a high level. There’s only a few other seasons that anybody has ever done that before.”
Sure, if you only focus on these words you may think it sounds like a player that only cares about individual stats or awards. This is where the media and fans need to dig deeper and not give in to five seconds of clips and misinformed stories.
Why the Harden championship narrative is false
There are always two sides to every story and this one is no different. James Harden has won many individual awards from NBA Sixth Man of the Year to MVP, but the one achievement that’s most important has continued to elude him. In the same interview, The Beard spoke of his desire for a ring:
“There’s only one goal. Every year, one goal. I do what I do on the court for us to win. That’s it. Now it’s time to accomplish something together that we haven’t accomplished before. If Russ got it going and has one of those games that we’ve all seen before, guess what I’m going to do? Sit back and watch the show. And vice versa.”
Statements like this from Harden make it clear that his main focus is winning and not just individual awards. Two years ago, Harden led the Houston Rockets to a franchise-record 65 wins and 17 losses, marching them to within one game from the NBA Finals.
Even with his stellar MVP season and the success Houston enjoyed that year, Harden still has continued to receive negative press and questions about his priorities.
Can Harden change how he’s perceived this year?
Perception, of course, is not always reality when it comes to sports. There have been many superstars that have been in the same situation as Harden. If there’s one thing we can learn from with this situation in the past, it’s that one championship can change everything.
People may not remember it now, but Michael Jordan was hearing the same criticism in the 80s. The narrative was he could score and have great highlights but only seemed to care about points and dunking than actually taking that next step. This narrative was not broken until Jordan’s first championship in 1991.
Houston Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon also dealt with similar treatment throughout the 80s and 90s when he was putting up superstar stats but never had the supporting cast around him to win at the highest level.
That all changed in 1994 and 1995 when The Dream led the Rockets to back-to-back championships. Now, when you mention Olajuwon’s name you never hear about any of the team’s early struggles — only that he is one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Harden is one of the greatest offensive talents the league has ever seen, but the common knock against him is his lack of success in the playoffs, including his own less than ideal individual performances. Is it fair to judge James solely on these aspects? Of course not, but that will always be the go-to for any fans and media that is hesitant to admit Harden is already an all-time great.
A championship changes opinions in the blink of an eye. It’s something that can never be taken away and would change the perception for a lot of casual fans who only look at highlights. The one part of Harden’s career that is always forgotten is that he was the main reason the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to beat the San Antonio Spurs to make it to the Finals in 2012. Most people just talk about the underwhelming performance he had against the Miami Heat.
James Harden’s legacy
On many occasions, Harden has said his ultimate goal is winning a championship and that he wants to have his name mentioned with the all-time greats of the game. In an interview last season after his historic 61 points at Madison Square Garden, James stated, “Yeah, I got to keep going, I got to keep going. It’s my legacy at stake man…there are no limits to what I can do.”
It seems the later it gets in Harden’s career, the more he is focusing on big-picture accomplishments like championships and his legacy as a Rocket. Individual goals are great and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be rewarded for your hard work, but countless times in the last few years Harden has shown he is not just focused on MVPs.
The message from James Harden should be quite clear if you take everything he says at face value and don’t just pick and choose quotes. The Beard is focused on getting a ring and cementing his legacy as one of the best players to ever play in the NBA, and this season may be his best opportunity to do just that.