Harden Week: The Ambiguous Rite Of Spring
Jacob Greenberg is the founder and editor of The Diss, an utterly unique voice in the cluttered cacophony of NBA basketball blogs. You can find Jacob on Twitter, @jacobjbg.
When I first wrote about James Harden at the beginning of the season, I identified him as this season’s beneficiary of “the ambiguous rite of autumn”, which heralded the arrival of the newest superstar to the NBA’s pantheons of great. I labeled the autumnal rite as ambiguous because of its unclear, janus-faced nature. On the one hand, the new superstar is just that; a superstar, worthy of both the attention of the opposing team’s defense, as well as our own, and other fans like ourselves. But on the other hand, nothing is guaranteed for the superstar; they could fall victim to injury, instability or ineptitude, and things could fall apart (or at the very least, fall short). Indeed, though we are jovial in the fall, we could be disappointed – or, worse, disinterested – by the spring. For Harden, who at the time was averaging 35, 5 and 5 after three games, and looking very much like a superstar-evolved, I was worried about the journey to come. His future was unclear. The narrative was murky. I feared the middle passage; the treacherous path towards the other side, and whatever lay across the water.
But things have gone well; better than any of us could have ever imagined. James Harden’s evolution into a hyper-efficient volume scorer has delighted both hardcore and casual fans. As the featured ball handler in Houston’s offense, he runs his team like a locomotive conductor, charging hard through zones, traps and presses straight to the hole. When he can’t get his shot, he’ll quickly look for another teammate, or will go to the hole, creating either necessary space or drawing a valuable foul. Thanks largely to his efforts, the Houston Rockets became one of the most energetic and enigmatic teams in the league, zooming around the court and smashing into objects like Knuckles chasing Dr. Robotnik. And of course, in the process, he has been recognized for his efforts. Harden was an All-Star this season, one of the league’s scoring leaders, and a likely All-NBA team selection. And most importantly – especially for the purposes of this discussion – he has won. His Rockets, predicted by some (ahem) to finish with fewer than 30 wins, are on their way to the playoffs, likely as the seventh seed.
Which brings us to this particular moment; the ambiguous rite of spring. This is the moment when the superstar-realized takes his team to the playoffs for the first time. This is when they make good on their promise – sometimes stated, otherwise assumed – to take their team to the postseason, and give the franchise a chance to compete for a championship. And though that chance is small, James Harden has produced it for Houston. They join seven other teams in a quest to reach a lofty peak, one that remains a mystery to most of the teams in the NBA. For the first time in four seasons, the Rockets have a chance to be relevant; to make good on the checks James Harden has cashed on their behest.
Like the autumnal rite, the spring-time rite is truly ambiguous; a janus-faced festival of exuberant celebration and quiet concern. For Houston this is a fantastic moment. Though they have had winning records each of the last three years, they have finished outside of the playoffs, falling just short of the final eight in the last few weeks of the regular season. That ignominious streak has finally come to an end; never again will they have to glare at a team like the 2011 Indiana Pacers, who qualified for the playoffs despite having a 37-45 record. No, with Harden, they believe; they belong. Beardsanity’s skillset easily empowered the players around him to perform better than they had before. Indeed, it’s not an accident everyone around him, from Jeremy Lin to Omer Asik to Chandler Parsons to (the departed) Patrick Patterson were having the best statistical seasons of their careers the first season they played with Harden. He is truly a superstar; a legitimate cornerstone on a quality team, someone a GM can build around with confidence, someone a fan base can worship like a gilded idol. Indeed, this is not something to take lightly. For all of his strengths, Kevin Love has yet to take part in this rite of spring. Kyrie Irving has yet to experience it as well. It is reserved for few, the true superstars. This is cause for jubilant celebration, for unbridled euphoria. And far be it from me to take that away from Harden, his teammates, or his fans.
But it is a moment of great concern as well. Like the realization that a player is a superstar, the first playoff appearance produces more questions than answers, casting long shadows over surefire certainties. You see, once a superstar rises to the challenge, and carries themselves and their team to the playoffs, a new set of feats must be accomplished; new expectations must be realized. With as few as four games, and as many as 28 games to play in the limited tournament, every win and every loss is magnified, dissected, and overanalyzed. Suddenly there’s a new goal, for both the short and long term: a championship. And this makes sense. In the modern NBA, where playoff seeding makes worlds of differences in terms of matchups and travel, and major legacy boons – both for a player’s place in a vaunted narrative of excellence, or for their potential to earn that many more million dollars through contract bonuses and external marketing deals – a championship is magnified and fetishized, a symbol that realistically has become almost invaluable. No, it is not to be taken lightly; not to be underestimated in any way, shape or form.
Luckily, Harden knows this. He got valuable observation work done while he was playing in Oklahoma City, a lesser head on a ferocious three-headed hydra. While he toiled as a lesser blue-tressed stalwart, he was privy to valuable lessons learned by his peers. He’s seen what it takes for a team to win a conference; a eight month battle against 14 other teams with unequal talent and chemistry but nearly uniform desire and ability. He’s seen what types of teams can be successful and win playoff series, against inferior and superior opponents alike. While it’s unlikely that Houston has the firepower to make a deep run into the playoffs, Harden can surely realize he’s on his way towards something bigger and better, and this is only the first step. His time in Oklahoma City provided a tidy, textbook example about how to be a contributing part of a true contender, and this experience will be important if he hopes to make good on his challenging rite of spring.
But most importantly: Harden has seen what it takes for a superstar to come out brilliantly from the ambiguous rite of spring; rising, stretching, blooming towards heights that few have successfully summited. In his old life, he played alongside Kevin Durant, the consensus second-best player in the world, who, alongside Russell Westbrook and a menacing band of specialists, represents the best chance to unseat LeBron James, the gatekeeper, and the Miami Heat, the gate. For Durant, it hasn’t been clockwork. It has taken work. It has taken transcendent performances; well-timed explosions that reek of a deus ex machina that seems equal parts uncanny and unfair. It has taken surviving unreasonable criticism, leveled both at him, and (falsely) in his name, against others. He’s seen the crushing lows of defeat – hell, he’s been a part of it – when success seemed within their grasp; when it seemed destined to be his. Durant has done this, and all the while, Harden was right there, taking it in, letting it wash over him. And they all have led up to this moment, when Harden has handed the key to his own franchise, with the same goal of finding a way through four seven-game series to a position of triumph.
The questions are tough in this ambiguous rite of spring, and the implications are inescapably serious for Harden’s bright outlook. Were the playoffs to start today, Harden and his Rockets would be facing the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Will Harden elevate his game and take his superstardom to a completely new level? Can he pull of one of the more unlikely upsets by defeating the Spurs? Or, even the Thunder?
Though it may seem unfair: he’d better. No one said the rite of spring was kind and gentle. Far from it. After all, history hasn’t been kind to Tracy McGrady who averaged 32 points per game in three straight first round defeats from 2001-2003. No one fondly recalls Grant Hill while he was in Detroit, averaging 18 points per game in four straight first round losses from 1996-1999. And while some folks might have hazy memories of Kevin Garnett while he was in Minnesota, averaging 21 per game in seven straight years of opening-round ineptitude, his defining moment was undoubtedly when he let us know that, if you survive the rite of spring, anything is possible. While we have blurry recollections of the individual brilliances of these stellar players, they are undoubtedly tempered by the fact that their teams failed to make deep runs into the playoffs while they were their respective franchise’s featured player. There are reasons we don’t all still rock Filas, or spend $180 on a new pair of T-Macs. They survived the rite of autumn, but in those forms, could not persevere through the rite of spring. Is this what we want for Harden? Is this his eventual destiny?
Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, we are left with a singular truth: this year was amazing. In James Harden, we were given a player good enough to stand alone and make a team like the Rockets relevant, not just now, but for years to come. And we should enjoy watching Harden undergo the ambiguous rite of spring, regardless of its outcome.
Because, next season, simple participation just won’t be good enough.