The More We See, The More We Want
USA Today Sports
The rise, fall, resurgence, apotheosis, redemption, or whatever other noun we ascribe to players throughout their careers are interesting to track on a per-season level. The perspectives of fans are so ambiguous on a daily basis that we tend to generalize a crystallizing moment in their career and extrapolate that to every conversation pertaining to them. This is especially simple for basketball villains like Rudy Gay and Monta Ellis. Escaping the stigma of ball-hogging inefficient scorers is nearly impossible — though Monta has done his best this season. Dwight Howard was a smiling goofball that doubled as the best center in the league. Everyone loved him, until they didn’t. LeBron James bared the brunt of this type of perception. James Harden, for those who actually care, is still an enigma we’re trying to figure out.
Harden was drafted third overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder (seen as a bit of a reach because people love upside and Harden’s apparent lack of athleticism was seen as a knock) and wasn’t thought of as a potential superstar player. In the first three seasons as a Thunder, he noticeably improved his game from just a shooter to a slasher/creator. Behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, Harden came off bench and became the game’s most lethal second-unit weapon.
Harden’s statistics crested when he owned 0.660 true shooting percentage in the Thunder’s first and only (so far) run to the Finals. Even though he struggled against the Miami Heat, the public was in love with the young fun-loving Thunder team led by the humble Durant, crazily energetic Westbrook, and a bearded Harden. The public perception endears itself to players that come out of nowhere, capturing the proverbial hearts and minds of many thatare yearning to experience the same thing (see: Linsanity). It was easy to despise such contrived superteams like the LeBron-led Heat. They weren’t true friends, had no chemistry, didn’t smile enough in team photos and were used as indictments for the Heat. The Thunder had none of these subjective problems. For most, the gradual and slightly unexpected ascension of the Thunder played perfectly for the images of guys like Harden. It was a fairy tale that was going to last forever.
Then, in a cruel twist, Sam Presti extended Serge Ibaka to a hometown discount and Harden refused to do the same, resulting in a trade to the Houston Rockets. From an ostensible budding dynasty in Oklahoma City, Harden sought to sow his own oats as the main cog in a high-powered attack fit perfectly for his strengths. Shifting from an up-tempo team to another one that launched as many threes as possible and having a defensive wall beind him (Omer Asik) was the perfect situation. Harden averaged 7.6, 8.3, and 10.1 shots per game in his first three respective seasons and that number soared to 17.1 in his season as a Rocket. It was as seamless a transition as anyone could have hoped. The perception became one that ripped apart Presti for not getting enough back for Harden and lacking the guts to make one more run with the once-fun-loving unit.
Not even a postseason loss could slow down the Harden train. He was a full-fledged superstar, rising from an unathletic rookie from Arizona State to one of the best shooting guards in the league that terrorized teams in the open court, in transition, behind the arc, and, well, everywhere. The adoration for Harden grew as much as the caveman beard.
However, the more exposed fans were to Harden’s game, the more they nitpicked. Complaining is human instinct. To want perfection is the reason why expectations are borne, and why players like Gay and Ellis will always receive criticism. Dealing with nagging foot and ankle issues, Harden’s flaws from an aesthetic and physical standpoint became more pronounced. The pressure of contending for a title (with Dwight Howard in the fold) apparently gave us the credence to criticize and incessantly pick at his flaws like a scab. Harden’s obvious allergies to defense, flopping and foul-shooting-offense made him altogether tough to watch. This isn’t much different from last year’s Harden, when he shot 10.2 free throws to 9.1 this year and his true shooting percentage is a mere .002 % difference. As for the defense? His defensive rating, according to Basketball Reference, has hovered around the same spot ever since he entered the NBA.
So is it the championship expectations that have suddenly exposed the flaws that have always existed, hidden underneath the scraggly beard and easy-to-love personality? Or the warped perception that fans and critics have when faced with watching the same player for too long? We hold the players to a certain ideal; to what we think they should do; and when they don’t care about said opinions (as they shouldn’t); the backlash creates a world where Harden’s game becomes subjectively unwatchable. Hell, it’s probably true. Watching Harden rumble down the lane, only to flap his arm under the defenders and swing upwards wildly, coinciding in a shrill whistle, isn’t what we want to watch when we’re fed an entree that is screaming at us that he is one of the most exciting players in the league.
And like every single player before him, there is only one solution as the rising tide of critics and doubters start to turn on the once-budding superstar. They’ll come at him in droves, harping on the defense, the increase in bad shots, and sooner than later, his attitude on and off the court. The story writes itself for every player that is unable to attain the Holy Grail in the first half-decade of his career. Tom Brady will always receive a pass despite not playing well in the postseason in the past five years. Dirk Nowitzki was slandered all the way until he slayed the more-criticized Miami Heat. And like those players before him, there’s only one way to end the growing wave of critics: meet those expectations and win the NBA Finals.
Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA.com, unless stated otherwise.