“#Rocket4Life” was a guarantee that superstar guard James Harden made to the Houston Rockets’ fan base in a September 2017 tweet. However, as demonstrated many times before, a few years is sometimes all it takes for the NBA’s best to no longer feel at home with the franchises to which they once committed their future — as was the case for Harden, who entered the 2020-21 NBA season determined to depart a Houston team he felt was no longer deserving of his All-NBA caliber services.
With $132.9 million and three years still remaining on his contract, Harden’s only way out was to convince the Rockets to do the unthinkable and trade the former MVP, who is still in the prime of his career. From skipping training camp to travel to Las Vegas to violating league COVID-19 protocols at a strip club and openly disrespecting teammates and management in front of the media, Harden made it abundantly clear his solution to force a trade was to become an insufferable pest for Houston’s higher-ups.
On Jan. 13, a four-team trade granted Harden’s wish and sent him East to join the newly revitalized Brooklyn Nets juggernaut.
The Harden trade spells a sour end to a complex era in Rockets history, one that is onerous to neatly characterize. Do Harden’s individual achievements and work to transform the team into a consistent title contender make his eight years in Houston a success? Or is the Harden era doomed to be remembered by the team’s inability to achieve championship glory?
Even though Rockets fans have every right to be bitter toward Harden’s forceful departure, what Harden was able to accomplish in Houston was nothing short of remarkable and should be remembered as such.
Promise I won’t. #Rocket4Life
— James Harden (@JHarden13) September 2, 2017
For nearly an entire decade, Houston bore witness to the craftsmanship of one of the most lethal scorers in NBA history. No scoring record was safe with Harden on the floor, and three consecutive seasons of over 30 points per game prompted a slew of scoring heights that only the legendary likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan summited before.
If the entertainment factor alone wasn’t enough, Harden’s ability to unlock defenses with ease sparked a revolutionary offensive system that lent itself into winning, a system in which 3-pointers reigned supreme. The Rockets graduated from an occasional playoff participant in the early 2000s to a perennial championship contender that made the playoffs in each of Harden’s eight seasons. Harden is the main reason why Houston reached the Western Conference semifinals in five of the last six seasons.
Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that Harden promoted winning basketball in Houston, the absence of an NBA title to his name has been commonly used to suggest that a combination of character flaws and his ultra ball-dominant play style make him a player around whom it is impossible to build a championship team.
The problem with only evaluating individual impact on championship rings is that the context of playoff success changes dramatically based on the strength of the individual’s team and their opposition. Much of Harden’s perceived legacy is tainted by the Rockets’ best title charges being stopped in their tracks by the Golden State Warriors, arguably the greatest team of all time.
Harden’s Rockets were the closest any team got to dethroning any of the Warriors’ teams with a healthy Kevin Durant, having only been stopped by a nine-point differential in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals. Even a LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers team was comfortably swept in the NBA Finals a week later.
Expecting Harden, or any other player in NBA history, to individually bridge the talent gap between his Rockets and the prime Warriors was and is preposterous, and is why his lack of an NBA title should not be used to discredit his greatness.
Harden should go down in Rockets history as one of their all-time greats who stood toe-to-toe with an infallible Golden State team and revolutionized the extent to which one player can run a successful offense. He will be sorely missed in Houston.