The James Harden Ballad: The Rise to MVP


James Harden has had quite a career in the NBA, and the story isn’t done yet. After winning Sixth Man of the Year with the Thunder, it was obvious that Harden would emerge as a star. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at his side, they reached the NBA Finals.

But, it all fell apart.

As of today, James Harden has landed with the Los Angeles Clippers, who are so far 1-6 since the trade. Russell Westbrook has even requested to come off the bench in hopes for the starters to gel better without him. How did James Harden get to where he is today, a player teams are scared to possess on their roster?

A Thunderous Beginning

James Harden was selected third overall in 2009 by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

With the third pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted James Harden. A team with a young roster, little did anyone know 3 MVPs would emerge. Durant and Westbrook were both 21 years of age, with Harden joining the team at 20. James Harden ended up on the All-Rookie Second Team whilst Durant led the league in PPG at the end of the season. But, the team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1st round of the playoffs, who went on to win the championship.

The Thunder only continued improving in the following seasons. In 2011, they once again lost to the eventual champions in the playoffs. This time, the Dallas Mavericks won in 5 games in the Western Conference Finals. In the shortened 2012 season, James Harden won the Sixth Man of the Year and the franchise had its most successful season ever.

The 2012 Team That Almost Could

Although having a stellar roster, the Miami Heat and LeBron proved too much for the Thunder in 2012 NBA Finals.

The 2012 season proved that it was a matter of time until James Harden and the Thunder won it all. Serge Ibaka came out as a defensive menace, averaging 3.7 blocks. They swept the defending champions in the 1st round and defeated the Lakers in the 2nd round in 5. In the Western Conference Finals, they defeated the San Antonio Spurs, who would go on to reach the Finals multiple times afterward.

In the NBA Finals that year the Miami Heat had a chip on their shoulder. They lost to the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki the year before. It was the first year of the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh big three, and they had to prove themselves this time. The Thunder came into the NBA Finals as clear underdogs, with a lot of inexperience compared to the Heat. They didn’t go down without a fight and even won Game 1 in Oklahoma City. But, they ultimately lost partially due to a poor performance from James Harden.

After the season ended, Harden was up for a new contract. He had only improved since his rookie season, averaging 16.8 PPG as the Sixth Man of the Year. During the Spurs series, he played a crucial role in their Finals run, saving the team multiple times. However, his Finals performance left a bad taste in the organization’s mouth.

Harden asked for a max contract, which at the time was 4 years for $60 million. The Thunder offered him 4 years for $52 million. That $8 million stopped the Thunder from being a dynasty. If they had chosen to not sign Kendrick Perkins, who averaged a mere 5.1 PPG and 6.6 RPG that season, they would’ve kept Harden. But alas, the Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets.

Rocketing to Stardom

Once James Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets, he truly began to shine as a star in the NBA.

As expected, James Harden continued to improve from the previous season. This time around, however, was a much more significant jump. The Rockets viewed Harden as a “foundational player,” and he did not disappoint. In his first two games with the team, he scored the most points by a player in their team debut in NBA history. He was an All-Star that year and selected onto the All-NBA Third Team. Harden averaged 25.9 PPG and never looked back on his Thunder days.

He only got better in the following seasons. The team brought in Dwight Howard in 2014 to help Harden make a deep playoff run. He was All-NBA First Team in 2014 and was second in MVP voting in 2015, right behind Stephen Curry. His 2015 season was simply spectacular. Harden put up 40 points three times over 6 games and clinched the 2 seed in the Western Conference.

However, his playoff performances were concerning. He was either fantastic or terrible during the 2015 playoffs. Against the Clippers in the 2nd round, he recorded a triple-double in Game 5 but was benched in the 4th quarter of Game 6. In the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, he had a 45-point Game 4 but recorded a playoff record 13 turnovers in Game 5. The Rockets coach, Kevin McHale, was fired the following season after a poor start. McHale later came out to say that Harden came into training camp overweight and played poorly initially to get him fired.

Getting over the Hump

Even after winning MVP, James Harden could not find a way against the stacked Golden State Warriors.

New coach Mike D’Antoni placed Harden in the point guard role for the 2016-17 season, in which he led the league in assists. He was the first player to put up multiple 50-point triple-doubles in a season and carried a mediocre Rockets team to the 3 seed. Ultimately, the team lost to the Spurs in Game 6, where Harden once again had a terrible performance, ending the game with 10 points and fouling out. These poor playoff performances when it matters most have become a streak for Harden, and it certainly doesn’t end soon.

In 2017-2018, Harden won the MVP award after finishing second the past two years, along with winning the scoring title. He also signed the richest contract in NBA history at the time, locking him in for six years with the Rockets. The Rockets finished 1st in the West with newly acquired Chris Paul and it looked like they would finally make it to the Finals. And they almost did, but the Golden State Warriors put a stop to them. Chris Paul was injured in Games 6 and 7, and the addition of Kevin Durant on the Warriors was too much to handle. The Rockets also shot 7-44 from three, with 27 straight misses. The Rockets had an equally successful 2018-2018 season with Chris Paul and Harden, but once again came up short to the Warriors in the semifinals.

There were multiple instances of James Harden and Chris Paul arguing throughout the season, so the Rockets decided to trade for Russell Westbrook. With Harden and his former teammate Westbrook, the Rockets hoped that the mixup would get the team over the hump. But in the bubble, it was clear Westbrook did not fit on the team and the Lakers defeated them in the second round.

The Demand out of Houston

James Harden saw no shot of winning after constant losses in the Western Conference. So, he requested out of Houston.

James Harden finally broke in the 2020 offseason. Not only did his head coach leave the organization, but so did Daryl Morey, the general manager who traded for Harden initially. Consistently, Harden got into altercations with teammates, starting with Dwight Howard. Morey traded for different starts constantly to appease Harden and to get the team to the Finals. Russell Westbrook was the final straw, as he attempted to keep the team accountable, including Harden. This led to multiple tense verbal exchanges with Harden, but they remained friends anyway. Westbrook requested a trade after the 2020 season, and this partially was the reason.

Once Westbrook asked out, Harden began his demands. He wanted out of Houston and made sure to make the team feel they had to trade him. He didn’t show up to training camp on time, instead partying in Las Vegas. When he finally came, he was overweight, just as Kevin McHale said he did years back. During one practice, he even threw a basketball at teammates.

One day before the trade in a postgame interview, James told the media his true feelings:

“[We’re] just not good enough … I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can. I mean, this situation is crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed.”

The Rockets proceeded to tell Harden not to come to practice anymore, trading him to Brooklyn shortly after. This was only the beginning of the drama of James Harden. Here is the continuation of the James Harden Ballad.

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