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Making Sense of James Harden, the NBA’s Premier Heel

The Rockets superstar is pushing the boundaries of basketball—but he also attracts critics like no other player. When will fans ever agree on him?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, one Spurs fan decided to be the voice of the people. “No one wants to see a free throw shooting contest,” he yelled at James Harden, voicing a frequent complaint of NBA fans over the past several years. Four minutes remained in the first quarter; the Rockets guard had just drawn his third shooting foul. Harden absorbed the complaint like a supervillain and shot back at the fan with double the force: “Nobody wants to see fouls either, goddammit,” he said as he walked to the line. Harden—a top-10 player in the league, former MVP, nearly two-time former MVP, and holder of multiple records—has never seemed to care what people think of his playing style. Sorry to that fan.

Grievances with Harden’s game trace back years. In recent seasons, the gripes have centered on his foul shots. Harden is frustrating the hell out of every fan outside the Rockets fan base, especially NBA traditionalists. (Select commentators, too.) Even those who used to salivate over his efficiency now complain that he slows the game down to an unwatchable pace. (The Rockets are playing at an above-average pace this season, though that’s overlooked by his critics.) If you listened only to the discourse online, you’d think Harden was little more than Kent Bazemore with an assist count, Ish Smith with a stepback 3, Jeremy Lin with facial hair, or Shelvin Mack with a crossover—rather than one of the greatest scorers of all time. Harden is averaging 38.7 points per game this season. He has four of the 10 highest-scoring games in 2019-20. He dropped 60 points in 30 minutes on Saturday, and the broad fan response was largely disappointment that he sat in the fourth quarter. Will Harden’s critics ever be satisfied? Labels of laziness, choking, and cheating—good people, drawing fouls is not cheating—are as fastened to his identity as that iconic beard.

Let’s run through the evolution of those criticisms. The first criticism of Harden that gained a strong foothold in the NBA zeitgeist—beginning around 2014—was that he doesn’t play defense. Even at that time, Harden was a perennial All-Star, as his offense was more than enough to outweigh his disinterest at the other end. But hoooooo boy, was his disinterest blatant:

The complaints about Harden’s defense died down as he improved his effort on that side of the ball. Entering Thursday’s games, he’s tied for the sixth-most loose-ball recoveries and the 18th-most deflections per game of all guards, and the ninth-most steals in the league. Consider that effort with Harden’s significant offensive load and how much time he spends with the ball, and poof. The grouse is gone like his hundreds in the strip club.

Not caring is a theme of complaints against Harden. He’s been criticized for entering the season out of shape on numerous occasions due to a few particularly unkindangles.

The “he doesn’t care enough” camp also points to how Harden chooses to spend his time off. His extracurricular activity of choice is going to strip clubs. You want Wilt career similarities? … Affection for female company is a necessary inclusion. He has a banner with his name on it hanging in Dreams Houston, a local strip club. One Reddit user went so far as to conduct a study to find whether there is any correlation between Harden’s box score and the average strip club rating in the city the Rockets were visiting. There are now sportsbook prop bet odds on his performance based on the quality of the strip clubs in different cities.

The strip club appearance that most lifted the theory that Harden does not care enough about winning came after Game 6 of the 2017 playoff series against the Spurs, a 39-point elimination-game loss during which Harden scored just 10 points.

Going to the strip club was a fun anecdote until this; after, it became a weapon wielded by his doubters. Harden is criticized for his performances in the playoffs more than anything—even the fouling complaints. The list of Harden’s poor postseason performances is long and pitiful. In 2015, he was benched for all but the final minute of the fourth quarter in a decisive Game 6 against the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs. Houston entered the fourth quarter down 13, then outscored Los Angeles 40-15.

In Game 5 of the 2015 Western Conference finals against Golden State, he connected on only two shots, scored 14 points, and turned the ball over 12 times. The following year, the Warriors stumped him again: In Game 4 of the conference quarterfinals, Harden made four shots and scored 18 points. But Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals against the Warriors—always the Warriors, may they rest in peace—might be worst of all, the cement on top of the clay that solidified the take that Harden chokes in the playoffs. Despite scoring 32 points in the end, Harden went 2-for-13 from deep and 12-for-29 overall; five of his made field goals came in the fourth quarter.

Harden defenders argue that most of these are excusable—at least to some degree. In the 2015 series against the Warriors, he largely had no help from his bench. In 2017, the man was possibly concussed. In 2018, an anti-efficiency witch cast a spell on the entire Rockets team, not just Harden. (They shot a combined 15.9 percent from the perimeter in Game 7.) But no matter what caveats you include, it remains true that Harden’s really never had a truly defining playoff moment. At least, not a positive one. Until he has his moment, Harden’s critics will always have ammo.

It’s a shame. Harden is navigating unexplored waters. Taking the game of basketball to new heights is usually celebrated. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a revelation, LeBron James is in a galaxy all his own, Steph Curry is the leader of a shooting revolution. Harden’s foul drawing creates an advantage simply by the way he occupies space, inspiring the latest complaint in a career doused with them. For the greatest scoring season Harden’s generation has ever witnessed to be overshadowed by these criticisms would be a disappointing result of—like the man in San Antonio said—what people do and don’t want to see.