clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Hate James Harden Now, Because You’ll Love Him If He Wins

The Beard is the latest NBA superstar to force his way out in an unseemly manner, but like Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis, all will be forgiven if he can reach the promised land

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As the NBA’s latest landscape-altering blockbuster washed over Wednesday, I found myself thinking about a big three built in Brooklyn—an artist collective whose formation generated massive instantaneous buzz, and carried with it the titillating dual prospect of critical acclaim and commercial appeal. I’m speaking, of course, of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

I couldn’t get “Our Time,” from the band’s self-titled 2001 debut EP, out of my head. The lyric that kept repeating: “It’s our time, sweet babe, to break on through / It’s the year to be hated.”

This is the chance the Nets wanted, the one they yearned for throughout every minute of the yearslong, brick-by-brick rebuild that followed their 2013 swing-and-a-miss deal for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. All of Sean Marks’s wheeling and dealing, all the roster-churning fliers on discarded draft picks and misfit toys, all of Kenny Atkinson’s player development work and the emphasis on Creating a Culture—all of it pointed not toward the pursuit of a different and more organic way to win, but rather toward the hope of getting in position to take the same swing again, and connecting this time.

This new core—Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, all still in their primes or close to it—has the opportunity to do just that. It could, should, be better than anything any Nets team has ever put on the floor. In a conference featuring a handful of good teams but no self-evidently great ones, this is it—the Nets’ time to break on through.

And for Harden, like so many superstars who forced trades before him … well, it’s his year to be hated.

It is, if nothing else, nothing new for him. Few players in recent NBA history have evoked quite as much vitriol as the 31-year-old iconoclast; if you doubt that, you probably weren’t checking Twitter during any Rockets game over the past handful of seasons, as the league’s back-to-back-to-back scoring champ sauntered to the foul line for his eighth and ninth free throws of the third quarter.

His uncompromising insistence on forcing his way to the stripe has long infuriated fans and opponents alike. Some reject the malfunctioning start-and-stop mechanics of it all on a purely aesthetic level, finding Harden’s game uglier and less fun to watch than those of other stars whose approach feels less specifically engineered toward bloodless efficiency. Some seethe at all the tools this 6-foot-5 dude deploys to average more free throw attempts per possession than any player ever besides Shaq and Embiid. When they look at how he sparks constitutional law debates over what constitutes a gather, and whether the Framers ever envisioned a future in which a player could execute a double stepback, they don’t see genius at work; they see malfeasance, chiseling, tax fraud.

Harden’s indifference to the topic—a shrug, a side-eye, a Rick Ross grunt of a half-laugh, a general dismissal that it’s not his fault defenders can’t check him without reaching—only further rankles his critics. And that was before he started playing isolation offense to an unfathomable degree, effectively rendering almost everyone else on the court irrelevant on an unprecedented number of possessions. Some suggest that Harden’s relentless pursuit of optimized offensive basketball has essentially broken the game. A lot of people like the game as it is, though, and don’t want it broken. Thus: the hate.


Well, that’s part of it, anyway. There’s also the bitter taste left by reports that Harden got everything he wanted in Houston, had the entire organization constructed around his whims, imported several star teammates only to watch their partnerships sour at ever-increasing speeds, and never performed in the postseason’s biggest moments at a level commensurate with his résumé and reputation. More recently, there’s also been the “vulgar display of power” element—the way that, after presiding over yet another playoff flameout, Harden looked at what he’d wrought, decided to get the hell out of town before the whole place caught fire, and endeavored to get what he wanted by refusing to show up to training camp, partying maskless in Atlanta and Las Vegas during a pandemic, and eventually arriving out of shape to play largely uninspired ball.

That Harden’s final act in Houston was to publicly proclaim the Rockets roster “not good enough” and declare that the team “can’t be fixed” felt like a student putting the right answer on a math test but declining to show the work on how he got there. Ignoring how all of that happened, and his role in it, made Harden look wildly petulant. And yet, after all of that dereliction of his duty as the purported leader of his franchise, less than 24 hours after that press conference, Harden got the exact outcome he set in motion months ago.

That sets a lot of people’s teeth on edge. The Nets already wear black uniforms; Harden’s arrival brings a black hat to match. He’s far from the first to wear it, though.

Eleven years ago, LeBron James invited the league’s ire with The Decision and his infamous move to Miami, a response to the Celtics’ Big Three construction that helped kick-start the superteam era. The Heat’s loss in the 2011 Finals, with James having the worst playoff series of his career, ratcheted up the schadenfreude among those who decried his attempt to stack his team; this, memorably, led LeBron to remind all of us how much worse our lives were than his. (Which, y’know, fair enough.) The next year, he won that elusive first title; then, Olympic gold; then, a second ring, with two MVP trophies in between. Before long, he returned to Cleveland, delivered a championship, and fully restored his now-immaculate Q rating.

Durant drew slings and arrows for choosing to leave the Thunder franchise he’d helped carry for eight years, fresh off a 3-1 collapse to the 73-win Warriors in the Western Conference finals, to join the same Golden State team that beat him, in an escalation of the superstar arms race. And then he won two rings, and was the best player on the floor in two Finals series that featured LeBron, and no amount of chirping about sport-ruining team-stacking can change that. Now, as he makes a stunning return to MVP form after missing an entire year while recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, Durant is undeniable again, a “cupcake” no longer, the people’s champ once more.

Jimmy Butler played the heel as he set fire to the Timberwolves’ young core, but after leading an underdog Heat team to the Finals and authoring a pair of historic performances along the way, he’s a lovable Big Face. Anthony Davis summoned scorn for demanding an exit from New Orleans, orchestrating an escape to L.A., and wearing a damned Looney Tunes shirt on the way out the door. One year later, he’s a champion, seated at the right hand of the throne with a full-freight max contract, on a glide path to Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, and championship contention for years to come. It took Paul George a couple of years longer than he anticipated to get to Los Angeles after pushing his way out of Indiana, and he, like Harden, continues to get crushed with each playoff misstep. But if he and Kawhi Leonard can put the Clippers over the top this season, the jeers will turn. They nearly always do.

Harden will be vilified for this—not just for the move, but the way he forced Houston’s hand. That’s not a terminal diagnosis, though; it’s a headline, a placeholder, with the potential to be off the back page entirely by tomorrow’s edition. If Harden, Durant, Irving, and Co. can find the on-court solutions necessary to maximize their firepower, minimize their defensive weaknesses, and create something approaching harmony on the court and within the locker room, Brooklyn could be truly devastating—a team capable of overwhelming its opposition and hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy this summer. And if that happens, then everything that preceded it is mere prologue, and it will be remembered—maybe not in Houston, but in the world at large—as a mere footnote to the larger story of how James Harden got over.

History, in the NBA as elsewhere, is still written by the winners. This, right now, is Harden’s year to be hated. For him to change the story—about how this all unfolded, about what defines his career, about his place in basketball history—all he has to do, sweet babe, is just break on through.