An identity in flux: Harden and the collective consciousness

Houston Rockets star James Harden is like a mystery wrapped inside a riddle stuffed into an enigma.
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

By Phillip Barnett

Who is James Harden, really?

I’ve spent the better part of the last fortnight trying to solve this riddle and have come to the conclusion that the answer is perpetually in indeterminate flux. It’s hard to pinpoint what his game is, what this season means, what he represents in the grand scheme of things. How we see Harden today is different than how we saw him at the beginning of the season, which is different than the way we saw him at this point last season. The shift in meaning is based in a basic sociological tenant: People act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them — and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation. No matter how much opinion varies, from one extreme to the other, we’re all a part of his narrative. The collective consciousness about Harden cannot be separated from Harden himself.

Harden in the flesh is as unique as his lefty-dictated dominance. His shoulders and arms are more of the Baron Davis ilk while his explosion is akin to a young Kevin Johnson. He dons the unwonted mohawk and has taken full advantage of nature’s willingness to knit facial beanies. His smile, while far from perfect, gets him. What we see is sometimes more important than who we see. The what is Harden’s physical attributes, unique enough to steal a portion of the NBA’s limited spotlight and shine it on Houston, a city far from the league’s glamor franchises. The who? Well, that’s what the collective consciousness is constantly discussing and debating.

His behavior can’t necessarily be defined solely by his individual drive or instinct, but by a social understanding of the internal and external reality of today’s NBA — or rather how that reality is defined by us. For me, it’s simplicity. Take the shots that make the most sense to maximize every offensive possession, and the philosophical implications of how Harden approaches his game today are rooted in the culture created by the Rockets’ front office. Harden finds his way to the rim, to the free throw line or shoots from the perimeter, not unlike the rest of his teammates. When Harden isn’t creating the shots for himself, he’s either setting up teammates for these same shots or allowing his teammates to create those shots for himself (and others, too). This is rather important, because his ability to seamlessly shift from his on-ball to off-the-ball duties is so pivotal for the future success of this Rockets team.

What ostensibly separates Harden’s game from the culture created in Houston is how he gets those shots. Pick-and-roll sets to free him for 3-pointers off the dribble, slick crossovers to get him to the rim, and off-the-ball movement to gets him either open spot-up shots or looks right at the basket. Harden’s crossover is often under-discussed as the effectiveness of the one-move-and-go ethos often lacks the aesthetics of a Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving. Harden’s step-back may be the most convincing the league has to offer.

It’s the application of these Houston ideologies that make everything work, that have pushed Harden into a brighter spotlight. Spatial intelligence has been elevated in all involved as spacing has increased utility. Because the Rockets don’t run sets to get guys open looks in the mid-range, new, or maybe more frequent, driving lanes have opened for a ball handler who loves getting to the rim — and when defenses collapse, Harden has proved to be one of the best at kicking it out to open teammates straddling the perimeter.

And when he doesn’t move the ball, he’s shooting free throws, and those free throws are coming in at a higher rate than anyone else in the league (he’s outpacing second-place Russell Westbrook by nearly 200 free throws on the season). Many have argued that Harden’s penchant for getting to the line can’t be successful in the postseason. The number of free throws he takes often casts a fog over his season-long scoring barrage. We often try to take peeks through the windows of clarity amid the dense patches of fog; we should sometimes give attention to the fog itself.

Attack the rim or shoot the three — efficiency models be damned — it just makes so much sense. There’s beauty in the simplicity of his game, despite the countless number of layers it encompasses. There’s beauty in the culture it’s created. Even without the aid of self-described superhero Dwight Howard (who returned this week with some good and, understandably, rusty moments), the Rockets have positioned themselves as the third seed in the Western Conference, blitzing defenses with a barrage of three-bombs and attacks of the rim. Defenses know what’s coming but haven’t quite figured out how to keep the Rockets from playing basketball through the guise of the paradigm shift in offensive philosophy that began about a decade ago.

At the heart of the Rockets’ offensive (and weirdly, defensive) success is the man I can’t quite figure out. I’ve been watching quite a bit of Harden in recent weeks, and he might be the most difficult perimeter player to guard right now, he might have the most effective crossover, he might have the best nose for the rim and he might be an above-average defender — especially on the ball. James Harden might be all of these things, and he might not be any of these things. Who Harden is, his identity, ranges somewhere between, depending on whom you ask. More importantly, that identity is modified as the season progresses, as the discussion increases, as the collective debate continues. More 40-point games, more double-digit assist and/or rebound games. More crossovers that inspire obsession, more cooking defenders with that step-back, more pot stirring, more Harden.

Who is James, really? Maybe that’s for you to decide, or maybe it won’t get decided at all.

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