James Harden helped his career tremendously by insisting on being a leading man.
When discussing the James Harden trade, the main focus is normally on Oklahoma City. It’s about whether they lost big, whether there’s still time for them to emerge victorious from a now-infamous deal. Even in a league that celebrates brilliant individualism, transactions are viewed through a team lens. A “good contract” is rarely good for the player, for instance.
We’ve been through the implications in Oklahoma, so I’d rather parse what the trade meant for Houston’s rising superstar. Not only did Harden make an extra $24 million by spurning Sam Presti’s last, best offer, but he also received a giant boost in status.
While I’m certain his 2012 Sixth Man award was gratifying, that plaudit is likely trumped by this year’s All-Star and All-NBA selections. Over the course of a season Harden surged from No. 26 in #NBArank to No. 4. In the annual survey of NBA general managers, Harden surpassed Kobe Bryant as the league’s best shooting guard.
What’s funny about Harden’s reputational ascendance is that it’s difficult to prove he got any better between last season and this season. His Win Shares per 48 minutes declined, and his moderate boost in PER can be ascribed to more shots taken. Under greater defensive scrutiny, his true shooting dipped a whole six percentage points. On many defensive possessions, the closest thing to Harden moving toward an assignment was his beard’s slow growth in that general direction.
This isn’t at all to say Harden had a bad season; he was a free throw machine whose overall success was instrumental in wooing Dwight Howard from Los Angeles. It’s just that the extra praise had more to do with Harden’s increased floor time and opportunity than his improvement as a player. Before, Harden was underrated, his super-efficient production obscured by far fewer minutes and touches than a star of his caliber usually receives.
Once a player is locked into a certain kind of role, it’s hard for NBA observers to envision that player in a different role. Daryl Morey wisely didn’t fret over whether Harden could handle being “the man” in an offense, instead trusting that a former bench player would continue to be himself as a starter. Harden was so efficient as a super sub that he could afford to be a little less efficient in a bigger role.
Another All-NBA team, another All-Star Game, and Harden will have equaled stylistic twin Manu Ginobili’s individual awards resume. Not only does Manu serve as an apt player comparison for Harden, but he also offers a glimpse into where Harden’s career might have been headed.
Per minute, Manu’s production has been on par with Kobe’s -- the Argentine leads in win shares rate and trails slightly in PER. Would Manu be considered Kobe’s equal had he averaged 37 minutes over his career? This is unknowable, in part because an oft-used Manu very well could have been an oft-injured Manu. But Harden gives a good indication as to what a season of Manu would have looked like on another roster. Such a season might not have been on the level of late-aughts Kobe, but would have almost certainly resulted in more fame than Manu’s been accustomed to.
I actually suspect that Harden will receive more renown than Manu ever did while never being quite as good as Manu was. This is amusing to consider when, just a year ago, Harden was being chided for ignoring legacy considerations. The framing was that, by leaving a contender, the league’s best sixth man was consigning himself to a kind of ringless obscurity.
Instead, it's the opposite. Even after getting bounced from the playoffs by his old team, Harden is more famous and more highly thought of than ever before. Sports pundits reward players for winning titles, but we’re also quite reductive in assigning credit for those titles. Kobe fans wear “5 rings” shirts as though the fact Kobe won rings matters more than anything about the Lakers. A “Whose team is it?!” culture means Kevin Durant would have gotten more than the lion’s share of lauding for hypothetical Thunder championships. Harden would have been an extra in the film about KD's career. Leaving a contender was Harden’s chance to salvage a legacy, not destroy it.
Much as the media derides players for their selfishness, we’re also the ones who handsomely reward selfishness. When faced with accepting a below-market deal and a continued bench role, Harden sided with his own interests, faced some criticism, and put himself in the express lane to lavish praise. The lesson is that “being the man” isn't some silly fixation of the selfish athlete. The role has real, positive consequences on how you'll be considered and remembered.