What happened to James Harden and the Houston Rockets? This time last year, Harden was receiving his coronation as the league’s MVP and the Rockets were seen as the only real challengers to the Warriors’ dynasty, which they very nearly ended through an almost religious adherence to what we’ve devotionally named Moreyball. But look at them now: Harden, after playing even better than he did last season, didn’t even come close to winning the MVP, nor even the second round. The Rockets, meanwhile, are quickly becoming one of the league’s biggest laughingstocks, thanks in large part to that flat-out embarrassing “data driven referee report,” a pathetic parody of stats-first mentality we once praised them for. Everyone just seems to be sick of their shit, Chris Paul included. So what changed?
Harden and the Rockets have, in more than a few ways, delivered on the demands of the increasingly efficiency-adherent sport. Advanced analytics have long been a battle cry for the self-appointed smartest guys in the room, who over the years have pushed the game into a world where efficiency matters more than anything else. The Rockets and James Harden embodied this charge, pushing it towards its limit until their brand of highly efficient basketball mutated into what it is today: James Harden isolating for 12-20 seconds, stepping back, and trying to draw a foul on a three-pointer. This is efficiency gone rogue.
Everyone is quick to complain, but isn’t this what was asked for in the first place? Did Harden not deliver on all that was demanded? Did he not fulfill the righteous promise of 3 > 2? It seems now we’ve reached an inflection point, where the quest to forge the deadliest and simplest form of basketball has begun to turn away from purity and towards the grotesque.
James Harden exemplifies this crisis, and for this very reason he is my MVP. He is not a pass-first player. His game is maddeningly slow, letting the shot clock wind down to single digits before, eventually, after you’ve been screaming at your television, he finally, fucking finally, gets on with it. He is crafty, abusing the rules of the game and drawing fouls unlike any player in the history of the sport, leveraging his superior dramatic arts to flop his way to the line. Other times he plays with a hastened elegance—as though he is stepping through time as much as back in space, a manipulative dance that requires the type of delicate control more fitting a teenage ballerina. He is a troublemaker of the highest order, his game the full expression of his most famous reaction meme: one long, slow, dramatic eye-roll to the league.
Harden is alarming for the very same reason he is thrilling: there is a perverse pleasure in watching the system grind to a halt and get torn apart, in watching that which was preemptively deemed the great ideal shredded on national television by a bearded everyman with the body of an elementary school security guard. For those of us who aren’t thrilled by the STEM-induced coma sports are currently stuck in, watching the weight of advanced analytics collapse onto itself, watching bloodless efficiency fail to deliver the promise of perfection, has been more than a twisted delight.
Harden, then, is a contradiction: in taking the dreams of efficient perfection to its logical conclusion he has revealed the hidden deficits contained within the system itself. It isn’t so much that he seeks to destroy or burn it all down, but that his singular talent, unlike the rest, is in recognizing the game for exactly what it is, and his brilliance is in knowing how to use it precisely to his advantage. James Harden is, in this way, the NBA’s greatest ironist. We can call it gamesmanship, call it trickery, call it cleverness, or, perhaps, most timely, we can call it trolling.
Like all good trolls, Harden hunts, finds weaknesses, and exploits them for his own delight. He doesn’t overwhelm with athletic talent, doesn’t bend other teams to his will so much as he subverts them with clever intelligence that belies a relatable cynicism. A slow, almost lazy, walk up across half court, a sizing up, a couple dribbles, a cross-over, a step back, a swish, and then the whistle: his game is a sly wink to everyone sitting at home, letting you know that he knows, and that he knows that you know that he knows, exactly what it is that we’ve all come to see. The weaknesses he seeks out aren’t simply his opponents, but crucially the ones hidden in the very sport of basketball itself. Harden possesses a specific type of distance that an ironic posture requires, what allows someone to be able to (pun intended) step back and see the contradictions the game has attempted to hide.
For years now, the Warriors’ three-point revolution has been heralded as the Platonic Ideal of basketball realized. But just as the End of History failed to deliver on its promise, so too have the basketball pundits forgotten the golden rule of all revolutions: they always birth a counter-position. If the Warriors were the vanguard pushing through the limits of what we knew basketball was, then James Harden is the reaction—he takes the system that’s been deemed utopian and flays it out for us, laying bare all the ugly ramifications we never anticipated the three-point revolution could bring. Who knew that drawing the foul on a three-point shot would become the most maddening and effective move for a top-10 NBA player? Or take the step-back three, both Harden’s signature and the NBA’s most controversial move: When was the last time a single player generated so much fuss, so much debate, from players to coaches to fans to pundits, over whether or not his signature was, of all things, allowed by the rules? The point isn’t whether it is or isn’t—the point is that it’s even a question to begin with. If this is the basketball we wanted, if this is what the golden efficient revolution has brought us, then James Harden is here to make sure we know exactly what we are going to get. The mischievous toothy grin that occasionally sneaks past his wooly bramble says it all: How could we have been so foolish to expect anything else?
The most common criticism of Harden is one of aesthetics: fans just don’t like this kind of basketball. It is sludgy, selfish, it relies on tricks and cheats, the constant whistles, the slow pace. It just isn’t pretty. That’s all true of course, but the dirty secret is that at the heart of any aesthetic judgement is an ethical one: the basketball moralizers are here to say Harden just isn’t playing the game the right way. This presumes of course, that there is a right way to play, that the game doesn’t evolve, shift, change, that the ideals are fixed, that we are marching toward an agreed upon horizon of perfection. Harden throws a wrench in this type of progressive idealism; he succeeds by not only rejecting this, but by ironizing the very idea of basketball perfection itself.
At a time when our popular culture demands an almost militant devotion to sincerity, when “playing with joy” has been named the highest praise one can sing of a player, it is no wonder that Harden has found an audience so transfixed by cynical coolness. This is, in fact, the very power of transgression. Irony, at its heart, expresses a relation: it is in the playing of differences that new meaning is revealed, new possible futures expressed, and this is precisely what James Harden accomplishes on the court. In breaking open and exposing the cracks of the sport’s regime, he reveals new potential pathways forward, pushes the game further than anyone at a time when we convinced ourselves that the system is set in stone. This is why he should be, but of course—and perhaps poetically—is not the MVP. It’s just that sometimes, in the face of collapse, real change requires the type of faith that can only be born out of a cynical posture, a willing embrace of radical negativity. Sometimes it simply requires throwing the entire system back onto itself.
Liz Franczak is on twitter @liz_franczak.