It’s weird to see James Harden in a different uniform now. Harden has been a staple in the Houston Rockets for the last eight seasons before asking for a trade last November. After finally being traded on January 13th (with a messy public ask for a trade on the 12th), Harden has found his new home in Brooklyn. Harden has swapped Travis Scott for Jay-Z, Space City for the Big Apple, and Toyota Center for Barclays Arena. For whatever reason, there are a lot of fans upset with James Harden’s exodus. 

We’re not here for that, in large part because that’s stupid and dumb. For eight seasons, the Houston Rockets’ second-best player (admittedly an award Harden is fighting with Moses Malone over) brought relevancy, excitement, and MVP level basketball to the franchise. Harden missed just 34 games in over eight seasons in Houston. He leaves the franchise being the all-time leader in assists, usage, and offensive win shares. Harden is second in Houston in all-time points (Hakeem Olajuwon) and is top ten in rebounds and minutes per game. If you’ve watched Houston at all in the last eight seasons, James Harden was central to everything happening on the floor. He led the last decade of NBA basketball in points, even though he was a sixth man in Oklahoma City for the first fifth of it. When you just look at his time in Houston? It’s not even close. In a game where the goal is to put the round thing in the circle thing more times than the opponent, no one did that better than Harden did in Houston. 

So, let’s take a moment and say thank you, James Harden. Thank you for

Showing Up

James Harden came to Houston in a trade for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and a pair of picks (Oklahoma City used those picks to draft Steven Adams and Mitch McGary). Of those guys, the only one still in the league is Adams (who was not in the league at the time of the trade). James Harden’s trade came after Oklahoma City failed to agree with him on a contract extension, favoring instead to divvy up the rest of their salary cap on Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook. Notably, Harden was in Houston longer than any of them were in Oklahoma City. 

At the presser, GM Daryl Morey called the Sixth Man of the Year a “foundational player”, high praise for a 23-year-old kid who had started just seven games in his career. Within days, Harden signed for the long term: five years, $80 Million. On the same day? He became the first player in NBA history to score 37 or more points and register double-digit assists in his debut with a team. Two days after that? He scored 45 points against the Atlanta Hawks. That total (82 points) passed Wilt Chamberlain (79) for the most points for a player in his first two games on an NBA team. Houston was Harden’s town, and the Rockets were back. Harden finished the season on the All-NBA third team, and Houston made the playoffs for the first time since Yao Ming broke his foot in 2009. 

Representing Houston in All-Star Weekend

Yes, Houston made the playoffs for their first time since 2009. In a similar vein, James Harden was the Rockets’ first All-Star in the same span. Only Yao Ming had even been voted into the game in those three seasons, and he missed each time with the same injuries he missed much of each season with (Yao played no games at all in 2009-10, and just five in 2010-11 before retiring).

Yes, this feels somewhat small… but having an All-Star on your team gives fans an identity. If anything, what jerseys do you see in the stands? Luis Scola? Kevin Martin? James Harden came in with his weird beard, unlucky 13 jersey, and stirred the pot. Literally. 

His celebrations ranged from cooking it up after dicing a defender to checking his nose for a nosebleed after skying for a big dunk. Harden brought explosive play to Houston in a way anyone watching could recognize.

The Game Winner vs Washington

Yes, back in the Jeremy Lin and Dwight Howard days, the Beard was still out here hitting Game Winners. As a tough game wound down, John Wall, Trevor Ariza, Bradley Beal, and Nene had given Houston their best punch. Each had 19 or more points in a rounded effort to knock off the Rockets. 

At the end of the game, Harden and the Rockets faked a set they’d run for Jeremy Lin several times throughout the night. Instead of Lin, Harden doubled off a screen, took the ball to the rim, euro-stepped, and scored. 

This feels silly now, but having just been 18-months off of Linsanity, this felt like a wild move. Houston was, somewhat symbolically, handing the keys to the young star in the clutch. Boy, did he deliver. The move not only evaded the defense, it left less than a full second on the clock and effectively cemented a big win. The first of many euro’s, the first of many clutch shots, and the first of many split second moments for James Harden in Rockets’ red. 

The Game Winner vs Phoenix 

The confidence in this one was palpable. James Harden had over 30 points and 10 assists as a tough road trip was coming to a close. The Phoenix Suns put their stoutest defender, future Rocket PJ Tucker, on Harden. No matter. 

Harden shook free from him as Isaiah Thomas sprinted to double. Harden rose up from just inside of 20-feet, over the top of Thomas’ outstretched arm, and sunk it. Clock at 00:00. Ballgame. 

“Midrange James” became a thing of the past, but Harden making tough clutch shots over pairs of defenders did not. The Beard was in business, and Houston had reason to be excited for their future. 

Making Ricky Rubio Play Twister

This may be one of the funniest, most meme and .gif-able moments of James Harden’s career. As the third-quarter was winding down, the Houston rockets and an ugly set of short-sleeved uniforms were easing into a final buzzer beater against the Minnesota Timberwolves and equally ugly short-sleeved uniforms. 

After putting the ball between his legs, Harden stunted like he was going to attack with his left hand. In an effort to retreat and beat Harden to a spot, Ricky Rubio fell down, like he was break-dancing. 

Harden rose up as the Toyota Center erupted, nailed a three, and the crowd was in disbelief. To this point, that was the most embarrassed a Rocket had ever made someone else look on the basketball floor. Rubio had no idea what was coming, nor how to react. 

Making the First MVP Run We’d Seen in a Long Time

At this point, if anything needs to be made clear, it is this: Houston was starved for good basketball between the injury to Yao Ming and the arrival of James Harden. When Harden made a run at the 2014-15 NBA MVP, it was the closest any Rocket had been in nearly a decade. Harden finished the season second in MVP voting behind Steph Curry

Houston finished second in the NBA’s Western Conference behind Curry’s Warriors. Golden State had multiple All-Stars for the duration of the season, but Harden? Harden was carrying the Rockets while teammate Dwight Howard spent most of the season nursing a bad back. 

Harden’s efforts were recognized, even if not by the MVP voters. In the first-ever player awards, NBA players overwhelmingly voted James Harden the MVP over Curry

Regardless of your take on the 2015 MVP, one thing was for sure: Houston had an MVP-Caliber player, was in the Western Conference Finals, and was worth watching. That was all the first for Houston in a long, long time. 

The Game 3 Game Winner vs Golden State

Ok, if there were a “year to forget,” it would probably be 2015-16. Coach McHale was fired early, Coach Bickerstaff seemed in over his head. James Harden and Dwight Howard reportedly struggled for leadership in the locker room all year. Harden felt he had carried the team the year before and deserved it, Howard felt like he had the accolades from his career before Houston to deserve it. Houston, after playing in the conference finals a year prior, Houston struggled to make the playoffs. 

In the first round, Houston was down 2-0 to the Golden State Warriors and, for a second, they thought they might have gotten swept. Golden State stole the ball and scored to take the lead with just under ten seconds left. 

Before Rockets fans could even begin to let the expletives fly, Harden took the inbounds pass and scored again before the clock was out. No sweeps in Harden’s Houston tenure. For that, thank you

A Memorable New Years’ Eve

We could sit here and make the argument to push for the 2017 MVP trophy. James Harden was as good an MVP candidate to not win the award as there ever was. He had 22 triple doubles, led the league in assists, The Rockets finished third in the West, and Harden averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds with no other All-Star or All-NBA player on his team… but some guy averaging a triple double for a team barely over .500 won the award. 

On New Years’ Eve, when that year long average was still so distant, James Harden laid out exactly what made him an MVP. 

Harden set a career-high (to that point) of 53 points, tacked on 17 assists, and 16 rebounds. For reference: of Houston’s 129 points that night, James Harden accounted for 95 between his points and assists. No one in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain included, has ever had a 50-15-15 game besides James Harden. While much of America was watching the ball drop in New York, James Harden was dropping New York. 

Getting a 60-piece Triple Double in Style, With Time to Cheer

A year later, Houston was in the driver’s seat. Houston was cruising, Harden appeared to be on another MVP run, and record after record was being broken. 

James Harden’s 60 point triple double not only set his career high, but it was also the first ever 60-point triple double in NBA history. A year prior, debates of hist 50-point triple double vs. Russell Westbrook’s 50-point triple double seemed to dictate the MVP debate (even though Harden had more assists and rebounds, Westbrook hit a game winner from over 30-feet). This season? There was no doubt. 40 points in a single game is an incredible outing, but getting 60 is unreal. A triple double is an incredible outing, but also setting your highest career scoring mark is unreal. Doing both at the same time?

Further, the and-one to finish allowed the entire stadium to properly “thank you James.” The foul created a pause in the action, which meant the Toyota Center could switch from the edge of their seats into a standing ovation.

Thank you, James Harden. 

Ending a Man’s Career with a Crossover

Every MVP season has its “moment.” Harden had several MVP caliber seasons, and thus several MVP caliber moments, but perhaps no single play comes to mind more so than this one. Not coincidentally, the 2018 MVP had one of the most “heard round the world” moments in February of 2018. 

Harden crossed from left to right, and his defender goes flying to the ground. The Staples Center erupted. “Oh, he STARED at Wesley Johnson!” over the broadcast. Harden looks back at the rim and his a three over the slow rotation from the defense. 

Even the rotating Milos Teodosic took a second to watch before trying to contest the shot. Lou Williams in help-side defense visibly shrugged, implying “what can ya do?” Hype man PJ Tucker had enough time to walk from the bench almost to the basket before the shot went through. 

What’s wilder? Johnson hasn’t been able to escape the moment. Though he signed a long term contract with LA in 2016, they traded him the fall following his stumble. Four months later he was traded again, and two months after that he was waived. Johnson hasn’t been on an NBA roster in nearly two-years. 

James Harden’s crossover was the kind of play you see the future pro make in a high school game. It was a surreal experience that everyone watching remembers. You can pinpoint exactly where you were and what you were doing. You know who you texted or what you tweeted afterward. It was that level of jaw-dropping. 

Dunking on Draymond Green

It was 2018 and the Warriors were looking for their third title in four years. Houston had the best record in the NBA that season, 51-7 to that point (regular and post-season) with their big three healthy and playing, and had a winning record against the Warriors in the regular season. Houston was down 2-1 at the moment and needed a lift. James Harden provided a lift-off.

After this dunk, it appeared the Houston Rockets would never look back. 

The and-one dunk sent Green to the bench and began a big Houston run. The Rockets held on to win that game and Game 5 at home to take a 3-2 lead in the series when Chris Paul went down with an injured hamstring. The rest is history: a hamstring and a team-wide shooting slump in a nine-point Game 7 loss kept Houston from their third title as a franchise. The next season Paul struggled to be the same player (he rebounded well in 19-20), and the moment was lost. 

At this moment, as James Harden rose up to dunk on the help-side Draymond Green, Houston knew they were better. There was the physical element (sparking the run) and the emotional element. Curry and Durant were Golden State’s stars, but Green was their soul. Green’s versatility and tenacity made those teams great, and Harden had just risen up on top of all of it. 

Also, Green talks a lot of noise, but it’s hard to talk when the guy you’re talking about is dunking it on your head. 

The MVP

This felt odd after the team came up short in the Western Conference Finals just a few weeks prior. Harden is just the third player to win the NBA’s MVP in Houston’s history (Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone twice). He had come up just short in NBA voting in both 2015 and 2017, and the 2018 award had a “lifetime achievement award” vibe to it. 

In many ways, it was an acknowledgment of Harden’s greatness over his entire time in Houston, not just the prior season. Harden is a polarizing player, and many saw the runner-ups in 2015 and 2017 as evidence of media-hate. In 2015, the argument for Curry came down largely to his team being better, and thus he was the best player on the best team. Even though Harden had better stats, Curry won more games. In 2017, the argument for Westbrook came down largely to his stats being better and historic. Though Harden had more wins, nearly as many points, and more assists, Westbrook had two more rebounds per game and thus averaged a triple-double. 

While it amounted to his only MVP in Houston, it wasn’t his last time in the conversation. Harden later finished in second (2019) and third (2020) for the award, being one of the few players to finish top-three in voting five times… and he did it in a six-year span. 

Hitting the Game Winner in Oakland

At this point, Harden and Houston had a well-established rivalry with the Golden State Warriors. And at this point, Harden appeared to have their number. He hadn’t had a bunch of bad playoff games against the Dubs, but he hadn’t beaten them in a series. Houston still blamed the series the year before on Chris Paul’s hammy and felt robbed… so naturally, the January 3rd matchup was circled on everyone’s calendar. 

Until the week of the game. Houston’s second and third highest scorers, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon, were unavailable. Golden State’s rotation? Full. 

Kevin Durant, in saving the ball, stepped very clearly out of bounds. The ball was saved, Houston had stopped thinking it was out, Golden State scored. It appeared that that would be the difference. With three seconds left, Houston had the ball at the three-quarter inbounds line. 

The ball got into Harden, he crossed to his right hand. He rose up from 30-feet with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in his face. 

Houston kept it close. As the game went into overtime, and then came near its close, Harden had 41 points, 15 assists, and 10 rebounds. He added in two blocks and a steal on defense. He was doing everything

Harden sunk it. 44 points. Game. As the shaking stadium in Oakland was silenced, Harden made sure to take a second and let all of Oracle know. 

30+ x 30+

James Harden’s 30+ points in 32 consecutive games was the longest such streak since Wilt Chamberlain. That’s longer than Kobe Bryant, longer than LeBron James, and longer than Michael Jordan. It was heavily criticised as selfish, but Rockets fans saw what was happening. 

Throughout the streak, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon were in and out of the line-up. Clint Capela missed time. Houston was starting players called up from the G-League and called off of waivers out of necessity. 

If they weren’t going to tank the regular season, Harden needed to go full-on en fuego. The Harden streak gave Houston a chance, as his presence did for the better part of a decade. Harden fell ill in February and lost the streak (28 points, so close), but he bounced back with 58 points in his first game afterward. While several games within the streak were noteworthy, the streak itself was an incredible thing to watch. 

Stealing for a Dunk, a Win, and 61 in Madison Square Garden

Ok, so we’ll highlight one game within the streak. Harden’s defensive growth over his eight years isn’t talked about much. He was a poor defender when he showed up, and by the end of his tenure Harden was a stout on ball and post presence. He still struggles in help side, but when he gambles it pays off. 

Like in Madison Square Garden. Harden had 61 points to lead the short-handed Rockets to the win. After a wild PJ Tucker turnover underneath their own basket, some weird bounces, and a questionable call or two, Houston found themselves up just two points and on defense. As Eric Gordon stopped the ball, Harden emerged from the help side to poke it free and escape for an icing fast-break dunk. Holding his hands to the sky, Harden and the Rockets galloped to an exciting and relieving victory. 

The Boston Game

Look, James Harden gets a lot of folks talking noise because he gets to the foul line. While it’s a skill for others, critics seem to think it’s a detriment. 

I’ll never understand how he made this shot, even though he is clearly fouled by Kyrie Irving, to help secure a win at TD Garden. Further, I’ll never understand how Irving got away without a foul. 

Nor harm, bucket good. Rockets win… Thank you James Harden

The Quick 60

This one is something I’ll never understand. I don’t get how this is possible. Sure, Wilt Chamberlain averaged roughly 50 points, but he also averaged over 48 minutes per game one season. He never came off the floor. This outing? 

In 30:41 of time on the floor, James Harden scored 60 points. It came so easily, he was surprised he hadn’t broken his career-high. Harden was 16 of 24 from the field, eight of 14 from three-point land. It was casual, it was easy. It was didn’t even require playing every minute of the three-quarters he played in. In the fourth? Harden cheered on Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, and the rest of the Rockets’ reserves with enthusiasm. It was fun, even if it was a blowout, because it felt surreal. 

Welcoming Us Back to Basketball

When the pandemic shut down the NBA in March of 2020, many of us never knew when the next NBA game would happen. Weeks turned to months, but eventually the NBA was able to roll out a plan to form a bubble and finish the season in Disney World. Rockets basketball was back. James Harden was back. 

If there was any concern of how in shape Harden was, or how long it would take to get back in rhythm, he ended all of that the first night. 

James Harden led the Rockets to an overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks to open play in the Disney Bubble with 49 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists. He had a beautiful dime between his legs to Jeff Green that Luka Doncic was copying days later. He scored from outside, inside, and at the free-throw line. Harden was back.

Blocking Lu Dort’s Shot

The entire first-round series in Orlando came down to James Harden vs. fellow Arizona State Sun Devil Lu Dort. If Dort had a good defensive day against Harden, Oklahoma City won. If Harden got the better of him? Houston won. In the first six games, every Thunder win was close and gritty, every Rockets win was a blowout. 

As a gritty Game 7 came down to the wire, Lu Dort played like a man possessed. Dort was knocking down three’s left and right and was going to be the series MVP. After the Thunder fumbled the ball around, the ball was kicked to Dort for the game-winner. 

Then, James Harden came from the middle of the floor to swat the ball straight up in the air. As Dort lept up to save the ball by throwing it off of Harden’s leg, Harden bounced off the floor like a trampoline. Ball out of bounds, Houston wins. Just like we all always expected: James Harden wins the game on defense, right? Thank you, James Harden. 

For All of the Clutch Shots, New and Old

For Reinventing the Step Back

Most of all, 

Thank you for making it fun to watch and cheer for the Rockets again. Best of luck in your new digs. Make sure Kevin Durant knows he owes you a ring after the Chris Paul injury, and that Kyrie Irving knows his place. Say hey to familiar faces in Mike D’Antoni and Jeff Green, tell them we thank them for the memories too. 

I know the popular question, per Biggie Smalls, is “where Brooklyn at?!” but you’ll always have a home in Houston. Best of luck, James Harden.

For more on sports, sneakers, and the Houston Rockets, follow me @painsworth512 for more, and give our podcast “F” In Sports a listen wherever you listen to podcasts!
About Author

Parker Ainsworth

Senior NBA Writer, Co-Host of "F" In Sports and The Midweek Midrange. Parker is a hoops head, "retired" football player, and sneaker aficionado. Austinite born in Houston, located in Dallas after a brief stint in LA... Parker is a well-traveled Texan, teacher, and coach. Feel free to contact Parker- https://linktr.ee/PAinsworth512

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