As the Brooklyn Nets head into town to play the Houston Rockets, many are asking what kind of a reception James Harden will receive when he comes to town. Harden, who famously forced his way out of Houston in January, has found the success he was looking for in Brooklyn. He is leading the league in assists, averaging over 25 points per game, and the Nets are 16-6 with Harden in the lineup and, perhaps more notably, have won nine of their last ten games without superstar Kevin Durant. Houston, in contrast, enjoyed a six-game winning streak of their own but has lost 12 games in a row since Christian Wood’s ankle injury on February 4th. After a pair of weather cancellations in mid-February, luck would have it that it appears loss number 13 will come against jersey number 13. 

That number 13, Harden’s jersey number in Oklahoma City, Houston, and now Brooklyn, will hang from the rafters of the Toyota Center one day. Though fans may have mixed emotions about The Beard’s exodus, his impact on the franchise was impossible to ignore. The Houston Rockets were the only team to make the playoffs in each of the eight seasons he was there. He reached two Western Conference Finals, won an MVP award, and was top three in MVP voting four other times. Harden made seven consecutive All-NBA First Teams in a Rockets uniform, as well as eight consecutive All-Star games. He was the face of the franchise for its second most successful decade of basketball, only falling short of Hakeem Olajuwon’s pair of titles in the 1990s. 

In the here and now the wound he left is still fresh. Many Houston Rockets fans see him competing, winning, and enjoying playing in Brooklyn and get bitter. Thus, he will likely be boo’d by the 25-percent capacity Toyota Center. Fans want to get that emotion out, regardless of the emotion stirred in any tribute video. 

But here’s the thing: even if Rockets fans need to emotionally boo his first return to Houston, Rockets fans should be rooting for his success in Brooklyn. 

Rockets Scattered Everywhere

Team Plane in the 2017-18 Season

Houston’s impact on the league is clear. Daryl Morey went to Philadelphia as the President of Basketball Operations. He has surrounded his two superstars with shooting, and has the 76ers competing at the top of the Eastern Conference. Mike D’Antoni is the “offensive coordinator” for the Brooklyn Nets under Head Coach Steve Nash. Nash just won coach of the month, and those Nets are posting historic and mind-boggling offensive numbers. Russell Westbrook is nearly back to averaging a triple-double again, and the Wizards are surging back into the play-in picture.

Former Rocket Clint Capela is leading the league in rebounds for the Atlanta Hawks. Former Rocket Chris Paul is back in the All-Star Game and the Phoenix Suns are in the top half of the Western Conference Playoff picture. Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, and Montrezl Harrell are all key pieces of their respective teams in LA. Austin Rivers held down the bench unit for a couple of years in Houston. Now he’s doing so in  New York and has the Knicks over .500. Carmelo Anthony and Robert Covington are on the fourth-ranked Blazers. Even Isaiah Hartenstein, a casualty of the Rockets going small, is making NBA highlight reels. 

Houston, in many ways, is the most important team of the 2010s that did not win a title. They saw super teams forming in Miami, then Cleveland, then in Golden State, and then in LA. Their response, instead of selling the farm and playing for the future, was to compete in the here and now. Houston sold off their spare parts to bring in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Sixth Man in James Harden, hoping he could continue his success in a bigger role. He did.

James Harden, somehow, did not win an MVP in 2017, 2019, or 2020. Can he in 2021?

The Rockets then loaded up and made a run with Dwight Howard. Later they traded for Chris Paul. When that didn’t work? They went back to Oklahoma City to build their backcourt with Russell Westbrook. Time and time again, Houston chose not to stay pat, but to make a run. And they made run after run, coming up just short. In five of the last six seasons, Houston lost to the Western Conference Champions. In three of those, that team also won the NBA Title. Eventually, all of those runs led to the legs falling off. 

That doesn’t mean any of those players, who came through Houston, weren’t good pick ups. As was mentioned, each of them is currently finding some level of success elsewhere as this is being written. If anything, the “All-Rockets” team of current NBA players could be one of the league’s best. Each guy had their own impact in Houston, and is now having it elsewhere. Houston found good players, and the Rockets fans got to root for good teams. It stands to reason that the fans would enjoy seeing their former Rockets be successful. Their happiness was the happiness of fans for years, now fans just continue enjoying it… even if it’s elsewhere. 

Where fans are drawing the line on James Harden, however, is in how he left. Harden’s exit was public, embarrassing, and swift. After two blowout losses to the LA Lakers, Harden publicly demanded a trade in the post-game press conference. He was on his way to Brooklyn by the end of the next workday. Harden had been given the keys to the car and, after eight years of driving it, was ready for new digs. That rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way, and thus the online boo’ing commenced months ago. 

Now Rockets’ fans will have a chance to actually boo. 

Harden’s Different

Harden. Houston. The H.

But the Harden impact is different from the rest of those players. Dwight Howard? Chris Paul? Russell Westbrook? Each of them shined in Houston. All three, as well as others, were key guys for the Houston Rockets at one point and time. Each struck a chord in Houston. Howard continued the strength in big men. Paul shimmied in a new swagger. Westbrook sparked a small-ball revolution in a state known for being big. 

But none of them were Houston. 

Harden, his beard, his step back, and his efficiency driven game forever changed the Houston Rockets and their fans. Even their red and blck jerseys were a villain’s costume, the Houston Rockets impossible to ignore. Harden had the keys to the car, and everyone saw the Rockets pull up. Now that he’s moved on and has a new car, especially with how messy it was, it feels easy to fall into being upset with him. 

But Harden’s success after Houston validates his success while he was there. The NBA is frequently called “a make or miss league.” While that is the outcome of any shot, it’s also a simple way to discuss the game. At some point, it just comes down to if shots go in or not. There’s some ratio of talent, work ethic, preparedness, and luck that go into it. Sometimes, it’s catching a break over the course of the game. Sometimes it’s a shot you’ve shot a thousand times going in versus it falling out. Either way, there are elements of NBA success that are out of control of even the most successful. All a team, franchise, or player can do is control what they can control and be as good as they can in those areas. 

Who Should Houston Rockets’ Fans Root for?

James Harden’s continued success can only be because he continues to handle those controllables and, maybe, hit some of that luck along the way. It’s continued evidence that Houston’s success was not an accident; their shortcomings came down to some misses here or a stroke of bad luck. Sometimes that bad luck is a pulled hammy or a historically long string of missed shots.

Thus, Houston Rockets fans need to continue to root for James Harden in his time after Houston. His future successes validate his past ones. It proves Houston had the right driver for the near-decade that they found so much success in. 

It’s not just reciprocating the love after eight years together. Even just cheering for a guy that continues to give back to the Houston community from across the country seems fair. It’s not even being the more mature person and understanding that Harden wanted to change his workplace instead of seeing it all changed around him. Harden’s success grows his legacy, and his legacy is forever tied to Houston. 

So boo if you want to, on Wednesday. But cheer the Beard on in Brooklyn. Continue the fake nose bleeds after dunks, stir the pot after an and-one, and the outlandish outfits before games. 

H-Town will forever be tied to Harden. Harden will forever be tied to The H. And long live The H.

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! New episode every Monday!
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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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