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Kevin Durant knows something we don’t know. Or, at least, something that the 450-plus players that dive in and out of the NBA every single year know, and we don’t understand. James Harden is a monster of a basketball player, and as such he should be rewarded as one despite his team’s failure to turn the corner in the playoffs prior to last season, and his squad’s embarrassing showing during both the regular and postseason in 2015-16.
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Durant is currently gearing up with his Team USA mates, heading with noses pinched and mouths mostly closed before heading into Rio for a chance at defending its 2012 Olympic gold medal. During a Sunday practice prior to the team’s Monday night exhibition performance against Nigeria, Durant went out of his way to credit Harden in ways the fans and press seem to pass on in the wake of his crash and burn turn in 2015-16.
“Nobody really appreciates what he does except for the players in our league,” Durant said. “Everybody on the outside doesn’t really appreciate what he brings. Anybody that can put up 29 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and not make the All-NBA team, that’s like a sin to even think about not putting a guy like that on the All-NBA team.
“As a player and someone that played with him and a fan of the game I was (angry) because somebody is right here in front of you and you can’t appreciate him. If he were to retire tomorrow, we would have so many stories and videos about how great he is, but he’s here right now doing it. Appreciate what he brings.”
One could chalk this up to the usual stuff. James Harden could probably beat just about any NBA player – Stephen Curry, maybe Durant, maybe LeBron James – in a game to 11, win by two. As it has been for years, NBA players have respected those sorts of stars mostly above the ones that win the MVP. Yes, Karl Malone or Tim Duncan might take the hardware for a year, as voted on by those polo-and-khaki mavens in the press, but it is Allen Iverson that’s the actual real deal.
The issue with those votes, sometimes led by the league or unofficial media ballots, is that few of the players making these sorts of statements or casting these sorts of votes actually ever want to play with someone like Iverson.
AI may have been a star, but each and every one of his co-stars in Philadelphia and Denver were traded for or picked up through the draft. No significant or even middling free agent ever signed on to latch on to AI’s wake. Even Kevin Ollie needed the comfort of a five-year deal at age 31 to be lured into Philly in 2003.
James Harden was famously awarded with the National Basketball Players Association’s MVP in 2015, a bit of a shot to the bow of Stephen Curry and his champion Golden State Warriors. Curry was voted MVP by the press in 2014-15 and his Warriors topped Harden’s Rockets in the playoffs, but those Warriors were loaded in ways the Rockets weren’t, and to some the MVP vote seemed like a coin flip selection.
To the players, it was more than that. For fans and media, though, Houston’s embarrassing 2015-16 showing (getting coach Kevin McHale fired mainly because Harden was out of shape to start the season, sleepwalking through the regular season and hardly putting up a first round fight against Golden State even after Curry went down with injury) helped confirm the notion that Curry (who defended his MVP crown in 2015-16) was the superior player.
So much so that when the league’s All-NBA teams were announced, as Durant pointed out, James Harden didn’t even make any of the three squads. Six guards, and no room for the guy who averaged 29 points alongside 7.5 assists and six boards.
Houston stunk, though – at least in relative comparison to the championship contenders many assumed they’d turn out to be. Free agent Dwight Howard left the team during this offseason, the team’s two free agent pickups have both battled through significant injury issues (Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson), and this has to be yet another case of a player in Kevin Durant talking big about a hometown guy, in James Harden’s building. A guy he’d never want to play with.
Then you remember that Kevin Durant, for three seasons, happily played alongside James Harden in Oklahoma City. And, just two and a half months prior to the trade that sent Harden to Houston, Durant and Harden paired to win that Olympic gold medal on the 2012 Men’s Basketball Team in London. He’s actually played with James Harden.
(Though he didn’t allow the Rockets a visit during his free agent turn. When asked by Feigen why, here is Durant’s response:
“I talked about this for so long, man, I’m just trying to move past it,” Durant said. “I have respect for every team in this league. James is a friend. It was just something I chose to do. I’m just trying to get past this whole thing, man.”
We’re not here to talk about the past. July was ever so long ago.)
This isn’t to revisit that trade, one that has earned? taken in higher word counts than the deal that sent in-prime Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Los Angeles for Brian Winters, Elmore Smith and Junior Bridgeman. It’s just to point out that Kevin Durant’s greatest triumphs – the 2012 trip to the NBA Finals, one that saw OKC working with a 1-0 series lead at one point, the 2012 medal – have come with James Harden in the building.
And the All-NBA voting? Yes, that was a bit of a mess.
Curry, ex-Durant teammate Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul (who missed just eight games this season) are all givens to fill half of those spots, but Harden has significant arguments with Klay Thompson, Kyle Lowry, and possibly Damian Lillard. The Rockets showed no cohesion and no leadership last year, and that is ALL on James Harden, but as Durant points out – at some point 29-7-6, with 1.7 steals and a league-leading amount of minutes … that has to count for something, right?
James Harden isn’t Allen Iverson, because you don’t hear any ex-Iverson teammates sticking up for AI in ways that Durant just did. Stuck on a team all by his offensive lonesome and asked to dominate, he still reels off far more efficient turns and he doesn’t walk out on teams when things don’t go his way.
The stat line behind his 2015-16 effort, one that resulted in him receiving a third (from the Rockets’ local television announcer), a fourth and fifth-place vote is nearly identical once you balance the box score and advanced stats. His points, rebounds and assists per game all increased, so did his minutes (though not by a major amount), and an uptick in turnover rate and slight decrease in three-point shooting made it so his Player Efficiency Rating dropped a point.
That’s a long way of saying he had the same season, offensively at least, and went from a close MVP runner-up and the NBPA’s MVP to an afterthought. With most of the voting done by guys and gals that didn’t have time to watch nearly every Rockets game on League Pass every night or scouring other sites for clips the next day.
Such is the power of reputation, and those hilarious Vines that show James Harden just not caring about one end of the court. When compared to the doggedness of Kyle Lowry’s season or Damian Lillard’s work in dragging a rebuilding Trail Blazers team in the playoff, James Harden’s All-NBA exclusion, in many ways, can be argued away. Defense counts. So does leadership.
It’s not so much that we don’t appreciate what James Harden brings, Kevin Durant. It’s that we also understand what he’s supposed to bring, and how he failed his team, his coaching staff, and teammates last season. James Harden should have been spittin’ mad after losing out on the actual MVP in 2014-15, and continued the stellar defensive play that helped turn his Rockets into Western Conference finalists that season.
Instead, he faltered. And we hope he cares much more about Houston’s underachieving 41-41 record and embarrassing first round performance than he does a silly (and immediately forgettable) recognition like a spot on the All-NBA team. First, second, or third.
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