2014 All-Star Profiles: James Harden

Back when I was 14 years old, I watched Raging Bull for the first time. I was raised in a house of movie gurus and this was one I had been dying to see, so the day I finally got the “OK” from my parents was a good one. I was excited. Like really excited. I had heard a lot of good things about it, from it being one of Robert DeNiro’s finest movies to it being full of profanity and violent boxing scenes, which was right up my alley. To add to all my eagerness to hit play, IMDB gave it an 8.3 out of ten, ranking it as the 107th greatest movie of all time. Being someone who’s mind is moulded far too easily by the reviews on that site, it wouldn’t take much for me to buy into the hype.

The next two hours and nine minutes lived up to all my expectations. I loved it. DeNiro’s depiction of Jake LaMotta blew my mind and it was all just so good. It was hard-hitting, nail biting and gritty. The fact that it was in black and white didn’t bother me like it normally would have. I was convinced, it was an awesome movie. For years, I told friends about it; how amazing it was. “A must see,” I’d say.

But, boy, did I end up eating my own words.

James Harden was always good. In his sophomore season at Arizona State, he averaged 20.1 points. He was the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. He won Sixth Man of the Year in 2012 and carried the Oklahoma City Thunder in a Western Conference Finals series against the always resilient San Antonio Spurs. But saying we knew he was going to be this good would be a lie.

After coming off the bench for nearly every game as a member of the Thunder, there were concerns about him being ‘the man‘ on a team. He was fresh off of averaging 12.4 points on 37.5 percent shooting from the floor in a five game series against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Surely that was a tell all sign that he wasn’t ready to shoulder the heavy load of putting a team on his back over a full 82 game season. But whoever thought that was wrong.

It didn’t take long for Harden to find his feet with the Rockets. In his first game of the 2012-2013 season, he poured in 37 points, dished out 12 assists and pulled down six rebounds. Three nights later, he hung 45 points on the Atlanta Hawks in their arena. And over the next few months, he lived up to the bill, doing everything humanly possible on the offensive end of the court, carrying a team that had forgotten what a Playoff atmosphere felt like.

At the end of the season, he had made his case for the best shooting guard in the NBA. His 24.4 points per game was the fourth most in the league, trailing only Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. He had become a star and everyone knew it.

On a rainy day last November, I decided that I was going to re-watch Raging Bull for the first time in eight years. But unlike the first time I took it in, I knew what to expect. I could see an overweight, old Robert DeNiro when I closed my eyes as well as all the intense fights. The only problem was, I expected far too much this time around.

As I sat down on my couch to watch one of my favorite movies from my childhood with the rain tapping at my window sill, I felt like a kid again. I hadn’t been this excited about a movie in a long time because, you know, it’s not every day that you watch one of the most celebrated sports movies in film history. I made sure nothing was going to disturb me over the new few hours. Everyone was out of the house and it was just me and the movie. But I found myself checking my phone far too much as the film went on. Twitter was calling my name seemingly every minute. I kept looking over at the ticker to see how much longer was left, counting down the hours, minutes, seconds, remaining until the credits came on. I wanted it to end. I had seen enough. This wasn’t the movie I had fallen in love with. The magic wasn’t there. I was disappointed.

Really disappointed.

Houston had a good reason to be over the moon when Daryl Morey convinced Dwight Howard to become a Rocket. For the first time since Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were on the team, they had a one-two punch to be excited about. Hell, they still do. We’re only two thirds of the way through the season and the Rockets are in a good place, trailing the Spurs by just two games in the Southwest Division. At this rate, they’ll have home-court advantage in the Playoffs, something The Bayou City hasn’t experienced in a long time. But there is one slight concern: James Harden hasn’t been the wheeling and dealing, scoring-with-reckless-abandon guy he was last year.

Make no mistake about it, Harden is still the best two-guard in the league, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that the position is so bare nowadays. His biggest competitor, Kobe Bryant, has missed all but six games. There’s Dwyane Wade, too, but his knees have kept him sidelined for most of the season. After that, you’re looking at the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Arron Afflalo, Monta Ellis, Klay Thompson and Wesley Matthews. Good players, but not franchise changers. Harden’s 23.6 points, 5.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game are much better than what those aforementioned players are putting up, but they’re kind of disappointing.

There goes that word again: “disappointing.”

Expectations are a killer. Last year, everyone loved James Harden. His beard was perfect, his shot selection was fun and the fact that he didn’t play defense wasn’t that much of a concern. The Rockets had shocked everyone by posting a winning season and the future looked bright. But this year, all his mistakes have been magnified, including his often shoddy defense. The step-back fallaway jumpers don’t seem to have the same magic that they did 12 months ago. Him getting to the line nearly 10 times a game doesn’t feel all that impressive anymore. And him isolating himself at the top of key several times a game is infuriating given the supreme talent surrounding him.

But every so often, he reminds us why we all fell in love with him in the first place. A 33-point performance against the Portland Trail Blazers on their home turf. A trio of 30 point games to kick off the New Year. A season-high 13 assists in a one-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies at the end of January. A game-winning euro-step against the Washington Wizards last night.

It’s all there. He’s still the same James Harden. That beard is just as fierce and he exudes the same confidence. Had it not been for an unfortunate run of injuries, maybe we wouldn’t be here, comparing him to my disappointment when watching Raging Bull again for the first time in years. Nevertheless, Harden is an All-Star and deservedly so. He’s the best player on one of the best teams in the Western Conference. He’s a threat to go off for 30 plus points on any given night. He’ll still take over a game in the final minutes with a series of nifty crossovers and lighting quick step-backs. He’s just not doing it with the same consistency we grew accustomed to seeing last year, evident by his Player Efficiency Rating dropping by 1.7.

For the Houston Rockets to make some real noise in the post-season, they’ll need James Harden to be better. Obviously things are different now with Dwight Howard by his side, but that’s not an excuse. His usage rate isn’t quite as high as it was last year, but it’s still his team and he’ll be what drives them deep into the Playoffs. The formula is pretty simple: When Harden plays well, so do the Rockets. In their 36 wins so far this season, he has shot 47.9 percent from the floor. In their 17 losses, that percentage has taken a huge hit down to 37.7.

James Harden still has plenty of time to rewrite this script, a luxury Martin Scorsese doesn’t have. With the Rockets hitting a groove heading into the All-Star break, this is his chance to make his mark. There are only 29 games remaining on the Rockets’ schedule this regular season and this final push is what will secure them home court advantage in the first round. Dwight Howard is looking like his old self again and the rest of the pieces are falling into place. All that remains is for their superstar to lace up those gloves and come out swinging.

Scott Rafferty