James Harden is the hero of his own story, the only pages in which he can find vindication right now. Like any author stricken with myopia, he's trying to write himself out of the corner he finds himself in. Watching him run into dead ends, mix metaphors, and unable to find the right words to bring the reader aboard his train of thought feels hauntingly familiar.
He won't stop until he pulls the Houston Rockets — a franchise he helped soar to great heights — crash back down to the Earth. Harden showed up late and overweight. His trade demands have been public and not at all subtle. There hasn't been a face-saving attempt at reconciliation, even a hollow one.
Friction rose to a spark-shooting level after the Rockets' 117-100 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. A dejected superstar sat with a hang-dog look and assessed the situation he's responsible for creating.
"I love this city. I literally have done everything that I can," he said. "I mean, this situation is crazy. It's something that I don't think can be fixed."
At some point, perhaps later this month, we should have a national fireside chat about what the word literally means. Because Harden hasn't literally done everything he can. It's a situation that may be irreparable but a very obvious and helpful option would be to suffer about three notches more quietly and not try to actively detonate all available explosive devices to get what he wants and get it right now. He doesn't have to grin and bear it, he could simply bare it with less public grievance.
"We're not even close, honestly, to that team -- obviously the defending champions -- and all the other elite teams out there," he continued. "I mean, you can tell the difference in these last two games. We're just not good enough -- chemistry, talentwise, just everything. And it was clear these last two games."
This may all be true. The Rockets are 3-6 and appear rudderless and listless. Yet it's worth wondering how much of that is self-fulfilling prophesy. Those defending Harden's on-court contributions may not notice that he's averaging almost 10 points per game fewer than last year. That's he's shooting a quarter less than he has over the past few years. And, it should go without saying, that his attitude has an impact.
John Wall, brought in to be a Robin to a Batman, has already seen the so-called hero unmasked and revealed as a bit of modern Bruce Wayne. Wall admitted things have been rocky and didn't sound entirely hopeful amid last night's mess.
Harden is being paid over $41 million this year. His professional problems pale in comparison to those facing the average fan in a normal year, let alone one with a society-crippling pandemic not yet at its apex. Is he so disconnected from reality that he doesn't understand how much he's alienating himself from the mean? Does he not realize how tone-deaf and toxic he's actions are making him, and at quickening pace?
We're left to conclude that he doesn't. Because if he did, he'd change course.
It's not fair to criticize without self-reflection. And I understand that some of the ranting above come off like a smooth-brained sports-talk caller who wants to rail on an athlete. It's not a pleasurable thing to do, especially for someone like myself who believes in player empowerment and has found the traditional machismo lens through which we experience sports small-minded and unhelpful.
But even with this preamble, here comes the pitch.
Harden is soft in composition and soft in resolve. It's unpleasant to watch as a neutral observer and has to be maddening for invested parties. He has not literally done everything he can for the city. He's essentially quit and thrown a fit until he can get his way. The Rockets may not be fixable.