The list of NBA players to log four straight top-three Most Valuable Player finishes is a who’s who of all-time greats … and James Harden, whose career has taken an odd turn since his third-place MVP finish in 2020:
The list of players to record six top-five MVP finishes in a seven-year span or eight straight top-10 finishes, which Harden did for the Houston Rockets, is not all that different. These 10 players share 46 championship rings between them, and all but Harden have one. In fact, everyone else but Robertson has at least three.
Harden, who turns 33 years old next month, is seeking a fifth team for his 15th season after picking up a $35.6 million option for the 2023-24 campaign and requesting a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers, preferably to the Los Angeles Clippers. He would also join a short list of MVPs who have played for five franchises:
Moses Malone (7)
Bob McAdoo (7)
Shaquille O’Neal (6)
Derrick Rose (6)
Russell Westbrook (5)
Malone and McAdoo rose to stardom in the 1970s, when routinely teams sold stars (even MVPs) to keep from folding, injuries threatened careers and general managers made crippling decisions. O’Neal chased rings on the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics in his final three seasons, when he was a part-time player in his late 30s. Rose has been a journeyman since a series of knee injuries threatened his career. And Westbrook is on his fifth team in five seasons, largely because Harden persuaded the Rockets to trade for him, and the two quickly decided they neither wanted to play in Houston nor with each other.
The Venn diagram of those two circles makes Harden’s career the weirdest of any bona fide superstar ever.
It was not all that strange when Harden wanted off the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012, even if they were a title favorite, because he was the Sixth Man of the Year looking for a premier role, and they would not meet his modest asking price. Nor was it weird when Harden and Dwight Howard parted ways in 2016, a year removed from a Western Conference finals appearance, since Howard was then considered the dissenter.
There were indications of what weirdness would come. In the calendar year of 2015, when Harden dated Khloe Kardashian, he was benched in the Game 6 comeback that propelled Houston to the conference finals, partied with the entertainer Drake before back-to-back must-win games against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, played a role — directly, indirectly or both — in head coach Kevin McHale’s firing 11 games into the next season and reportedly pushing the Rockets to trade Howard (again).
“When you come here, you have to pick your side,” a veteran member of the Rockets warned a midseason addition of the dynamic between Harden and Howard, according to Lee Jenkins, then of Sports Illustrated.
“It’s really bad for the locker-room dynamic,” another source told Ken Berger, then of CBS Sports, between the ends of the Houston road for McHale and Howard. “If everybody knows that James Harden can fire you or trade you, are you going to pass the ball to Dwight or are you going to pass the ball to James Harden?”
Except, Harden was generating offense at historic levels in the aftermath of Howard’s 2016 exit. Over the next four seasons, Harden banked three scoring titles, an assist crown and his four straight top-three MVP finishes, averaging 32.4 points and 8.8 assists per game from 2016-20. It was the dawn of Moreyball, which demanded double-digit attempts from Harden at the rim, the free-throw line and the 3-point arc every night.
This stretch opened a window into the crux of Harden’s career. What satisfies him is unfulfilling to anyone who is not content with winning two-thirds of their regular-season games on his terms, namely any high-profile star who joined him in pursuit of a championship. Harden has never leveraged his high-usage brand of basketball into playoff success the way other mainstays of the MVP conversation leveraged their games.
It isn’t always just his style of play, either. Harden scored 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting and committed six turnovers in a close-out Game 6 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the 2017 playoffs, arguably his worst big-game performance in a playoff career full of them. He and Chris Paul led the Rockets to the 2018 Western Conference finals, pushing one of the greatest teams ever assembled to a Game 7, but in Paul’s absence, Houston missed a postseason record 27 straight 3-pointers, including 10 from Harden.
Harden was the league’s MVP on a 65-win team that might have won a title if Paul had not been injured and Kevin Durant had not joined Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in Golden State. Yet, inside of a year, Harden and Paul’s relationship was “unsalvageable.” Another playoff loss to the Warriors ended in a verbal exchange between them that began over “ball distribution” and still lingers to this day.
“One of Paul’s biggest beefs,” sources later told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, “was that Harden basically opted not to participate in the Rockets’ offense when the ball wasn’t in his hands, sometimes barely stepping over half court while spectating when Paul had the ball.” Soon came a bombshell from Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill: Paul requested a trade and Harden issued a “him or me” edict in a rush to end their partnership.
“We don’t talk, communicate, nothing like that,” Paul told TNT’s Chris Haynes of Harden in 2020.
The Rockets dealt Paul and the rights to four first-round draft picks to Oklahoma City in 2019 for Westbrook at Harden’s behest, and things officially got weird. The longtime friends and reunited teammates earned a home playoff seed and narrowly defeated Paul’s Thunder in the opening round, but Westbrook reached the same conclusion as Paul after a second-round loss to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in 2020.
Multiple reports at the time detailed Westbrook’s concerns about a Rockets culture that permitted Harden to charter private jets to Las Vegas parties between games and arrive late to team activities. As with Paul, Harden reportedly did not receive criticism well from Westbrook, who also took issue with ball movement.
This time, both requested trades. The Rockets dealt Westbrook and the rights to another first-round pick to the Washington Wizards for John Wall’s albatross contract, and Harden would not lord over a teardown his game begot. As training camp opened in 2020 without a trade in place for Harden, he partied in Vegas and Atlanta with rapper Lil Baby and offered this to the media when he finally arrived in Houston out of shape:
James, what was the point that you were trying to get across when you went to Atlanta and Vegas when training camp was starting?
Harden: “I was just training.”
What were you training for?
Harden: “Uh, the start of the NBA season.”
How did going to Atlanta and Vegas help you there when the Rockets were starting training camp in Houston?
Harden: “Just my personal trainers.”
Harden quit on the organization that oversaw his rise to superstardom, telling reporters after back-to-back early season losses to the Lakers, “We’re just not good enough — obviously, chemistry, talent-wise, just everything — and it was clear these last few games. … I love this city. I’ve literally done everything that I can. I mean, this situation, it’s crazy. It’s something that I don’t think can be fixed, so, yeah, thanks.”
To which Harden’s Rockets teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, responded, “The disrespect started way before any interview. Just the approach to training camp, showing up the way he did, the antics off the court, I mean the disrespect started way before. So this isn’t something all of a sudden happened last night.”
Houston promptly dealt Harden to join Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets, so Harden lugged his baggage to “the greatest theoretical team of all time” and never unpacked it. He conceded that his poor preseason conditioning contributed to the right hamstring issues that derailed Brooklyn’s 2021 title shot.
“I kind of blame last year on myself because I’m usually prepared — like, physically, mentally,” Harden told reporters at the start of the 2021-22 campaign, when he declared himself healthy and happy in Brooklyn. “Last year was just draining in the sense of all the stuff that was going on, so I didn’t have the right mindset and preparation for an entire season. Usually I’m very, very durable, and I’m able to handle anything that comes my way for the most part, so last year was kinda tricky. It was kinda weird, or whatever.”
Weird, or whatever, indeed.
It was around this time that Harden declined a three-year, $161 million extension from the Nets that he had previously twice told Durant he would sign, according to The Ringer’s Logan Murdock. With that, Harden quit on Brooklyn, too. He grew frustrated by Irving’s vaccination protest and Durant’s injury absence during the 2021-22 season, even as his own hamstring issues persisted, and his teammates responded in kind.
“Definitely a weird vibe between them,” a source told The Athletic’s Joe Vardon of an exchange between Harden and Irving in January 2022. “You could tell Harden was annoyed, and Kyrie wasn’t feeling James.”
Likewise, “Durant was astonished in the opening weeks of the [2021-22] season at Harden’s lack of explosiveness and sluggish play, something he attributed in large part to Harden’s being out of shape, as he did the ensuing [left] hamstring issues,” according to Kevin Arnovitz, then writing for ESPN.com.
Sure enough, in the weeks before the February 2022 trade deadline, Harden mailed in a four-point, six-turnover performance against the Sacramento Kings. He arrived at halftime of Brooklyn’s next game against the Utah Jazz, flew to Vegas afterward instead of joining his teammates on their plane to Denver, and then showed up late to the game against the Nuggets, according to our Jake Fischer, then of Bleacher Report. He made it clear to the Nets what they had known for some time: He was no longer committed.
Durant, also frustrated by Harden’s isolation game, “pulled the trigger” on the deal that sent Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and draft compensation, and Irving was “eager” to see him go, too, according to reports. “Kevin was like: ‘F*** it. James isn’t bringing s***,'” a source told Fischer.
The night of the trade, Durant and LeBron James — perhaps the two greatest players of their generation — left Harden last in their All-Star draft, literally laughing at a peer who considers himself on their same level.
Behind the scenes, Harden “found Durant’s slant grating and self-righteous,” according to Arnovitz, but publicly — and ironically, considering how his Houston tenure ended — the one-time MVP later told Fox Sports’ Yaron Weitzman, “It was just, there was no structure and even superstars, they need structure.”
The structure in Philadelphia — overseen by 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, also the architect in Houston throughout Harden’s tenure — could not drain the festering weirdness. Still feeling tightness in his hamstrings (which, again, he attributed to a snowball effect from his late arrival to training camp two years earlier), Harden submarined in a close-out Game 6 loss to the Miami Heat in the 2022 Eastern Conference semifinals, missing his only two shots in 22 minutes after halftime of a one-possession game.
“We ran our offense,” Harden said postgame. “The ball just didn’t get back to me.”
This is James Harden we are talking about, the archetype of ball dominance. This internal struggle between wanting to play the way that made him a member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team and needing to play a complementary game to another star in order to compete for a championship continued to plague Harden in Philadelphia. When things are going well, as they were when the Sixers were one of the best teams in the league for a large part of this past regular season, Harden can cast himself as the hero of his own narrative.
He even accepted a $14 million pay cut, declining a $47 million option on the 2022-23 season to agree to a two-year, $68.6 million deal that allowed the Sixers to add former Rockets P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr. to a roster headlined by Joel Embiid. Harden also did not think he received proper credit for this charity.
“This is how bad I want to win,” he told Yahoo Sports in July 2022. “I want to compete for a championship. That’s all that matters to me at this stage. I’m willing to take less to put us in position to accomplish that.”
By Christmas, Harden’s camp was floating the possibility of a return to Houston, where the Rockets would have the salary cap space to offer him his full starting maximum salary of $47.6 million in 2023 free agency.
Yet, when Irving and Durant asked off the Nets in February, Harden told reporters of Brooklyn, “A lot of dysfunction. Clearly. A lot of internal things I’m not going to ever just say. … That was one of the reasons I chose to make my decision. Now, fast forward to date, I don’t look like the crazy one. I don’t look like the quitter or whatever the media wants to call me. I knew what was going on and I just decided, Hey, I’m not built for this. I don’t wanna deal with that. I wanna play basketball and have fun and enjoy doing it.”
Maybe that is all there is to Harden: I wanna play basketball and have fun and enjoy doing it.
This would explain why Harden once said in reference to two-time MVP and one-time champion Giannis Antetokounmpo, “I wish I was just 7 feet and could just run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all.” That was a stunning misunderstanding of every facet of the game outside of an isolation step-back 3-pointer.
It also merges with McHale’s pointed comments about Harden’s lack of leadership back in 2017: “It’s a tie game at half. It’s a playoff game, or you’re playing another team that’s tough and rumble, and they’re going to get after you. And all of a sudden, with four minutes to go in the third, you’re down nine. They’re getting every loose ball, they’re getting every rebound, they’re doing this stuff. It’s not about skill at that point. It’s about will. I gotta impose my will on you. James at that point gets a little bit — that’s not his personality.”
Harden took issue with McHale’s assessment at the time, calling his former coach “a clown,” but when things are not going well, Harden has a history of retreating. He reveled in the adulation of his 40-point nights in Games 1 and 4 of this year’s conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics, but when his nine-point effort in a Game 7 loss punctuated a 12-for-55 showing (21.8 FG%) in four defeats, Harden deflected.
Asked about his relationship with Doc Rivers and whether he wanted the head coach back on the 76ers, Harden offered only, “Uh, our relationship is OK.” Two days later, the Sixers fired Rivers, and members of his coaching staff were laying the blame for his ousting on Harden, Fischer reported for Yahoo Sports.
On the eve of free agency, when it was clear the Rockets were not willing to offer him a max contract, Harden opted into his $35.6 million salary for this season and requested a trade to the Clippers. It was not just Rivers for whom Harden no longer wanted to play. It was also Embiid — the reigning MVP — who was “disappointed” to hear the news that “his friend” Harden was no longer interested in playing in Philadelphia.
“I want him to come back, obviously,” Embiid told Showtime’s Rachel Nichols, “so we can go out and accomplish what we want, which is to win a championship, so hopefully his mindset can be changed.”
Again, this falls in line with what Rivers told The Ringer’s Bill Simmons in June: “We were fighting two things. … James was so good at playing one way, and the way I believe you have to play to win, in some ways, is different, because it’s a lot of giving up the ball, moving the ball and coming back to the ball.
“At times, to get him to move and play the way I needed him to play [was challenging]. I thought the first half of the year we were the best team in the game. I thought James was playing perfect basketball. He was a point guard of the team. He was still scoring, but he was doing more playmaking and scoring. Then, in the second half, he started scoring more, and I thought we got more stagnant at times. I thought we changed.”
The Sixers may have changed, but Harden did not. We now have a decade’s worth of evidence to explain this is who Harden is. He wants success on his terms, which is what everyone should want, but basketball is a team sport, and its goal is harder to achieve when not everyone is driven by a championship mindset.
Harden just wants to play basketball and have fun and enjoy doing it. And then there’s the money part.
The three-year, $161 million extension that Nets owner Joe Tsai offered Harden in 2021 would have began this year and paid him more than $55 million for the 2025-26 season. When Harden declined it, there was no reason for him to believe he would be paid anything but his max for as long as he wanted. He had been since 2012, and a four-year, $227 million extension was waiting on the other side of the 2021-22 season.
Only, the hamstring issues persisted, preventing him from returning to MVP form ever since, and the frustrations from teammates and coaches over his style of play became more pronounced. As did the playoff woes, and suddenly Fred VanVleet was a more desirable free agent than a 33-year-old Harden.
Harden has already lost close to $30 million by refusing Tsai’s offer, and he is chasing the difference. He figured Morey would reward him, especially after he took a pay cut to upgrade the roster, but Harden’s play no longer justifies a long-term maximum commitment, and the Sixers dared him to find a better deal in free agency. Why else would the relationship between Harden and Morey be “fractured”? Harden leveraged his old team, flush with cap space, but a lucrative financial reunion made no sense for the Rockets, either.
Now, Harden is knocking on the door of Clippers owner Steve Ballmer’s $100 billion fortune. Maybe he can help Harden recoup some money he left on the table. But to think Harden will change — that his game will jell with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in ways it could not with Howard, Paul, Westbrook, Durant, Irving and Embiid; that he will abandon the hard-partying reputation that has followed him since he was allegedly “out every motherf***ing night” in Miami during the 2012 Finals — is to ignore the career that led him here.
In many ways, Harden and his hometown Clippers are a perfect pair, at least until he is not having fun anymore, and his somewhat self-inflicted decline in effectiveness is threatening to rain on any hopes they might have for a championship parade. It is already pouring in Philadelphia, where the Sixers allowed Morey, knowing all of this, to get back into business with a player who does not share the same goals.
The party could come to an end sooner than Harden ever thought. Maybe then he will come to see his career for what it is so far — fun for him, not so much for those who expected more, and weird all around.