It's amazing how quickly things can turn. One minute, you're at a podium in front of thousands of screaming fans telling them how you are going to bring them a championship. The next, you are taking the brunt of every fan's animosity while your team toils away in mediocrity. Ask Tracy McGrady.
Few players have entered the Rockets organization with as much fanfare as the former scoring champ. And few have left with as many curse words from the same people who stood and cheered for him when he arrived. That is the blessing and the curse of being a superstar player. You carry the weight of your team on your shoulders, often having to work harder and score more while still being a leader and unselfishly making those around you better. But hoisting that probably feels like a feather pillow compared to the burden of expectations.
If James Harden is not experiencing that pressure, he soon will.
The Rockets have made it out of the first round of the playoffs only once since 1997. In those intervening years, nearly every team in the NBA has gone further than the Rockets. Yet this is a team that has had McGrady, Yao Ming, Steve Francis, Harden and Dwight Howard. And after going belly up in free agency this offseason, the pressure on Harden will only grow.
As talented a player as he is, Harden is not the jovial, gregarious Howard. He isn't Arian Foster aloof, but his dry sense of humor doesn't always play well with the crowd and he has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth on occasion. For these things, fans could forgive him, but playing hard is a different story.
When a video surfaced last season that not only showed Harden's propensity for poor play on the defensive end, but a lack of interest as well, opinions rapidly began to change. Many fans blamed Harden for his defensive guidance during the brutal final play of the Portland series.
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For all his offensive prowess, Harden has been a sieve on defense, something a "superstar" player simply cannot be. Over the weekend, Denver Nuggets guard Ty Lawson took to Instagram to take a crack at Harden's defense by posting a photo of Harden wearing headphones with a Dallas Cowboys star logo on them. Dallas was being crushed by San Francisco at the time and has a historically bad defense.
It's tough enough when fans are at you, but when fellow players think it's funny, it's time to regroup. Harden is a member of Team USA competing for the FIBA World Cup, and reports from inside the team claim the Rockets guard has shown a renewed interest in defending. His play has been universally praised by teammates and the coaching staff. But this isn't the grind of the NBA.
When Harden was the only offensive scoring option the Rockets had, he was given a pass on defense. That isn't the case any longer and whatever he is allegedly doing in Spain, other than crashing his Segway, it better translate to the States. Training camp is just about a month away and no one is going to tolerate another year of shoddy defense, more embarrassing video montages and another early playoff exit. He got the max deal he wanted from the Rockets; now it is time for Harden to show max effort.