In the NBA’s financial ecosystem, with the league’s booming popularity and a media-rights deal that is set to double its television revenue in a couple of years, true greatness is not a requirement for a player to get paid the maximum allowable dollars under the league’s cap system. Being merely satisfactory can be enough to get paid.
By the end of a hyper-productive 2013-14 season, James Harden had been better than satisfactory. He was a good player. Hell, he made the All-Star team for the first time that year. Largely because of his gaudy offensive numbers, he was named All-NBA First Team after the season ended. The fact remained, though, that Harden’s overall game was polarizing to fans and basketball experts. Was James Harden a great scorer or a great basketball player? Mountains of evidence existed supporting only the former, including a comical 11-minute YouTube video of a series of plays showing Harden’s playing defense with the intensity of a pregnant cow.
On top of all that, however expansively you viewed Harden’s individual greatness, the fact remained that he was the on-court steward of a team that had been knocked out in the first round of the NBA playoffs. He could have kept cashing those max dollar paychecks for another season, though, with little to no improvement in his game. He was good enough; he just wasn’t great by NBA standards. So in the summer of 2014, Harden made a choice — he chose to become truly great and spent the 2014 offseason working to get better, as a player and a leader.
“The biggest difference we saw in James this (2014-15) season was in his leadership,” Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey said. “But there were parts of his game as well, like his defense, his attacking ability, use of his right hand. He became a better leader and a better defender.”
To Morey’s point, the difference in the version of Harden that came back in 2014-15 compared to previous seasons was noticeable. His leadership skills that sprouted for Team USA during the World Cup in the summer of 2014 carried over into his NBA season last fall. More important, Harden became a player whose effort extended to both ends of the floor, offensively and defensively.
The results? A perennial All-Star grew into a league MVP, according to his peers. (Harden won the players’ vote for MVP. Golden State’s Steph Curry won the writers’ vote.) Harden led the NBA in the “win shares” statistic with 16.4 (“the true measurement of valuable,” according to Morey). A team whose previous ceiling was merely making the playoffs made a run to the conference finals.
On a broader, macro basis, though, in the past year, Harden went from star athlete to household name. His signature beard had always made him facially recognizable, but now his transcendent play — leading the league in scoring and leading a team whose other starters missed way more than 100 games combined during the regular season to a two seed — made Harden a brand unto himself.
In sports, there are a number of ways to gauge a player’s branding impact and his reach beyond what he or she does on the court or field. Basketball’s understood unit of image currency has always been tied to shoe sales. In basketball, the ultimate show of respect isn’t so much a kid perfecting his favorite player’s crossover dribble or Eurostep, but instead that same kid’s desire to sleep out in front of a mall to get his hands on the latest release of footwear carrying that player’s name. Ask Michael Jordan and Nike.
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The leader in the basketball shoe market for decades has been Nike, now with a dominant 90 percent share in the United States. Since entering the NBA, Harden had been one of dozens of NBA players endorsing Nike. However, as of October 1, Harden will begin wearing and speaking for Adidas. Adidas is hoping Harden can do for their brand (and its paltry 3 percent market share) what Jordan has done for Nike the past three decades. In August, the company inked the Rockets’ superstar to a 13-year, $200 million deal that will include his own personal line of shoes and apparel.
“We’re a brand of creators, and James embodies that more than any athlete in the game. His addition to the Adidas basketball family is a game changer,” said Chris Grancio, Adidas global basketball general manager.
Harden was brought to Houston from Oklahoma City in October 2012 in one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history. Though he was a third wheel behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with the Thunder, Harden’s game has blossomed beyond even Morey’s reasonable expectations. “We thought he could be a foundational player,” said Morey. “But you can’t forecast a guy becoming an MVP.”
In his three seasons as a Rocket, Harden’s overall star and brand have risen to heights that, by some measurements (“endorsement dollars earned” and “number of Kardashians dated” being two in particular), make him the biggest crossover sports celebrity in the city of Houston.
In the grand scheme of things, that doesn’t sound like that big a deal. Then you remember that J.J. Watt also lives here, and you realize the “golden age” of sports stardom is upon us in Houston.