James Harden Is Easily One of the NBA's Best Players. Why Isn't He Treated Like It?

It can be hard to shake an identity, especially in the world of social media. James Harden is, by virtually every empirical measure, one of the three or four best basketball players on the planet. But you wouldn't know it if comments about him by fans across the NBA were any indication. A recent fake rumor about a trade involving Harden and Boston was slammed by many Celtics fans who didn't think the All-Star guard was worth acquiring at any price.

This ridiculous narrative began in 2014 with a YouTube video highlighting some of his more lethargic efforts on the defensive end of the floor (more on this in a moment). It continued when he came into training camp in 2015 seemingly out of shape after a summer of partying with his girlfriend, Khloé Kardashian, and her celebrity friends. A TMZ video of a drunk Harden outside an L.A. nightclub surfaced and he became the subject of memes with a walk-off eye roll during a postgame interview.

All of this led to the belief that the Rockets guard was more interested in being a twentysomething celebrity than he was in winning basketball games. He finished the season with remarkable numbers. Even with his slow start, Harden became only the fourth player in NBA history to average 29 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists for a season. The other three? Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and LeBron James.

But the team's disappointing finish and the continued criticism of his defense and enigmatic personality led to Harden's omission from the All-NBA team, generally considered the best measure of a player's true standing among his peers.

In some ways, Harden has been his own worst enemy. He is a rather mercurial sort who isn't terribly comfortable in one-on-one interviews and appears to be more relaxed during a game than focused — a trait often ascribed to another former Rockets guard, Tracy McGrady. And Harden, by his own admission, has been lacking on defense. The aforementioned video's carefully edited clips of Harden's foibles on that end of the floor are nothing to snicker at.

But regardless of the problems, he remains one of the most consistently brilliant offensive threats in the NBA. He has increased his scoring average in all but one of his seven seasons, and his rebounds and assists per game have gone up every year he's been in the league. Harden is only one season removed from being the runner-up for league MVP (an award many would argue he deserved more than Steph Curry).

And that is all before this season.

For those who have not been paying attention, Harden is on a torrid pace through the first 10-11 games of the season. He is in the top five in scoring and leading the league in assists. He is shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor and almost 39 percent from the three-point line. He has already had two triple-doubles and a stretch of four games with at least 30 points, 12 assists (three of those games, he had 15) and 6 rebounds. The last person to have a stretch like that was Michael Jordan.

Since being handed the reins to handle the ball by new coach Mike D'Antoni and with new shooters like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon on the floor with him, Harden has rapidly become one of the most dangerous threats in the NBA, as both a scorer and a passer.

It could be argued that he has only had one rough patch of basketball since joining the Rockets. Unfortunately, those struggles coincided with Kardashians and partying and YouTube videos and eye rolls and alleged locker room issues between him and now-former Rocket Dwight Howard. The end result is a narrative Harden and the Rockets are having a difficult time shaking.

But he isn't the first player to suffer from image problems that threatened to derail his career (see: The Decision: James, LeBron). It will likely take a monumental effort from the star guard to change how those around the league view him. That and winning, the cure-all for any sports-related ailment (see: Cubs, Chicago). Until then, fans should just be glad they are getting to see Harden play at a level rarely seen in basketball history. And if you aren't watching, there's plenty of room on the bandwagon.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke