“Damn, it’s small in here,” James Harden observed to himself, with a touch of disappointment, as he entered a packed conference room on Thursday afternoon. Harden took a seat at the podium, visibly uncomfortable in the claustrophobic setting. Here he was in his hometown to give his much-anticipated first public remarks as a Los Angeles Clipper following a drama-filled, drawn-out request to be traded away from Philadelphia, to maybe less fanfare than he anticipated.
There weren’t exactly innumerable suitors for Harden, the Most Valuable Player of six seasons ago who demanded a trade from his third team in as many years and has thusly earned a reputation as perhaps the NBA’s least dependable superstar. He is an offensive savant, and almost universally acknowledged as one of the most gifted scoring talents the league has ever seen. But even putting aside his penchant for dissatisfaction in the workplace, the 34-year-old Harden has compiled a less-than-stellar track record in big playoff moments – the entirety of which made trading him a hard sell for 76ers GM Daryl Morey this offseason.
Morey, of course, is also someone with whom Harden recently had a very public falling out (allegedly over a contract dispute) and whom Harden now infamously called “a liar” at an Adidas media event in China this summer (a place that isn’t terribly fond of Morey in its own right), which didn’t exactly facilitate the trade that both parties wanted.
Harden didn’t mince words on Thursday after practice at the Clippers’ Playa Vista facility as he discussed his departure from Philly after one and a half seasons: “Me leaving Brooklyn, going to Philadelphia, I was thinking I was going to retire as a Sixer. The front office had other plans. They didn’t want me, simple as that.” He mentioned the $26m pay cut he took in opting out of his extension with the Nets in favor of the Sixers – allegedly on a handshake deal that more money would be coming down the line, which it never did – and the diminished role that came with it.James Harden ponders a reporter’s question during Thursay’s introductory press conference.Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP
He felt he was “on a leash” in Doc Rivers’ offense, he said, clarifiying that it wasn’t about his own scoring, but rather feeling like he didn’t have a voice: that he wasn’t respected as a basketball intellectual. Throwing not-so-subtle shade at Rivers, he continued: “When I said ‘on a leash’, I don’t mean just shooting the basketball every time. I think the game. I’m a creator on the court. If I’ve got a voice, someone that trusts me, believes in me, understands me – I’m not a system player, I’m a system,” he said, emphatically. “If I have someone who can have a dialogue with me, make adjustments on the fly throughout the course of the game, that’s all I really care about. It’s not about having the basketball, or scoring 30, 40 points a night. I’ve done that already.”
Harden made sure to underscore the important talking points: that he doesn’t care about individual accolades any longer (“as long as we win the game, and everyone’s feeling confident and good about themselves, that’s all that really matters”), that his only goal now was to “win at the highest level”. But it was clear from listening to him speak about his former team that emotions are still high following the divorce. He sounded genuinely affronted by the turn his longtime relationship with Morey had taken; hurt, even, that the Sixers didn’t agree with his self-ascribed value and didn’t appreciate the sacrifices he felt he made for the franchise.
Whether it’s the team-hopping, the unabashed reverence for nightlife, or the gif-reaction-worthy eye roll, Harden has, wittingly or not, cultivated a reputation for being apathetic. But I was left with quite the opposite impression after Thursday’s introductory press conference. Sitting before me was a man with a gigantic chip on his shoulder. Someone who didn’t just care what people thought about him and his legacy. Someone who cared a lot. The drama and punchlines surrounding Harden’s surefire Hall of Fame career aren’t just loud, they’re deafening. And he seems newly determined to silence the noise. When asked by one reporter Thursday if there was “anything left you want to prove” in his stint on the Clippers, Harden nodded decisively and replied with a single word: “Everything.”