LOS ANGELES — James Harden has been doing more than ever for the Rockets this season, posting a career-high usage rate and leading the league in assists, so it’s only natural that he served as the hype man and bouncer at his own invite-only sneaker party.
The four-time All-Star celebrated the launch of his first signature shoe, the adidas Harden Vol. 1, with a series of guest appearances at sneaker stores in his hometown of L.A. on Saturday. The promotional tour concluded in Downtown, where he took to a makeshift stage to welcome hundreds of dancing fans, and then moved inside to the Nice Kicks retail store. There, he kept an eye on the door and flashed the thumbs up to security staffers so that friends and acquaintances could get inside, where promotional posters bearing his likeness donned the wall and dozens of pairs of his sneakers were displayed in glass cases.
As the party, complete with break-dancers and pop-a-shot games, continued outside, Harden got down to business. And right now, business is good, with the Rockets ahead of expectations at 13—7, boasting the NBA’s third-ranked offense and coming off back-to-back road wins over the Warriors and Nuggets. Meanwhile, Harden is back in the MVP mix after finishing second to Stephen Curry in 2015, joining a deep field of candidates that includes Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul in the early conversation.
Harden didn’t pause or blink when asked for his own MVP pick. He simply nominated himself.
“The Beard,” Harden told SI.com, before making his case. “Look at our record. Obviously the numbers, historic numbers. Just my performance overall.”
The 27-year-old Harden has shifted into a point guard role under new coach Mike D’Antoni. Through Saturday, he’s averaging 28.3 PPG, 11.8 APG and 7.6 RPG while posting a 28.3 Player Efficiency Rating (ranking fifth in the NBA) and a 6.94 Real Plus Minus (third). No player has matched Harden’s 28/7/11 boxscore line for an entire season since Oscar Robertson in 1966, although Westbrook won November's Western Conference Player of the Month by averaging 31/10/11.
The departure of Dwight Howard, the promotion of Clint Capela to starting center and the arrivals of shooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson has put Harden in a position where he can play to his strengths and run the whole show, so much so that he recently told the Houston Chronicle that his new-look supporting cast is a “masterpiece.” The disappointments of 2015-16, which saw former coach Kevin McHale fired early and the Rockets bow out in the first round, are long gone.
“We all have down seasons, bad games, bad plays or whatever,” Harden said. “It’s how you bounce back. Bad things are going to happen, things aren’t going to always go your way, but it’s about how fast you can get back up. I’m not surprised how quickly [playing point has] come together . I was already a playmaker, I was already unselfish. Having the basketball in my hands at the beginning of the game just makes my job easier.”
Houston notched its best victory of the season on Thursday, outlasting Golden State in double overtime at Oracle Arena. Midway through the second extra period, Warriors forward Draymond Green kicked Harden while following through on a shot attempt near the basket. The officials assessed a Flagrant Foul 1 on Green, ruling that he had performed an “unnatural act” by kicking his leg in the air.
Although the NBA specifically targeted the leg kick with rule changes this summer, Green questioned the league’s logic, telling Bay Area reporters on Saturday that he didn’t believe NBA executives could determine his intent and suggesting that other plays, including Harden’s layups, should be considered “unnatural acts.”
“No offense to James Harden, but I’ve never seen nobody until really James started doing it, in my life, that shoot a layup [swinging two arms underneath the defender],” Green said. “That’s really not a natural act either. It’s not a natural basketball play, either. Hey, if you’re going to make a rule, make a rule. If you’re going to take unnatural acts out of the game, then let’s lock in on all these unnatural acts and take them out of the game
Informed of Green’s comments, Harden disputed Green’s interpretation of his layup technique, which has helped him lead the league in free throw attempts each of the last two seasons.
“I wouldn’t call it unnatural,” Harden said. “For me, I just go to the basket and go up with two hands like you’re taught. If you grab my arm it’s a foul. That’s pretty natural in the sport of basketball, in any league. I don’t know about whatever else [Green] has got going on.”
Harden then pointed out that his move is natural enough to be imitated.
"Some people are copying mine as well,” he said. “I’m not going to say any names, but you’ve got a lot of people doing my moves, going to the basket, looking for contact, all that stuff. That’s what you call being a trendsetter, that’s what you call being somebody people look up to. It’s a great feeling for me.”
The discussion of Harden’s unique style happens to be central to adidas’s marketing campaign for his signature shoe. In his latest commercial, “Basketball Needs Creators,” Harden imagines a hypothetical world without style and creativity, and wonders whether his critics really want him to play more conventionally. The ad is essentially a philosophical statement, reminding the audience that his game and personality have their virtues, even though discussion of Harden often devolves into writing him off as a one-way player.
“[Making that statement] was extremely important,” Harden said. “I’m not the type to be put in a box. My style, how I dress, my basketball game, everything. I’m different. The ad gives people motivation that you don’t have to do everything that’s written in a book. You can do it yourself and be creative.”
His sneaker, which is releasing in five colorways, includes his “H” logo, his signature, and is dotted with the dates of his mother’s and grandmother’s birthdays. Harden was involved in the sneaker’s development from start to finish, calling the final product “a dream come true.” The “Pioneer” Colorway, in black and white, released on Saturday with a retail price of $140.
“I like the leather toe front, the asymmetric laces, things that no one else is doing,” Harden said. “My priorities were comfort and durability. I do so many cuts and moves that it needed to fit my foot and move with me.
“You can wear it off the court, wear it at Fashion Week, you can wear it on the court giving out 30-point triple doubles. It’s a perfect shoe. On the court, it performs really well, off the court it’s just swaggy, man. If you see my shoe from a distance, you’ll know that’s my shoe. That’s what I was hoping for.”
Harden’s side trip to L.A. will be brief, as he will soon head back to Houston, where the Rockets host the Celtics on Monday. When he returns, Harden will get back to chasing Robertson and keeping his team in the mix for home-court advantage in the West.
“We let a couple games slip up, but we’re in a good place right now,” he said. “[Our ceiling is a] championship, for sure. In our first 20 games, with a new coaching staff, we got wins at San Antonio and at Golden State, and we played the Cavaliers pretty tight in Cleveland. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re in a good place right now.”