James Harden doesn’t think the chatter is cute. Any of it. Not the rips on his style of play, the MVP snubs, the accusations of choking in the playoffs, and especially not Giannis Antetokounmpo’s joke during the All-Star draft in early February. When Charles Barkley asked Giannis why he wasn’t considering Harden over Kemba Walker or Trae Young, Giannis replied, “I want someone that’s going to pass the ball.”
In an interview with ESPN that dropped Friday, Rachel Nichols asked Harden about Giannis’s dig. “I average more assists than him, I think,” Harden said. Nichols rattled off the numbers, and sure enough, Harden ranked 10th in assists going into the All-Star break; Walker ranked 36th. “I don’t see what the joke is,” Harden said, with that particular, breathy laugh people do when a situation is anything but funny.
He went on to say that when his career is all said and done, he’ll be appreciated more than he is now. The answer could’ve ended there, with the promise that all active, titleless athletes give: When I win, they’ll have no choice but to accept me. Except Harden decided to dig back: “I wish I could be 7 feet and run and just dunk,” he said, obviously referencing Giannis. “Like that takes no skill at all. I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill.”
Harden has reason to be defensive. In his 11 seasons, some NBA fans have said Harden flatlines in the postseason, that he doesn’t care enough, that he’s chubby, that he slacks on defense, and—most offensive of all—that he plays boring basketball. In December, I wondered whether we’d ever be satisfied with Harden. He’s given us record-breaking performances, unfathomable scoring streaks, and many a crossover highlight to meme. But, the Twitter eggs, the TV talking heads, and the game’s gatekeepers say in unison, what about the free throws?
There’s always something to poke when it comes to Harden. Which is why I can’t blame him for poking back—even with his peers. Harden just wants the narrative to be corrected. In 2017, amid a tight race with Russell Westbrook for the MVP award, Harden said, “I thought winning is what [MVP] is about—period. … If you set your team up in a position to have a chance, at the ultimate goal, that’s the most important thing.” It was understood as a slight to Westbrook, Harden’s friend and (at the time) former teammate. But his frustration wasn’t really with Westbrook. Harden didn’t feel cheated by Westbrook; he felt cheated by the conversation.
After Giannis won MVP last season by a large margin, Harden spoke out on 97.9 The Box, a Houston radio station. He had a legitimate case for MVP after leading the league in scoring and carrying an occasionally abominable Rockets team to the playoffs. Like in 2017, Harden once again questioned what the portrayal of an MVP should be:
“I had a [season] for the books, but it’s out of my control. Once the media creates that narrative about one person for the beginning of the year, I think they just run with that narrative until the end of the year. I don’t want to get into details but all I can do is control what I can do and I did what I was supposed to do at a high level. Only a few seasons anybody ever did that. I can’t control that, all I can control is coming back next year and winning a chip.”
Harden has the right to feel disrespected. But so does Giannis—after all, two years prior Harden had said the MVP was about wins, and last season the Bucks had the best record in the league while the Rockets came in fourth in the West. And it’s not like Harden didn’t name names. In an interview with GQ in September, he said, “You can’t tell me that a guy whose team was a 14-seed at one point last year, and ended up a four-seed with everything that was going on—so many injuries—and who went on a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games in one season … and all the talk was about [Giannis Antetokounmpo]? There’s no way.”
Giannis doesn’t receive a third of the criticism Harden gets in the playoffs, a product of age, experience, and expectation. Though it’ll never work in Harden’s favor to make anything about the playoffs—the fact he doesn’t have a ring is the one criticism he can’t counter. “Do you think that in the end,” Nichols asked, “a title is going to give you the respect that you think you deserve?” Harden answered before she finished, “Yeah. It is, and I will get it.” Until then, he’ll keep digging.