Harden of Eden

The Garden of Eden, Erastus Salisbury Field (1860)

At one point, it seems, humans were much better off. In our innocence and, eventually, naïveté, we inherited a large swath of flora, fit for our use and designed to provide eternal happiness. It was here where we were whole, and it was here where we decided to channel our desire to the one thing we could not have. We’ve been suffering ever since, to our great delight.

Edinnu was the Assyrian root, via Sumerian, that ended up giving the Garden of Eden its modern-day name, courtesy of the Aramaic root, meaning “to be fruitful, plentiful.” We could’ve had it all, indeed.

I realize this can be a lot to handle, and I’m not asking you to internalize it all at once. This is the same effect that defenders likely have when facing James Harden, and, similarly, that stupefied state renders fans senseless when they watch him.

James Harden is an anomaly. He lives in an exceptionally singular world, perhaps more so than Stephen Curry[1] and LeBron James[2]. It is rarefied air, but in the sense that what he does, and how he does it, is so extreme and polarizing that he entirely forces the shuffling off of context, simply because there is none for his particular pursuits.

Consider: when his Houston Rockets backcourt mate, Chris Paul, went down with an injury that kept him out for over a month, right when the Rockets were in the unique position of being a literal lottery team, replete with confusion and devoid of defense, Harden saved the Rockets’ season. Over those eighteen games, Harden averaged a truly staggering 43.4 points, 7.9 assists and 7.9 rebounds, all with the look of a guy slowly realizing the fast food joint forgot his order.

Maybe some fast food joint forgot Harden’s order at some point in the last two seasons. Maybe he’s fed up with Clutch the Bear’s Pavlovian responses to jock jams; maybe he needs to ensure his endorsements will remain so as to pay Paul back for the sin of having attempted to reheat Chinese food for over five minutes in a microwave. We may never know.

What we do know is what we see, and what we see is James Harden drawing his defenders in, like a rapturous tornado, engaging with them just long enough to let them think they have a chance, and then dropping them like nondescript boxes in the back of a pickup on its way to The Woodlands. He toys with them, Weebles he insists on letting wobble until they fall down.

On Thursday night, against fellow would-be Golden State Warriors challengers the Denver Nuggets, Harden dropped a 38-6-6 line in his typically humdrum fashion – pulling around a pick, stepping back, firing at will – slightly increasing his points per game total. He will finish as the fourth NBA player ever, and with only the eighth season ever, to average 36 points or more in a season[3]. His effective field goal percentage, if you care about those sorts of things, is the best of the lot.

James Harden catches a ton of flak from all sides – the casual human knows him strictly for his beard; the casual NBA fan knows him for his borderline-absurd propensity for getting to the free throw line; hardcore NBA fans remain divided, recognizing his gratuitous exploitation of current rules while appreciating his offensive genius and understanding that he has to be quintessentially him in order for the Rockets to survive in the way that they have decided to live.

He has all the advantages around him, from a revolutionary offensive mind as a head coach in Mike D’Antoni to a rim-running Cinderella in Clint Capela to a stout defensive horse in PJ Tucker to the likely greatest point guard of his generation in Paul, to be able to succeed within his ecosystem while eclipsing it. Harden would succeed anyway, of course, but having this infrastructure allows him to flourish in a way it might take some time to accurately and precisely describe.

For all of his frustrating tendencies and eye-rolling half-speed trickery, Harden has been the plentiful source of fruit for the Houston Rockets. He decelerates better than anyone; he steps back better than anyone; he whips passes like a farmhand steering cattle into a pen.

James Harden is a genius, in his own right, and he pushes the Warriors harder than anyone since Kevin Durant signed on in 2016. The playoffs are nearly upon us, and then we will see if he bites the apple and somehow undoes the Rockets. The occupants of Eden encountered a snake, I hear.

*     *     *

[1] Howdy-do, KD!

[2] Stack a list of LeBron’s career achievements against a list of streaks that ended this year, and you’ll be surprised how close those stacks end up being in height – another testament to James’ excellence

[3] Wilt Chamberlain did this five(!) times; Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor each did it once.

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