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James Harden: The Beard and the Buckets

Zach Thompson breaks down James Harden’s career journey from Arizona State to Philadelphia with stops in Houston and Brooklyn.

Philadelphia 76ers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Any list of the greatest offensive players of the current era in the NBA has to include James Harden. The Beard’s career has taken multiple twists and turns over the past few seasons, and he hasn’t reached the pinnacle of winning an NBA Championship yet, but there’s no doubting his impact on the game as one of the biggest stars and best pure scoring threats in the NBA. Harden’s look and even his silhouette is one of the most recognizable in the NBA as well due to his iconic beard.

To celebrate the 76ers All-Star’s career, DraftKings Marketplace is partnering with Harden and Autograph to release a series of NFTs called the James Harden: The Way of the Beard Collection. You can find more details in Autograph’s press release and be sure to check out Harden’s personal Twitter and Instagram, where James adopted his own 1-of-1 Autograph NFT (“The Beard”) as the profile picture. The drop will kick off on Saturday, April 16, as Philadelphia faces Toronto in the first round of the NBA playoffs, and the series may provide access to various forms of content and potentially other surprises for holders of these NFTs.

Believe it or not, there was a time before The Beard had facial hair. He started growing his trademark facial hair in college since he was “too lazy to shave,” so you have to go back to his time as a prep standout at Artesia High School in Lakewood, California, to find baby-faced James. He led his team to back-to-back California state titles in his junior and senior years with a combined record of 66-3. He also starred for his AAU team and ultimately accepted a scholarship to Arizona State in 2007. He played two years for ASU, earning PAC-10 Player of the Year honors in his sophomore season and leading the Sun Devils to the NCAA tournament. He declared for the NBA Draft in 2009 and was taken No. 3 overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden immediately stepped into a pivotal role for a team on the rise built around young stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In his three seasons with the Thunder, Harden won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award while averaging 12.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 steals in 26.7 minutes per game over 220 games. He helped the Thunder get to the 2012 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Miami Heat in five games. Oklahoma City did offer Harden a contract extension prior to the 2012-13 season, but after he turned it down, the Thunder broke up their three stars by trading Harden to the Rockets.

The GM that swung the deal that brought Harden to Houston was Daryl Morey, who quickly signed Harden to an extension and proclaimed him a foundational piece of the new-look Rockets. Houston fully embraced the analytics approach which encouraged more 3-point attempts and uptempo offense, and Harden was the centerpiece of their new plan.

The Beard was the perfect embodiment of new philosophy and flourished in the system, making the All-Star Game in each of his eight full seasons with the Rockets from 2012-2020. He immediately stepped into a huge role, seeing his usage go from just 20.4% in his three seasons with the Thunder to 29.0% in his first season with the Rockets. It further climbed to a league-leading 36.1% in the 2017-18 season and an even higher 40.5% rate in 2018-19 as he established himself as one of the premier scorers in the NBA. He won three straight scoring titles while averaging over 30 points per game from 2017 through 2020. He was a fantasy basketball fixture since he not only poured in plenty of points but also added good assist numbers and reliably elite production on a nightly basis.

While there was no arguing with Harden’s individual numbers, his production didn’t lead to much team success during his time with Houston, especially in the playoffs. The team lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of his first two years before advancing to the Western Conference Finals in 2015, where they lost to the Warriors. Another first-round exit in 2016 resulted in Mike D’Antoni being brought in as the new head coach to replace Kevin McHale prior to the 2016-17 season. The Harden-D’Antoni pairing provided Harden with his best statistical seasons, but they lost to the Warriors in the Conference Finals again in 2018 after an untimely injury to Chris Paul derailed their most promising postseason. After two more years of losing in the conference semifinals, D’Antoni informed the Rockets he would not return, and the team went into rebuilding mode.

Harden seemed uninterested in being part of the rebuild and requested a trade. While Morey’s new team, the 76ers, were in the mix, the Rockets ultimately sent Harden to Brooklyn in January 2021 to reunite with Durant and form a new “Big Three” with KD, Harden and Kyrie Irving. Unfortunately, the three superstars battled injuries and the Nets weren’t able to get much playing time for them during the regular season. In the playoffs, the team looked outstanding when all three superstars were available, but both Irving and Harden were unable to play in the Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Bucks, which the Nets ultimately lost by the narrowest of margins in Game 7.

At the start of the 2021-22 season, the Nets again dealt with adversity due to the continued COVID-19 pandemic and controversy around Kyrie’s refusal to get vaccinated. With Irving not available for much of the season due to New York City regulations, Harden again requested a trade and was ultimately sent to Philadelphia to team up with Joel Embiid for the playoff run. The Sixers finished as the No. 3 seed in the East and will face the Bulls in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

While Harden has moved around a bit and maybe has lost a step at this point in his career, there’s no arguing that he has been one of the most dangerous scorers over the past decade. He was one of the first players to base his game on the “Euro step,” which paired gorgeously with his stepback 3-pointer. D’Antoni used Harden as his primary ball-handler and encouraged him to take all the shots he wanted, which is when his usage and scoring spiked. All that usage may be starting to wear down Harden, but his shooting still makes him a very formidable offensive option.

Off the court, Harden has launched a successful steakhouse in Houston called Thirteen with celebrity chef Tobias Dorzon. He also is part owner of the Houston Dynamo of the MLS and the Houston Dash of the NWSL. Even though he has been traded away from the Rockets, he’s still a big part of the city of Houston and has said that it is where he intends to stay long-term.

While Harden is already starting to plan for after his time in the NBA, he still seems to have some good years left in him. The best plan for Harden at this point in his career may be in a lower usage role with Embiid or another scorer as the focus of the offense. He still has plenty of potential for more postseason runs, though, even if he needs to rely more on his shooting and less on his ability to blow by people at this stage of his career.

It will be exciting to see The Beard’s future plans and his run through the playoffs in his first year with Philadelphia. Make sure to get your NFT piece of the action in the DraftKings Marketplace.