It’s a relief to know that the Rockets are wearing themselves down too. The Athletic’s recent report is not itself a bombshell. P.J. Tucker wants a new contract. Eric Gordon is sick of having his playing time jerked around. James Harden once yelled at Austin Rivers after a missed free throw. That’s normal workplace discontent, pitched at a high volume because the core of the squad is sick of trap-dooring out of the playoffs every year.
But the situation will, at one point, become unsustainable. Maybe that point is right this second. The Rockets have persisted for quite a long time in a space that inspires maximum aggravation: good, sometimes really good, but never good enough, and they fail the same way repeatedly. Harden’s—we can finally say it; the track record is long enough—horrendous big game performances do not help. It must make teammates livid that they give him the ball all the time, even when they don’t want to, and then with 2:33 left in an elimination tilt, he won’t come get it. So your purpose, they might ask, is to hog the radio across several states and then strand us twelve miles from the amusement park?
Apparently Harden isn’t receptive to criticism, which tracks, but has anyone said something to Russell Westbrook about all those jumpers? Well, whatever. After a single season in Houston, he wants out. Whether that’s feasible is another matter, but you can bet Tillman Fertitta, who keeps trying to spend into the luxury tax by cutting salary, will implore new Houston personnel wrangler Rafael Stone to make it happen. Even if the owner’s liquidity weren’t a concern, no locker room wants to find out, given his neutral disposition, what an unhappy Russ looks like. It’s probably for the best if he leaves, preferably for New York, where he’ll fit in with Tom Thibodeau, Julius Randle, and a bunch of other stuff that seemed like a fine idea five years ago.
Where does that put Harden? By himself, in a cubicle hurtling through the cosmos. He’s 31 years old; we’ve learned everything we care to about him. To recap: that he was an ingenious selection at third overall in 2009, that he was like a doubly hirsute Manu Ginobili, that he wasn’t ready in the 2012 Finals, that he wouldn’t take a pay cut to stay in Oklahoma City, that he’s way more than an excellent sixth man, that he’s a franchise-buoying superstar, that he doesn’t play defense, that he takes the same shot over and over, that it doesn’t particularly work in the playoffs, that he can’t get along with Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, or even his personal friend Russell Westbrook. This might be because they’re all jerks; it might be because Harden’s a jerk. It might be because professional basketball is difficult and stressful. Fill in whatever bubble suits your purposes. Many people hate the Houston Rockets, because they play like a suspense novel written by an algorithm. There is an all of the above option.
I’ve been thinking about crap lately, because this is not a time for contemplating the sublime. The western world is at the moment trapped between the obligation to keep people safe and its desire to churn out product. Or it should be. It has mostly decided that first thing is not an obligation so much as a faint guideline. The economy is made up of people, isn’t it? Let’s preserve that. The CBS fall lineup is back, baby. We’re playing football, even when a third of the roster is out sick. The holiday shopping season is coming up, and thank god, because we know how to express our love only through commerce. Ship your mom a set of mixing bowls and your dad a book about the Korean War that he already owns.
Sometimes it seems like all there is, is crap. Perhaps that’s all there has ever been. Nothing embodies the essence of crap better than bad 80s movies, which I’ve been consuming by the handful lately: fascistic cop fantasies, nudity-larded slashers, byzantine conspiracies in which every mark and puppetmaster is hot and dumb. This is art, but there is not much room for artistry. Stories cranked out on tight schedules and budgets. You’ve got Charles Bronson for 25 days, and he only knows some of his lines. The producers have made clear that the sole purpose of this venture is to make money. Shoot the thing for three million, take in seven or nine. You are as much a carpenter in a house-flipping operation as an actor or camera operator.
These movies were made to be purchased, even now as flotsam populating the menus of streaming services. And yet, because at least a few of the people involved in their production cared, in the margins of a plot that doesn’t make sense, scenes where exposition is delivered in shot and reverse-shot, like it’s being read off the back off an antacid bottle, you can still discover moments of craft. Performances that are true and strange, sequences photographed with an eye for beauty and mystery. Stuff where you get the idea whoever was cutting the thing together over two sleepless weeks might have paused for a few minutes and thought: huh, that part actually worked really well. These moments, when you come across them buzzed and lethargic at midnight, feel miraculous. Like the moon has suddenly lit up purple.
If Westbrook were to leave Houston for a couple role players and/or randos on expiring contracts, the Rockets would become crap. Just a thing on TV, fulfilling 1/30th of a contract. Something to kill hours in which you’re not trying to work, or learn, or feel. James Harden could try to average 40 points per game. He could try to break Kobe’s 81 mark, or assemble scorigami-style stat lines. These would be the kind of trials you could track at a distance; you wouldn’t have to make a date to watch the games.
This is likely the optimal way to appreciate Harden: at a distance, without meaningful investment. If we don’t have to put up with his repetitive play on national games, if we’re not watching him founder in the playoffs, it’s easier to give him his due credit. Because his craft—a game built entirely out of deceit and dead-eye shooting—is impeccable. Lower stakes would be a friend to him. He can redeem crap, but high art is not really his bag.