James Harden on His Legacy and Being the ‘Biggest Innovator’ of the Game

James Harden on His Legacy and Being the 'Biggest Innovator' of the Game

San Antonio, TX.

February 2, 2023. Evening.     

James Harden is in his hotel room hanging out with his newly appointed agent and longtime business confidant Troy Payne. The Sixers are playing the Spurs tomorrow, and the two Cali natives find themselves in deep conversation when the news breaks. Payne looks over at Harden. He notices the NBA superstar’s body language. That’s all he needs to see to know how Harden truly feels at this very moment. Natural human emotions and passion take over. Expletives may or may not be flying around. Payne steps in and offers some words of encouragement, and a new conversation ensues. One that’s very different from the one the two were having just a couple minutes ago. This one is about the next four months, about maintaining the tunnel vision strategy for the ultimate goal at hand, and about how to use the news that just broke as ammunition for it all. 

The aforementioned news? The 2023 NBA All-Star Game reserves were just announced, and Harden, after 10 consecutive All-Star selections, was not chosen for this year’s festivities. And while other stars try to play it off cool and pretend not being selected doesn’t bother them, Harden isn’t holding back how he feels. 

A few minutes later, he pulls out his phone, taps the Instagram icon and writes on his IG Story “The disrespect.” in white text on an all-black backdrop.

“I said it already, disrespectful!” Harden tells us of the All-Star snub. “Most of the people that understand basketball get my value, but some just get bored with my numbers.”

“[We were] hanging out, talking about some stuff, and then [the news] just came out,” recalls Payne of the night in San Antonio. “And I was like, Oh shoot, here we go. He didn’t get selected…But from a brother perspective, and as his agent, I [wanted to] encourage him to use it as fuel, to go out there and just prove everybody wrong. Let’s go out there and get All-NBA. And that’s the goal—play at a high level, finish top two in the East, push for All-NBA. I think he’s playing at an All-NBA level. 

“I saw his emotion [that night], but it was more hunger than anything. He wasn’t happy about it. He felt like he should have been in the game; he felt like he did enough to play, to be selected. I think it’s more of a perspective based on the years of his success. And it kind of hurt him. We were used to seeing James score at a high clip in terms of production in the basket, but he still was contributing in a different way at the same high level, it just wasn’t talked about enough.”

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When ASW came around a couple weeks later, Harden decided to spend some time in Tempe, where he got a chance to watch his alma mater Arizona State play, before returning to the home he built in Houston for a few days. There, Payne says, he watched Harden schedule out workouts…twice a day.  

Lil Baby tunes are blaring out from a nearby speaker on this Thursday afternoon in early March. We’re at the 76ers’ practice facility in Camden, NJ, for our cover shoot with The Beard. He rhythmically nods his head to the music while reciting lyrics in between shots. At one point, he takes the lead on creative direction and starts freestyling new poses, without our photographer even having to prompt him. He’s feeling it—the shoot, life, all of it.

And it’s easy to see why. This is Harden’s 14th year in the League. And yet, here he is, still putting up some of the best shooting numbers he’s ever had—yes, almost a decade and a half into his NBA career.

On the day of the shoot, Harden is shooting the best percentage he ever has from behind the arc. Last season, he had the second-best free-throw percentage of his career. And the season before that, he put up the second-best overall shooting percentage of his career. And this is despite having to deal with mid-season trades to Brooklyn and Philadelphia the previous two years. He leads the League in assists with an average of 10.8 dimes a night, as of late March. The only time he’s finished with a higher assists average was six years ago (2016-17), when he posted 11.2 assists and was second in MVP voting (and eventually won MVP the following year). 

“I’m a master of this game. This is year 14 for me—I adjust to how teams are guarding us and I pick and choose where to facilitate,” Harden tells SLAM. “My role on the Sixers is different from 2017. So yes, the approach is different, but I’m still the same player as 2017, my role just changed slightly.

“It’s a combination of the work I put in each summer, getting healthy and trusting the work when I am on the court. I have been a student of the game and have been coachable throughout my career. This season, I have been tasked to be a leader on the court and to get everyone involved and still maintain my aggression. If I said it was easy, I’d be lying, but I am committed to do whatever I need to do in order to help my team win.”  

The shooting efficiency and assist numbers are just a couple of metrics that one can utilize to measure Harden’s impressive career longevity and consistency at this stage. Even the sneakers he’s rocking on set, a blue colorway from his super well-received Harden Volume 7 collection (which, at the time, wasn’t set to debut for another month), are indicative of how good he’s been for so long. This is his signature line’s seventh model, and there have only been two other adidas athletes to ever reach that many signature sneakers in the history of the brand: Derrick Rose and Damian Lillard. That’s it. That’s the list.

I’m a master of this game.
– James Harden

“First off, I am thankful to have a signature shoe. Having a signature line is a nod to the work that I’ve put into my craft, and having 7 volumes and counting is a blessing and I don’t [take] it for granted,” says Harden. “HV7 is my favorite model to date and the response from my fans speaks volumes to me, so I am grateful for the support. I like to express myself through my fashion, so hopefully I did that with the colorways for Volume 7. This seventh shoe is up there on the milestones for sure!”

But as he says so himself, he’s been doing it for so long that people may indeed have just become “bored” with his output these days. He’s spoiled basketball fans for over a decade. The casuals only notice that he’s no longer averaging the 36 points per game he once did. (Fun fact: Only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have averaged more points in a single season than James Harden. Yup, that’s the list.) 

Numbers aside, though, his influence on a cultural level is just as impactful. It transcends statistics. His signature step-back move has been a hot topic on the internet for years. A quick Google search and you’ll find articles and message boards doing deep dives on the move and whether or not it should be allowed. One thing is for sure, Harden’s creativity has paved the way to a Hall of Fame career and introduced a move that seemed unimaginable prior to his arrival.   

“Biggest innovator to play the game!” says Harden, when asked what he wants to be remembered for the most when it’s all said and done. 

While some have tried to push a particular narrative regarding Harden’s work ethic in the past, Payne says that those who are really around know what it is. Harden has built a routine around postgame workouts, something that’s always done away from the cameras and fans. Home or away, with his game uniform still on, Harden has a list of exercises he likes to check off the list, explains Payne.

“Postgame workouts have been something that’s been prevalent in the past. I know in Houston he was doing that a little bit, working out postgame, where he’s running the stairs in the arena or lifting weights with a trainer—we’ve done a lot of that. And I’ve seen James do that a lot now,” says Payne, a former hooper at Santa Clara and overseas who’s known Harden since middle school. “So, when he has time, he’s there for three hours. He will sit there and work out with the training staff and get a workout in…I started seeing him do it during his MVP run when he was in Houston. And then I didn’t see it as much in Brooklyn.

“When the game is over, they’re in the back, they’re working out—squats, working on shoulders and RDLs. They’re getting after it, like, at least 20 minutes. That’s the quick twitch muscles when your body is fatigued, just trying to make the body stronger. So that’s something that he’s implemented with [this] team. And if you go and you look at the weight room postgame, you’ll see about six to eight guys in there getting after it. So I think that’s a testament to his leadership and just trying to keep the younger guys motivated and hungry.”

“Throughout my career, I’ve been coachable on every team I’ve been a part of,” adds Harden. “Whatever is needed of me for the team to win is what I will deliver.”  

Coachable is a term that Payne also emphasizes, pointing to the time Harden was asked to take over the PG position when playing for Mike D’Antoni in Houston. On the fly adjustments, wherever, whenever. 

“Credit to D’Antoni for putting the ball in his hands when he was in Houston. He came back home one day and was like, Man, Coach wants me to run point guard. He’s like, Point guard? I ain’t about to run no point guard, man. What is he trying to do? And after two practices, he’s like, Oh my God, this is about to work!” recalls Payne. “So it’s a credit to him being coachable. And then when he gets in that situation, [he’s] figuring it out, how to make his team successful, how to make himself successful. And the rest is history.”

With so much to highlight in his long, illustrious career, we asked Harden which accomplishment or milestone he’s proud of the most. But it’s a question he doesn’t have an answer for…yet.

“The one I want,” says Harden, “hasn’t happened yet, so let’s revisit when I win a championship.”

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Portraits by Alex Subers.

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