Growing up Protestant, purgatory was nothing more than a metaphor to me. And though I’ve never since come to believe in it as a literal place I expect to inhabit after death, I remain fascinated by it and, on most days, find it a beautiful concept. No one is perfect, and each of us hurts ourselves and others in ways that are impossible to undo – the heaviness of the past threatening to overwhelm whatever hope the future may have to offer. Purgatory is, in this rendering, another opening where grace may emerge, a final opportunity to purify and perfect oneself, casting aside one’s shortcomings and claiming a final victory over them. If undoing the past is too much for hope for then having the chance to forge a new victory is no small consolation.
It would not be right to call James Harden underrated. He’s earned as many accolades as any NBA player can receive and will be a certain Hall of Famer as soon as he retires. However, despite putting up another very good season – he is averaging over 20 points and 10 assists per game while piloting the offense of one of the best teams in the league – it seems as if he has been forgotten. However, this is not a sign of disrespect but of familiarity. Fans know everything they need to know about him. Fans have been watching him for over a decade; he’s been one of the league’s best and most pivotal players for nearly the entirety of his career. What else is there to learn, know, or appreciate?
Harden is having a year that only seems underwhelming when compared to his past self. But what we are seeing is not exactly a lessening of ability as much as it is a shift in priorities. No longer functioning as the high-usage isolation fiend he was in Houston, he now plays the role of an overqualified table-setter and occasional outlet valve. He is averaging the fewest points per game since he was a third-year player coming off the bench for Oklahoma City. He is leading the league in assists, helping Joel Embid put together arguably the best season of his own career thus far. If they are not the best duo in the league, they are the most classically complementary – a pairing that, despite all their success this season, still feels capable of more.
Barring some sort of extreme aberrations occuring in the the season’s final week, the Philadelphia 76ers will be the Eastern Conference’s third seed when the playoffs begin. Just good enough to be considered a real threat, but not convincing enough to be a favorite. The Bucks and the Celtics have been more consistent all season and are justifiably the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference, if not win it all. Even if the Sixers may have a higher ceiling than they have displayed so far, there’s no trophy for being theoretically better. However, when you have the best player in any given series – and one can certainly develop an argument that Embiid would be that in any match-up – you can never be counted out. Accordingly, the Sixers will be a team no one wants to face even if they are unlikely to be a favorite once they advance past the first round.
And yet the harsh question remains: why would anyone trust a team relying on James Harden to succeed in the postseason? Fans have seen Harden and his teams fail in the playoffs too many times to deem him trustworthy as April turns into May and June. Not all of them are his fault alone, yet there is a clear pattern of disappointment that cannot be ignored or explained away. In 2015, he set the individual record for most turnovers in a postseason game. Two years later, his Rockets had one of the most embarrassing ends to a season in recent memory, falling to the Spurs by 39. The year after that featured the infamous 27 consecutive missed three’s, of which he contributed many. None of the Rockets’ postseason losses fall solely on Harden’s shoulders – they also often found themselves playing a buzzsaw of a Warriors team – but he is the common denominator. One can only fall short so many times before such failure stops appearing like something that happens to you and comes to look more like a condition of one’s being.
This – more than the injuries, more than Embiid’s dominance – is why Harden’s season has flown so under the radar. There is a collective sense of “So what?” surrounding everything that Harden does at this point. He’s proven himself in every context apart from the postseason. Until that is remedied, nothing will be enough to change the perception of who he is. What Harden lacks right now is the ability to surprise anyone. It is up to him to add new pages to a book that appears to be nearing its end.
It would not be accurate to say that James Harden’s legacy hinges upon his winning a championship. He is already an all-time great, one of the best scorers ever, and an MVP; a title is the only thing his resume lacks. Another All-Star nod, another scoring title, another 50 point triple-double will not move the needle. He’s done all that, breaking the outer limits of what a box score can contain. Nevertheless, Harden finds himself in a purgatory of sorts. He does not need to spend years atoning for any past sins, but he remains in need of perfection, a championship that would close the last remaining gap. He is in no danger of falling into that lower place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. However, it remains to be seen if he can transcend his current state and enter into a realm of glory that he has often approached, but never entered. The problem is he does not have eternity to achieve this task. In this world, finitude has a say – to say nothing of the Bucks and the Celtics.