Harden was traded to Houston prior to the 2012–13 NBA season. Upon joining the Rockets, Harden became one of the NBA's most prolific scorers and earned recognition as the best shooting guard in the NBA, as well as one of the top overall players in the league. He has earned All-Star nods five times, and has earned All-NBA Team honors four times as well – once to the All-NBA third team (2013) and three times to the All-NBA first team (2014, 2015 and 2017). In 2015, Harden was awarded the first National Basketball Players Association MVP Award, being voted by his peers as the league's most valuable player.
Harden is a two-time member of the United States national basketball team, winning gold medals in both the 2012 Summer Olympics and 2014 FIBA World Cup.
Harden attended Artesia High School in Lakewood, California. In his sophomore year, he averaged 13.2 points as Artesia went 28–5. He improved his stats to 18.8 points, 7.7 boards and 3.5 assists in his junior season and led Artesia to the California state title and a 33–1 record. Artesia repeated as state champions in Harden's final year after going 33–2. Harden had similar stats as during the previous season: 18.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.9 assists. He was named a McDonald's All-American, and also earned second-team Parade All-American honors.
He also helped his AAU team, Pump-N-Run Elite, to the 2006 Las Vegas Adidas Super 64 championship. Harden had 34 points in the victory over a DC Assault team which included Michael Beasley, Nolan Smith and Austin Freeman. In the game against Houston Hoops, played on the same day, Harden had 33 points. In the final, Pump-N-Run Elite beat Kevin Love's Southern California All-Stars.
Entering Harden's freshman campaign, Arizona State was picked to finish ninth in the Pac-10 Conference. Behind Harden's 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, the Sun Devils went 21–13 (9–9) and finished tied for fifth in the Pac-10. They were considered a bubble team for the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Left out of the NCAA tournament, they were selected to the 2008 NIT field and defeated Alabama State and Southern Illinois before falling to defending national champion Florida.
After his freshman year, Harden was named first team All-Pac-10 and was named to the conference all-freshman team. Harden was also named first team All-District by the NABC and the USBWA.
Entering his sophomore year, Harden appeared on many pre-season All-American lists and appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated college basketball preview issue. He was named to the Wooden Award preseason watch list. On November 30, 2008, Harden scored a career-high 40 points in an 88–58 victory over UTEP.
Harden finished his sophomore campaign with averages of 20.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. He was named to the 2009 All-Pac 10 Tournament Team following Arizona State's defeat by USC at the Staples Center. Following the conference season, Harden was named the Pacific-10 Conference's Player of the Year. He was also named a consensus All-American. After the conclusion of the season (a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Syracuse), Harden declared for the 2009 NBA draft. He employed Rob Pelinka as his agent.
Harden was drafted 3rd overall in the 2009 NBA draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. This made him the first player to be drafted by the franchise as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The franchise last entered the 2008 NBA draft as the Seattle SuperSonics. In his first NBA season, Harden averaged 9.9 points in 22.9 minutes per game. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. In his second year, after rejecting an offer to play as a starter, Harden played all 82 games of the regular season, averaging 12.2 points per game. In the playoffs, he averaged 13 points per game, shooting over 47% from the field.
On April 18, 2012, Harden scored a then career-high 40 points in a 109–97 victory over the Phoenix Suns. Four days later against the Los Angeles Lakers, Harden suffered a concussion after being elbowed by the Lakers' Metta World Peace, who was celebrating a dunk. World Peace was ejected, and was later suspended for seven games by the league. Harden returned for the first game of the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks.
Harden ended the 2011–12 season averaging 16.8 points per game off the bench which led all NBA reserves. He was then named the NBA Sixth Man of the Year, becoming the second youngest player ever to win the award. He was one of the most efficient scorers in the league, finishing second in both true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, posting a .660 TS% and .582 eFG%. Harden helped the Thunder reach the 2012 NBA Finals where they lost to the Miami Heat. During the free agency period, Oklahoma City attempted to sign Harden to a four-year contract extension worth between $52 and $55 million. Harden later contended that he was given too little time to consider the offer.
After failing to agree on a contract extension with the Thunder, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets, along with Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Lazar Hayward, for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first round picks, and a second round pick. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey called Harden a "foundational" player and expected him to be Houston's featured player despite previously only playing a supporting role behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. On October 31, he signed a contract extension with the Houston Rockets for five years worth $80 million. In the Rockets 2012–13 season opener, Harden had 37 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals. His 37 points tied for the second most for an NBA player in his debut with a new team, and was the first player with at least 37 points and 12 assists in his debut. On November 2, 2012, he scored a then career-high 45 points in a win against the Atlanta Hawks. Following the first week of the season, Harden was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the first time.
On December 27, 2012, Harden scored 30 points, including 17 in the 4th quarter and 15 of the final 17 points for the Rockets, to lead a comeback victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Harden was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the second time for games played between December 30 and January 6 after averaging 29.3 points, 5.5 assists, and leading the Rockets to a perfect 4–0 week. On January 10, 2013, during a loss to the New Orleans Hornets, Harden scored 25 points for the 14th consecutive game, breaking the Rockets' franchise record previously held by Hall of Famer Moses Malone. Harden was subsequently selected to his first All-Star game in 2013 as a reserve for the Western Conference, where he teamed up with former teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He went on to score 15 points in the game.
On February 2, 2013, Harden recorded his first career triple-double with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a win over the Charlotte Bobcats. On February 20, 2013, Harden scored a career-high 46 points in Houston's 122–119 win over his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Harden finished his first season with the Rockets with career-highs in many statistical categories after he averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He led the Rockets to a 45–37 record overall and the team made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2008–09 as the #8 seed. In the 2013 NBA Playoffs, the Rockets were pitted against the #1 seed in the west, the Oklahoma City Thunder. In Game 5, he scored 31 points while going 7-of-9 from three-point range despite playing with flu-like symptoms. The Rockets went on to lose the series in six games. Harden averaged 26.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2 steals in the series. On May 23, 2013, Harden was named to the All-NBA Third Team for the first time.
With the Rockets' signing of center Dwight Howard in the offseason, Harden was able to team-up with another All-Star to bring the Rockets back into contention. After earning his second All-Star selection as a reserve for the Western Conference in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game held on February 16, Harden went on to score a season-high 43 points on 11-of-20 shooting in a 129–103 win over the Sacramento Kings on February 25. The Rockets finished the 2013–14 season with a 54–28 record, earning the 4th seed in the Western Conference playoffs. In the Rockets' first round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Harden averaged 26.8 points, 5.8 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. On June 4, he was named to the 2014 All-NBA first team.
On December 13, 2014, Harden recorded his third career triple-double with 24 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in a 108–96 win over the Denver Nuggets. Nine days later, he scored a then season-high 44 points in a 110–95 win over the Portland Trail Blazers as he continued to stake his claim as an early contender for the 2014–15 MVP award heading into Christmas. On December 31, he recorded a career-high 8 made three-pointers as he scored 36 points to help lead the Rockets to a 102–83 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.
On February 8, 2015, Harden tied a season-high 45 points in a 98–109 loss to Portland. Two days later, he recorded his second straight 40-point game, and his sixth of the year, as he led the Rockets to a 127–118 win over the Phoenix Suns. On February 23, he recorded his second triple-double of the season with 31 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the 113–102 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
On March 2, 2015, the NBA suspended Harden for one game for kicking LeBron James in the groin during a 105–103 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. On March 6, Harden recorded 38 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists for his third triple-double of the season as the Rockets snapped a two-game skid with a 103–93 win over the Detroit Pistons. After recording a career-high 50 points against the Denver Nuggets on March 19, Harden topped that mark with 51 points against the Sacramento Kings on April 1, making it his 33rd 30-point game and his ninth 40-point game for the season. He also became the first player in Rockets' franchise history to have two 50-point games in a season. On April 5, he recorded his 10th 40-plus-point game of the season, finishing the game with 41 points despite fouling out with 33 seconds left against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the Rockets' regular season finale on April 15 against the Utah Jazz, Harden recorded his fourth triple-double of the season with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists as he helped the Rockets win their first division title since 1994 while clinching the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Harden was again named to the All-NBA first team, and finished second in the MVP voting behind Stephen Curry.
On May 12, 2015, Harden recorded his first career playoff triple-double with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a Game 5 semi-final series win over the Los Angeles Clippers. On May 25, Harden scored a playoff career-high 45 points against the Golden State Warriors, helping his team avoid elimination in the Western Conference Finals. On May 27, the Rockets were eliminated from the Western Conference Finals with a 90–104 loss. In the loss, Harden set a new NBA record for most turnovers in a playoff game with 12.
On July 19, 2015, Harden was named the inaugural National Basketball Players Association's MVP for the 2014–15 season.
On November 6, 2015, Harden broke out of an early-season shooting slump, shooting 13-of-23 from the field to finish with season-highs of 43 points and 13 assists in a 116–110 win over the Sacramento Kings. He topped his season-high scoring mark with 46 points the following night, making 13-of-14 free throws and was 5-of-10 from three-point range, helping the Rockets extend their winning streak to four by defeating the Los Angeles Clippers 109–105. On November 9, he was named Western Conference Player of the Week for games played from Monday, November 2 through Sunday, November 8. His ninth career Player of the Week award came after averaging 38.5 points and helping the Rockets go 4–0 for the week. To begin the season, the Rockets lost their first three games, before winning four straight, then going on another three-game losing streak to end up 4–6 after 10 games. All three runs were reflective in the shooting accuracy of Harden. Over the first three losses, he shot 12-of-54 from the field (22%); over the four-game winning streak, he shot 45-of-97 (46%); and then over the succeeding three-game losing streak, he shot 22-of-62 (35%).
On November 18, head coach Kevin McHale was fired after the Rockets began the season with a 4–7 record. Later that night, Harden recorded 45 points and 11 assists in a 108–103 overtime win over the Portland Trail Blazers. On November 25, he recorded his fourth 40-point game of the season in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, dropping to 5–10 overall and 1–3 under interim coach J. B. Bickerstaff. Two days later, he recorded his third career 50-point game in a 116–114 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. On January 13, in his 492nd game, he scored 27 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves to reach 10,000 career points. On January 20, he recorded his first triple-double of the season and seventh of his career with 33 points, a career-high 17 rebounds and 14 assists in a 123–114 loss to the Detroit Pistons. He became the first player to have those numbers in a game since Wilt Chamberlain had 53 points, 32 rebounds and 14 assists on March 18, 1968. Four days later, he recorded second triple-double of the season with 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in a 115–104 win over the Dallas Mavericks. On February 2, he scored 26 points and tied a career-high with 14 assists as the Rockets snapped a three-game skid with a 115–102 win over the Miami Heat. On March 22, he recorded 24 points, a career-high 16 assists and seven rebounds in a 111–107 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Three days later, he recorded his third triple-double of the season with 32 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds in a 112–109 win over the Toronto Raptors. In March 2015, Harden recorded 457 points, 152 assists and 102 rebounds, becoming the first player to record at least 450 points, 150 assists and 100 rebounds in a single month since Oscar Robertson did so December 1967. On April 7, he tied a 38-year-old record for most turnovers in a season by committing his 366th turnover against the Phoenix Suns. He surpassed that record three days later against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Rockets scrapped into the postseason with a 41–41 record and an eighth-seeded finish. Harden completed the regular season with career high marks in points (29), assists (7.5) and rebounds (6.1) to join LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 29 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a season.
Down 2–0 to the first-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, Harden scored 35 points in Game 3 in Houston, including the game-winner with 2.7 seconds left to lift the Rockets to a 97–96 win. The Rockets went on to lose the series in five games despite Harden's best efforts with 35 points in a Game 5 blowout loss.
On July 9, 2016, Harden signed a four-year, $118.1 million contract extension with the Rockets. In September 2016, new Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni announced that Harden would take on the point guard role early on in the 2016–17 season. In the Rockets' season opener on October 26, Harden recorded 34 points and a career-high 17 assists in a 120–114 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, becoming just the second player in NBA history to record at least 30 points and 15 assists in an opener; Tim Hardaway had 32 and 18 for the Golden State Warriors in 1990. On November 7, he had his fourth straight 30-10 game with 32 points and 15 assists in a 114–106 win over the Washington Wizards. On November 14, he was named Western Conference Player of the Week for games played Monday, November 7 through Sunday, November 13. During the week, he recorded two triple-doubles. On December 14, he recorded 15 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds in just three quarters to lead the Rockets to a 132–98 win over the Sacramento Kings. It was Harden's fifth triple-double of the season and the 14th of his career, tying him with Hakeem Olajuwon for most in franchise history. He set the franchise record two days later with his sixth triple-double of the season and 15th of his career. In the Rockets' 122–110 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Harden helped the team set an NBA-record with 24 three-pointers, as he finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. On December 19, he was named Western Conference Player of the Week for games played Monday, December 12 through Sunday, December 18. On December 23, he tied a career high with 17 assists in a 115–109 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. On December 30, he recorded his seventh triple-double of the season with 30 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 140–116 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
On December 31, 2016, Harden recorded yet another triple-double with 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds in a 129–122 win over the New York Knicks, becoming the first player in NBA history to finish with a 50-15-15 stat line. He tied Wilt Chamberlain for the most points in a triple-double in NBA history—Chamberlain pulled the feat during the 1967–68 season, with 53 points, 32 rebounds and 14 assists. Harden set career highs for points and three-pointers (with nine) and matched his career best for assists. It was his 17th career triple-double and his fourth career 50-point game. Two days later, he recorded his ninth triple-double of the season in a win over the Washington Wizards and was named Western Conference Player of the Week for a third time. It was Harden's 12th Player of the Week honor, matching Hakeem Olajuwon for the most Player of the Week awards in franchise history. Harden's career-best December run earned him Western Conference Player of the Month honors. His 10th and 11th triple-doubles came in back-to-back games on January 8 and January 10, both resulting in wins. His two performances saw him become the fourth player in NBA history with at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in consecutive games—Pete Maravich, Michael Jordan and Russell Westbrook are the three others to do it. His 12th and 13th triple-doubles came in back-to-back games on January 15 and January 17. On January 27, he recorded his 14th triple-double of the season with 51 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in a 123–118 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, becoming the first player in NBA history with multiple 50-point triple-doubles in a season. On February 3 against Chicago, Harden scored his 10,000th point as a Rocket, passing Yao Ming for sixth place in franchise history. On February 11, he scored 40 points in three quarters (his ninth 40-point game of the season) to help the Rockets win 133–102 over the Phoenix Suns. He played just 29 minutes against the Suns to become the first Rockets player since Sleepy Floyd in 1991 to score 40 points in less than 30 minutes. On February 15, he recorded his 15th triple-double of the season with 38 points 12 rebounds and 12 assists in a 117–109 loss to the Miami Heat. Between March 12 and March 18, he had four straight triple-doubles, giving him 19 for the season. He finished the regular season with 22 triple-doubles and helped the Rockets enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed with a 55–27 record. He became the first player in NBA history to finish the regular season with at least 2,000 points (2,356), 900 assists (907) and 600 rebounds (659).
On April 16, Harden scored a game-high 37 points in a 118–87 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. He went on to lead the Rockets to a 4–1 series win over the Thunder to advance to the Western Conference semifinals. On May 9, he recorded his second career postseason triple-double with 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a 110–107 overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series; the loss saw the Rockets go down 3–2 in the series. Two days later, the Rockets were eliminated by the Spurs with a 114–75 loss in Game 6. Harden capped his stellar season by tying a season low with 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting before fouling out with 3:15 left.
On July 8, 2017, Harden signed a four-year contract extension with the Rockets for approximately $160 million, giving him a total six-year deal with $228 million guaranteed—the richest contract in NBA history. The deal will keep Harden the face of the Rockets through the 2022–23 season.
Standing at 6 feet 5 inches tall (1.96 m) and weighing 220 pounds (100 kg), Harden plays mostly at the shooting guard position. With season averages of over 26 points per game since the 2012–13 season, Harden is considered one of the most versatile and dangerous scorers in the NBA. He possesses a wide array of offensive moves; two of the most prominent among them being his Euro step and his step-back jumper. He has also gained notoriety for his ability to exploit league rules in order to more efficiently draw fouls and get to the free throw line, from which he is a career 84.9% shooter. He has led the NBA in free throw attempts and makes every year since the 2014–15 season. Though primarily a scorer, he is also known for his playmaking ability, orchestrating the Rockets' offense with his elevated assist numbers. During the early portion of the 2016–17 season, Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni played Harden at point guard, which resulted in him averaging over 10 assists per game for the first time in his career.
While he has garnered acclaim for his prowess on the offensive end, Harden has built a reputation as a poor defender. Criticism of his defense intensified in early 2014, when a video titled "James Harden: Defensive Juggernaut" featuring eleven minutes worth of clips of Harden conceding field goals, was circulated on the Internet. During the 2014 offseason, he committed to an improvement on defense, which manifested as early as August of that year as a member of the United States men's national basketball team. His improved defense carried over to the following season, and has been cited as a major reason for the Rockets' regular season success. Another negative aspect of his game that is sometimes brought up by pundits are his turnovers. Harden set the NBA record for turnovers during the 2015–16 season and broke it again the following season.
Harden was a member of the United States national team that won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, and was also a member of the team that won the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2014. Harden was a candidate for the 2016 Olympics, but he withdrew from the team.
Harden is the youngest of three children. Before his birth, after that of his older sister, their mother suffered a string of miscarriages.
Harden is a Christian. Harden has talked about his faith saying, "I just want to thank God for everything he has done in my life."
Harden started growing his trademark beard in 2009 after being too lazy to shave. His beard has appeared in songs and on T-shirts. The James Harden Illustrated project, by designer Filip Peraić, is about illustrating the bearded profile of James Harden in a variety of styles and techniques.
On August 3, 2015, the sports apparel company, Adidas, submitted an endorsement deal to Harden worth $200 million over the next 13 years.