(*Note: The statistics in this article are current as of Nov. 20)
Late the other night, the Houston Rockets were up by eight points on the Utah Jazz with about 25 seconds left on the game clock and 10 seconds left on the shot clock as James Harden began to make his move. He crossed over, put it through his legs, crossed over, put it through his legs, and crossed again. The final cross shook his defender and allowed him to step back and drill the three-pointer. That three-pointer would put a cap on the Rockets’ win and serve as the first signature sequence in Harden’s MVP campaign.
Harden has been much maligned since leaving Oklahoma City for Houston, often hearing far more criticism about his few flaws than praise about his many attributes. This year however, Harden is leaving his critics with little to talk about.
With the Rockets having lost in the playoffs each of the last two years to the Golden State Warriors, roster and coaching changes this past offseason were imminent. Early in the 2016 offseason, the Rockets made the decision to hire Mike D’Antoni, whose claim to fame is enhancing a team’s offense. D’Antoni’s main criticism as a head coach, however, has been his inability to get his defense to elevate in accordance with his offense.
In addition to the hiring of D’Antoni, Houston’s front office had a decision to make regarding All-Star Center Dwight Howard. Initially, the pairing of Harden and Howard looked seamless, but as time elapsed things went sour. Reports swirled of the two not getting along and the relationship seemed to have fallen apart. Their on-court play reflected their off-court woes. Ultimately, the Rockets chose to let Howard walk leaving Harden with the keys to the mansion and the freedom to run the offense without any restrictions.
The decision to let Howard walk and hire D’Antoni looks to be the right move thus far, albeit just 13 games into the season. The Rockets sit at 8-5, which is good for fifth in the Western Conference. And how are Harden’s numbers you ask? They’re bonkers.
Harden is currently averaging 28.7 points per game, 12.5 assists per game, and 7.8 rebounds per game. While his raw numbers are impressive, a deeper look into Harden’s advanced statistics will awe you even more. Harden is currently posting a 31.1 player efficiency rating, a 61.7 percent true shooting percentage, and a 12.2 box plus/minus. To put it simply, Harden is putting up raw numbers that are comparable to prime Oscar Robertson and efficiency numbers that are on par with peak LeBron James.
One of the biggest reasons for Harden’s ascension as a player was his move from Oklahoma City to Houston. The move allowed Harden the freedom he was not previously provided with while playing third fiddle to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. With the move, Harden saw his points-per-game increase by almost double digits and his assist numbers go up as well. He has steadily improved on his points and assists per game just about each year since coming to Houston. However, he has never seen a bigger spike in his assists than this year. The reasoning? Mike D’Antoni.
At some point in late September, it was decided that the Rockets would be moving James Harden to point guard full time. Perhaps D’Antoni saw something that others didn’t. It looks as if D’Antoni was right.
Harden has always received at least some credit for his exceptional passing ability, but never an adequate amount until now. Although, even now it feels as if Harden isn’t getting talked about enough when the best passers in the league are mentioned. Here is a guy who averaged 7.5 assists per game last year despite playing just two percent of his plays at point guard. Harden is now putting up a league leading 12.5 assists per game. And some aren’t even putting him in the best passer conversation?
Getting slighted is nothing new for Harden. He’s dealt with unfair scrutiny most of his career. Even when it was blatantly obvious that Harden was the best shooting guard in the league last year, some people would still act as if Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors was better than him as evidenced by the following tweets:
Considering Harden averaged more points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, had a higher player efficiency rating, box plus/minus and true shooting percentage than Klay last year, I’m pretty certain Harden was the superior player.
The people nitpicking Harden’s game and those who never seem to give him his proper respect have been awfully quiet this year because like I said before, he’s leaving them with nothing to say. Harden’s critics should stay silenced for a while. While still early, he’s in the midst of putting together one of the greatest offensive seasons the NBA has ever seen. Harden is the NBA’s juggernaut and is not only threatening the greatest offensive seasons in the history of the league, he’s also threatening to reach superstar status. The message is clear: For the foreseeable future, fear the beard.