James Harden Is Making A Strong Case For Two Honors: Best Point Guard and MVP
On Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, newly-minted Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni made a subtle but interesting change to his team’s starting lineup. He moved the beard, James Harden to the point guard position.
"He's more or less responsible giving rhythm to the team, that's what a point guard does," D'Antoni told espn.com regarding the decision. “He’s got a lot more responsibilities as a point guard. A play-caller, a good basketball mind, he's already telling guys we can do this we can do that.”
This move by D’Antoni has not only elevated the Rockets profile as a Western Conference power, but it has also raised the debate, of whether or not, Harden is the best point guard in the league.
If you are familiar with Harden’s game, then you know the ball will be in his hands, for the majority of the plays and offensive sequences, that the Rockets run. Harden ranked third in the league in usage rate last year, (32 percent) and this year not much has changed, ranked fourth (33), according to basetballreference.com.
The scoring numbers are there of course, averaging 28.4 points per game and there’s no reason why Harden can’t finish the season with a final average of 30 ppg. Outside of Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, the “Splash Brothers,” and Kevin Durant, Harden is, without a doubt, one of the deadliest scorers in the league. His advanced ball-handling that allows him to create space for his step-back jumpers, slither through the trees for crafty layups and breakdown defenders is second, arguably to only Kyrie Irving and Jamal Crawford and when you watch Harden operate on offense, it’s hard to fathom if there is an answer to his mastery.
In assists, Harden leads the league, besting Russell Westbrook (10.5), John Wall (10.0), Chris Paul (9.5) and Lebron James (8.6) with 11.9 a game. With the godly numbers that Westbrook is posting this season, in 30.9 ppg, 10.5 assts and 10.4 rebs, it’s hard to believe that anyone in the NBA has one better statistic than the one-man-army in Oklahoma City, but Harden has.
The beard has also played the most minutes in the NBA (1316) and has made more free throws than anybody else (315) which is a tribute to his deft ball-handling that I mentioned up above.
Currently, Westbrook has recorded 11 20+ point games and 16 30+ point games thus far in the season. In a three-game stretch in late December, Westbrook torched the Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Pelicans and the Boston Celtics scoring 46, 42, and 45 points respectively, and has led the hopeful Thunder to a 21-14 record.
Although the Thunder aren’t as talented as the Rockets, what Harden has done to beef up his case for the MVP crown is nothing to sneeze at. Harden has recorded 17 20+ point games and 13 30+ point games and no one will forget the remarkable triple-double that Harden unleashed on the New York Knicks with 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds. And as far as records are concerned, the Rockets are 2nd in the Southwest Division at 27-9, currently on a five-game winning streak.
There’s no doubt that Harden and co. have earned all the praise heaped upon them, but in that recognition, Rockets GM Daryl Morey has to be thanked generously. His fingerprints are all over this. Dwight Howard was unable to gel with Harden last year and Morey made the smart move, allowing Howard to walk in free-agency, this past offseason where he joined the Atlanta Hawks for three-years at $70 million.
Morey would sign often-injured Eric Gordon to a four-year $53 million-dollar deal and signed the sharpshooting Ryan Anderson to a four-year $80 million-dollar deal. Then he signed D’Antoni for three-years, worth $15 million. And as a result, Morey’s moves have arguably put him in the discussion for GM of the year.
Gordon, has actually managed to stay healthy this season and has played in all 36 of Houston’s games, averaging 17.7 ppg. Anderson is averaging 14.1 ppg, shooting 41 percent from three, a career high. Clint Capela has been able to emerge as the Rockets big man of the future, posting a near double-double in 11.8 ppg and eight rebounds and not needing the ball, unlike Howard, has made it easier on Harden who doesn’t have to worry about feeding the post. To further prove that point, with Howard on the roster, the Rockets averaged 22 assists a game, which ranked 16th overall, according to espn.com. Without Howard, the ball is moving more, at 25.8 ppg, ranked second to the Golden State Warriors. Bye Howard.
“There’s a lot more space,” Harden told nba.com in November 2016, “a lot more opportunity for me to get to the basket, and to find guys. Previously, it was little bit more crowded. You’ve got to respect our shooters. You’ve got to be able to find them and know where they are at all times, or you’re going to pay for it.”
Morey did this roster wonders, building it around Harden’s strengths as a master creator and in shooters like Anderson, Gordon, Trevor Ariza and even Sam Dekker, deciding to double Harden is not the most logical defensive strategy to slow the Rockets down. And as an offense that ranks second to only the Warriors, according to espn.com, scoring 114.6 per game, there’s not too many teams that can hang with the Rockets in general.
It’s one of the reasons why Harden has a chance to do something special this season. He is in the MVP conversation along with Westbrook and Lebron James. He has defied the odds moving to the point guard position, becoming a top pg in the league, which I am sure the press did not project him to do successfully. He’s made his beard a popular trademark. And he is a creator boasting team Adidas. The only thing missing from Harden’s resume is that coveted championship hardware and with this team at his disposal, there’s no reason why 2017 can’t be his year.
Stats and Info courtesy of ESPN and Basketball Reference