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I did a piece on James Harden around this time last year and how he could make small, but effective improvements in his game.
However, the Rockets’ superstar said “hold my beer” and recorded one of the greatest offensive seasons by an individual in NBA history. So here I am, a year later, preparing to ask myself that same question that I thought was hard to ask last year: how does James Harden get even better?
There are no clear cut answers, rightfully so; Harden has finished in the top two of MVP voting four times since the 2014-15 season. The Beard’s game ascended into the stratosphere last season as he did everything known to mankind to keep Houston afloat in the midst of numerous key injuries. His 36.1 PPG (44.2 FG%) not only led the league, but marked only the fifth time in league history that a player averaged over 35 points per game for a whole season (Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Rick Barry, Kobe Bryant). To make matters more impressive, he also dished out 7.5 assists and grabbed 6.6 rebounds on a nightly basis.
The handful of sixty point games, countless cheat code-style buckets, and a slew of step backs and euro steps had the league on watch every single performance. However, last season is over with. What is the next step? It would be very difficult for Harden to top or even match his scoring averages from last year; his three-level scoring abilities make him one of the toughest players to guard. The craftiness and footwork will be just as impeccable, but there’s not a ton of room for substantial growth.
After watching hours of film and diving into statistics, I realized that the improvements won’t come from his play per se, but how his play meshes with that of his teammates. The acquisition of Russell Westbrook has done Harden no favors in terms of criticism, despite that being something he is used to. Concerns of the two being able to coexist in the same backcourt effectively are valid, but the two seem adamant that they can make it work.
I understand that Harden may very well be the best isolation scorer in the NBA, but that style of play will need to take a step back (pun or no pun, take it as you wish). Harden has shown that his vision is exceptional throughout the years, whether it be on pick-and-rolls or dribble drive kick-outs. Being the floor general that he is, it is up to Harden to fluidly facilitate the rock, opening up shots for other teammates. The generated floor spacing would in turn, assist both Westbrook’s driving tendencies and Harden’s perimeter shooting.
During the duo’s first stint together, Harden was more active moving without the ball. That trend needs to resurface because it keeps defenses from collapsing, opens up corner shooters that Rockets seem to always have a surplus of, and relieves Westbrook’s shooting woes. Something has to change; isolation ball is not a probable recipe for success. It is up to Harden to add yet another dimension to his already insanely advanced game.
If you watch games and don’t fall victim to five second Twitter highlights, then you know that Harden is a more than capable defender. His high basketball IQ shines especially through his proficient post defense; he ranked second in the league with two steals per game, trailing only Paul George. However, with Westbrook’s defensive struggles, Harden will simply have to put in more effort and stop giving up on various plays. Chris Paul isn’t there anymore to pick up the slack and it must be Harden to take the initiative to become more involved defensively. Picking up on backdoor cuts, not getting caught ball watching, and effectively contesting jump shots would be a terrific start.