James Harden is here to stay.
Not that the bearded wonder was ever truly leaving, but there has been plenty of debate as to whether or not he is really a superstar.
And to those that believe he isn't, to those that actually put stake in him falling back down to earth, I scoff at you.
So does Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com, because as he notes, Harden's rise to stardom hasn't been a gradual ascension, it's been an ever-present reality:
And now, here comes the juicy part: Examining Harden as the alpha dog, when he was released from the shackles of Durant's and Westbrook's ball-dominance.
What was Harden's scoring rate when he was the clear No. 1 option last season?
Try 32.6 points per 36 minutes.
You read that correctly; when defenses keyed in on Harden as the No. 1 option, Harden responded by scoring like Michael Jordan, and he shot 53 percent from the floor in these situations. Plus, it gets better: Harden dished out 6.2 assists per 36 minutes, up from his normal rate of 4.3 assists. And remember, he was racking up all those assists by feeding the likes of Royal Ivey, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed.
It's easy to look at surface numbers and deem Harden nothing more than a capable third wheel. After all, 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game hardly implies you're in the presence of a superstar.
But as Haberstroh also notes, Harden's true impact largely goes unnoticed. He put those numbers up in just over 31 minutes per contest, a laughable usage rate for a player of his caliber, yet telling all the same.
Those numbers came as the Oklahoma City Thunder's third option, in limited playing time. How is that not impressive?
Even his combined per-36 minute averages last season of 19.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists are impressive.
Because again, they came primarily as his team's third option. Not the first or the second—the third.
But he's not a third option anymore; he is "the man."
Which make his numbers as the alpha dog in Oklahoma City all the more relevant.
You could say they were a fluke, attribute it to blind luck, but you'd be mistaken. Harden has continued such a pace as the first option in Houston, putting up 30.5 points. 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 52.9 percent shooting per-36 minutes.
Aren't those numbers painstakingly similar to the ones he posted when he was the go-to scorer with the Thunder?
Why yes, I believe they are.
For the overly skeptical as well, it's worth noting that Harden's current per-36 minute average trumps that of Kevin Durant's; he is averaging just 19.6 points on 46.9 percent shooting per-36 minutes.
But it's still early. We can't read into that. Durant is still adjusting to life without Harden, and his rebounding and assist totals per-36 minutes have skyrocketed.
That is true; it's all true. So why not take a look at Durant's per-36 minutes averages from last season? After all, no matter who was on the floor—including Harden and Russell Westbrook—he was the Alpha and the Omega, was he not?
Yes, he was and in such a role he put up 26.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 49.6 percent shooting from the field per-36 minutes. As the Thunder's top dog.
Impressive numbers, yes, but not nearly as potent as Harden was as the primary offensive option.
And we cannot attribute Durant's statistical concession to the "shackles" that were Harden and are Westbrook because he is his team's first option. No matter what.
Is this to say Harden is better than Durant? Not at all, but it does make a case for the Rockets' newest superstar.
Houston knew what it was getting in Harden. Jeremy Lin himself understood the magnitude of the acquisition, what it mean for him and the rest of the organization.
Plenty of others didn't, though—and still don't.
But you see, Harden's success with the Rockets is not a fluke, nor is it even an ascension into stardom—it's a continuation of what he's been doing all along when the ball is put in his hands first.
So is his ascension into superstardom here to stay?
It never actually left.