In one of the most groundbreaking moves of the 2012-13 NBA season, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Houston Rockets. Two games into his tenure with the Rockets, we'd begun the talks of his MVP candidacy.
Four games later, we're not so sure that he's ready for said burden of expectations.
Although Harden has managed to lead the Rockets to a 3-3 record, his production has taken a significant dip from his early-season average of 41.0 points per game. Although that could only be expected, his all-around drop in efficiency was not.
Which is exactly why we've declared his greatness too soon.
Now, this is not to say that Harden is incapable of becoming an NBA star. He has the scorer's mentality to take over a game, as well as the versatility as a facilitator to lead a high-octane offensive attack.
Without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook beside him, however, we're learning what the 2012 NBA Finals had already taught us. Harden is not yet an NBA superstar, but is instead a star on the rise.
In Houston, he just so happens to have the exposure to over-glorify either failure or success. Here's why we've done just that with the latter.
As previously alluded to, James Harden opened up his campaign with the Houston Rockets by posting 37 points against the Detroit Pistons and 45 against the Atlanta Hawks—good for a 41-point average through two games.
Which is exactly why we shouldn't have overreacted.
There was no chance that Harden could maintain such a prolific scoring pace. What was expected, however, was for The Bearded One to continue to score at a high rate after shooting 49.1 percent from the field in 2011-12.
Not so fast.
Since his early-season heroics, Harden is shooting just 32.4 percent from the floor. That has come on an average of 17.8 shot attempts per game, which is the primary reason the Rockets have lost three of their past four games.
But why the sudden change in results?
Elite Defenders = Horrific Results
During Harden's first two games, he was defended by the likes of Rodney Stuckey, Devin Harris and Kyle Korver. With all due respect to said opponents, he might as well have gone the entirety of the stretch with no one on him.
The results remain impressive, but how about the next four games?
When faced with Wesley Matthews of the Portland Trail Blazers, Harden shot 8-of-24 from the floor and committed five turnovers. Against Andre Iguodala of the Denver Nuggets, Harden was 5-of-15 and coughed up six turnovers.
Two nights later, Tony Allen forced The Bearded One into 4-of-18 shooting and another five turnovers.
In other words, Harden has proven to be a fraud when faced with elite defenders. He shot 17-of-57 against Matthews, Iguodala and Allen, committing a collective 16 turnovers in just three games.
Biased fans can chalk that up to whatever they'd like—Harden simply has not been able to handle the focus that a superstar scorer commands. Which is all the evidence you need to prove that he's not yet ready for the level of greatness we expect of him.
Give Him Time
With all of this being said, we must give James Harden some time to adjust to his new role.
Through all of the chides, there is truth to the fact that Harden had never once played an NBA game without the likes of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant alleviating the defensive pressure. In turn, his deficiencies were masked and his virtues glorified.
As the most prominent player on the Houston Rockets, however, that luxury has been lost.
Only a severe decline in production from Jeremy Lin could provide shelter from the media. Only a second period of Linsanity could do the same from opposing defenses.
In due time, Harden will rediscover the All-Star-caliber form he has long flashed. He simply needs to adjust to the defensive pressure being sent his way, as well as the task of learning his teammates' tendencies and preferences.
Upon doing so, look for Harden to reemerge as an MVP candidate. Until then, accept the growing pains as what they are: inevitable.