But the bearded baller can't play franchise savior in May and June if the Rockets run him ragged in December.
Harden's hurting right now, but you could never tell that from his stat sheet. Houston either thinks too highly of his pain tolerance or too much of its training staff; neither is good news for the former Sixth Man of the Year.
The Western Conference is loaded. Even with Dwight Howard, the Rockets don't have enough talent to coast through the regular season.
But Howard, like Harden before him, wasn't brought in to make this franchise a regular-season power. Championship thoughts were running through Morey's mind while he assembled this fantasy roster.
For Harden's sake, it's time for the franchise to start thinking about the big picture again.
Ignoring the Caution Flag
Harden's latest injury scare started during Houston's 106-91 road loss to the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 15.
It looked like just another drive to the basket. Early in the third quarter, he navigated around a screen from Howard on the left wing and began his attack. A few hesitation dribbles later, he was down to the low block when that familiar chirp came from the referee's whistle (Harden ranks third with 8.7 free-throw attempts per game).
Only this time, that chirp was accompanied by a chilling sound—Harden's screams. The 24-year-old was writhing in pain, clutching at his left ankle after rolling it over Kings rookie Ben McLemore's foot.
Harden didn't have to say it, but he did anyway.
"Very, very, very painful,” he said after the game, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “I’m in pain right now. I’m just trying to get through this, these seconds."
Yet even that wasn't enough to get him off the floor. The Rockets watched as he labored over to the foul line, then sat by as he unleashed a couple one-legged free throws, unable to put any weight on the aching joint.
The story should have stopped there. Yet somehow it continued.
He would return to action and fight his way through another 10 minutes that were painful just to watch. Perhaps feeling somewhat protected by the two off days that followed, Houston thought he could play his way through the pain and gave him 10 minutes to disprove that theory.
He was still feeling the effects at practice two days later. He told reporters it was the worst sprain he'd suffered in his career, and the diagnosis seemed to put his status in doubt:
On top of Asik Sweepstakes, Rockets now faced with high ankle sprain for James Harden. Not an injury typically shaken off in a game or two— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 18, 2013
Yet there he was when the Rockets took the floor on Dec. 18, fighting through 35-plus minutes of good (19 points, 7-of-13 shooting), bad (seven turnovers) and painful.
Mostly painful, though:
Harden said his ankle was really sore after the game. He is going to ice it and hope it gets better, he said.— Jenny Dial Creech (@jennydialcreech) December 19, 2013
Right now, that's all Harden can do—hope. Hope that his body heals itself, because the Rockets aren't going to clear him for medical leave. They won't even afford him an early exit while red flags continue flying.
Not even when this was just the latest in a line of injuries he's endured in his lower extremities. It's hard to imagine that someone with two bad wheels can keep plowing along with a team-high 38.7 minutes a night, let alone someone who embraces contract the way Harden does.
Yet that's what Houston will keep him asking to do.
The Rockets have proven more than willing to play with fire when it comes to the one man capable of keeping this ship afloat.
There are no solo acts in today's game, at least none on a team harboring realistic playoff hopes.
The Rockets aren't one of those one-man acts. Even if they were, you could argue that role would fall on Howard's shoulders, not Harden's. Harden renewed the Rockets' relevance, but Howard legitimized them as championship contenders.
Still, those title hopes are dashed without Harden.
Houston's finding a defensive identity (100.8 points allowed per 100 possessions, ninth), but this team's strength remains overwhelming with offense (107.8 points per 100 trips, third). No one on the roster does that better than Harden; few in the entire league could even make that claim.
He's averaging 24.4 points per contest, fifth-most in the NBA. He's one of only three non-point guards (along with LeBron James and Monta Ellis) averaging at least 20 points and five assists. Throw in the 13.6 points his passes are generating and he has a hand in 38 of Houston's nightly dose of 107.1 points (second overall).
The more meaning a shot has, the greater likelihood that Harden will be the one to let it fly.
He's scored the fourth-most clutch baskets (final five minutes of a five-point game) in the league, despite having the smallest opportunity of the top eight crunch-time scorers.
The Rockets have other offensive weapons, but none who can match Harden's versatility.
Chandler Parsons can shoot and finish plays at the basket, but he's best moving without the ball. Jeremy Lin does a little bit of everything, but he doesn't have Harden's vision (5.3 assists per 36 minutes). Dwight Howard's an All-NBA talent rolling to the basket, but he's barely serviceable on post-up plays (0.73 points per possession, 66th via Synergy Sports, subscription required).
Harden's too talented for defenders to stop their own and too savvy to flood with extra help. He can rip nets from distance or bully his way to the basket or the charity stripe. He can find chances on his own or create plays for his teammates.
He's an indispensable piece of Houston's championship puzzle, even as the Rockets keep treating him like just another cog in the machine.
This situation isn't dire. Harden hasn't suffered a debilitating injury.
But trotting him out at less than 100 percent is a reckless temptation of fate.
Are the Rockets being reckless with Harden?
When one part of the body isn't right, the rest of it has a tendency to overcompensate for that weak spot. Even if the ankle doesn't get worse, Harden could be putting too much stress on his other joints.
And for what? A couple meaningless games in the middle of December.
Did the Rockets really think they didn't have enough to handle an undermanned Chicago Bulls team without Harden? Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is laughing at the idea at this very moment.
Harden doesn't need an extended sideline stay, but why wouldn't you give him as much time as he needs to get himself right?
This isn't just about protecting the All-Star himself. It's about keeping Houston in the best possible position to make that title push down the line.
Championships aren't decided in December. Harden's health moving forward shouldn't be, either.