It’s become popular to criticize James Harden for his occasional defensive malfeasance. So popular, in fact, that the Houston Rockets star may have regained a lost ability—he may be flying under the NBA’s radar. People seem to have forgotten, or taken for granted, just how devastating of a force he is.
Harden’s brilliance in the open court is what makes the Rockets’ extreme offensive style tick. Without a player of his singular caliber of charging Eurostep grace and power, his team would be fumbling about for a new identity. The chaos they breed by constantly pushing the ball down the floor wouldn’t work for them without a player as cerebral as Harden. He solves the sudden chess games the Rockets create; his savant footwork is the straight line they ride through the war zone.
Like Steve Nash once did for the “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns, Harden is making an experimental style work where it could easily falter—in the hands of a lesser player. He is the precise personnel needed for general manager Daryl Morey’s unique basketball paradigm to sizzle. Harden is the star with the court strength to connect the Houston philosophy’s seemingly disparate dots.
But all the knocks on Harden’s game have nearly obscured one of the league’s very best players. We seem to have glossed over his being the team’s engine, as well as what’s been another outstanding season for him in the stats column—he’s averaging 24 points per game on a tidy 45 percent from the field.
But perhaps most important of all is Harden’s consistently impressive performance in games against top Rockets foes. In six games against the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, Harden’s averages jump to 29.5 points per game on 57 percent shooting from the field.
While it may be shouted from some corners that this discrepancy speaks to a laziness on Harden’s part—“he should get up so much for every game”—any Rocket fans asking for more out of Harden should be careful what they wish for. Having already missed five games this season from left ankle and foot problems, Harden is starting to show the signs of wear and tear from his high usage rate. Averaging over 38 minutes per game this season and last, he’s behind only Carmelo Anthony in playing time.
The demands of so many minutes fueling the Rockets’ blitzkrieg is enough to undo many men. Yet Harden has showed that he’s growing with the system. All of those runs down the court, splitting or confounding multi-man coverage, stopping on a dime for a jumper, seem to have to have accumulated into something like a slow motion vision for him in the half-court.
He sees cracks in defenses much sooner, devises sequences to break them down all the quicker. He’s a more consistently dominant player, having his way in the fashion of veteran leader, seeming simply a step above.
So if we’re criticizing Harden and his Rockets more this year than we did last, let’s try to remember it’s only the shooting guard’s watershed transition into rarefied superstar air that has us expecting more from the squad. It was his arrival that led the team back to the playoffs and ultimately lured Dwight Howard to Houston.
And it’s his continued excellence that will shoot them over their next paramount hump, too.