Nearly two seasons removed from days spent playing in Kevin Durant's and Russell Westbrook's shadows, the Houston Rockets superstar has proven to be more than just an athletic fiend and producer of facial hair.
Harden has been sensational since arriving Houston, taking a franchise immersed in mediocrity and catapulting it into relevancy. Tasks at hand have been met with explosion and potency. Points have been totaled. Assists have been dropped. Games have been won.
Statuses have changed.
Render Houston playoff-bound as the lone superstar on a team playing in a fiercely competitive Western Conference? No problem.
Welcome Dwight Howard in with open arms and adjust to his presence, both on and off the court, in ways Kobe Bryant never could? Piece of double-fudge, peanut-butter-filled, goes-straight-to-the-hips cake.
Take one final leap forward, usurping everyone else at shooting guard, perennial All-Stars and promising young guns included?
Thinning Out the Field
Truthfully, there's little need to thin out the shooting guard field. It's emaciated of elite talent as it is.
Sure, there's plenty of solid swingmen. But how many stars are there really? Beyond Dwayne Wade, Harden and a healthy Bryant, there aren't many, if any.
There's certainly a case to be made for Klay Thompson. Like Bradley Beal and Lance Stephenson, though, he appears to be on the cusp of stardom, finishing just shy of elite. DeMar DeRozan, now an All-Star, deserves some consideration, but even his ascension has been exacerbated.
Delving deeper, we find names like Kevin Martin, Arron Afflalo, Eric Gordon and Jodie Meeks, none of whom strike us as stars. Monta Ellis' perception-altering season with the Dallas Mavericks may be the closest this position has to another dignitary.
Figuring out Harden's direct competition, then, isn't difficult, especially with Bryant on the sidelines. There aren't many players that rival Harden's stature, essentially pitting him against Wade and some combination of Ellis, Stephenson, DeRozan and Thompson if we were to ask for the NBA's top five shooting guards.
That's it. The top-five shooting guard ladder can be assembled using five of those six names.
Really, though, it doesn't matter. Small field, large field, Harden has no reason to fret. He has everyone beat.
Some players put themselves in good company. Others put themselves in great company.
Harden puts himself in Michael Jordan's company.
James Harden joined Michael Jordan as the only players to register 41 points, 10 rebounds, six assists & six steals in a game since 1985-86— Sportando (@sportando) March 10, 2014
Consider that a buffer for what's to come. Harden isn't Jordan. He is Harden. He can score. And pass. And post stat lines so pretty, you think they were manipulated by the same people who manually change their bowling scores.
There's no sense arguing he's the most efficient player, because it's not true. But dagnabbit, he gets results.
Only two players in the NBA are averaging at least 24 points, five assists, four rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. One is LeBron "I'm going to set the record for most almost-triple-doubles" James; the other is James "My beard subsumes superpowers" Harden.
Never mind, though. James isn't a shooting guard. That means nothing. Back to the task at hand.
Harden leads all shooting guards in points (24.9) per game and player efficiency rating (22.5). He's second in assists (5.7), behind only Ellis (5.8). He's third in steals (1.5), chasing Wade (1.6) and Ellis (1.8). And he's third in offensive rating (117), trailing only Matthews (120) and J.J. Redick (118).
Oh, and he's first in win shares (9.1). Can't forget about those.
No other shooting guards can match those ranks. It's not even close.
Wade and Harden are the only two who finish in the top 10 of each category. Harden, meanwhile, is the only one who appears in the top five of each.
Aside from reinforcing the notion that Wade is Harden's only true competition at the moment, it's a reminder that Harden can do so many different things. His defense remains porous, but his offense is so potent it doesn't even matter.
When pitting his all-around numbers against Wade's, his defense isn't even an issue.
|Player||PPG||eFG%||REBS||ASTS||STLS||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||PER||Win Shares|
Defensive ratings aren't end-all, be-alls, nor does this mean Harden is a good defender, but even the weakest aspect of his game is standing up against his most worthy opponent.
Credit Harden for his clutch performance this season as well. He's shooting 43.3 percent in the final five minutes of games where the Rockets are leading or trailing by five or less points.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), that ranks third among all players who have attempted at least 60 shots in those situations. DeRozan is the only other shooting guard to make that cut.
Move behind the three-point line, and Harden has been even better during clutch situations. His 45 percent clip checks in at third among all players who have hoisted at least 20 crunch-time bombs. No other shooting guard is converting more than 39.1 percent of their treys (Beal) under those circumstances.
In just about every category imaginable, Harden is found at or near the top of his position. Wade is the only one who consistently comes close to rivaling his finishes, yet he's barely even able to make this a competition.
If this was a dead heat before, it's not anymore. Not with the way Harden has been playing of late.
James Harden since Feb. 1: 28 ppg, 6.1 apg, 4.5 rpg, 2.1 spg. Shooting 49.1% from field, 41.7% from 3, translating to 57.5 eFG%, 64.7 TS%.— Jason Friedman (@JasonCFriedman) March 10, 2014
Although arguments built around Wade are still worth entertaining, they're steadily losing steam. All Bryant advocates must (likely) wait until next season before stating their case again, and that's assuming the 35-year-old superstar can remain healthy enough to play.
Right now, at this very moment, there is only Harden, the volume scorer who is actually so much more.
So few players possess his offensive versatility. Like Wade and a healthy Bryant, he can moonlight as a surrogate point guard, only more so. He scan score off the dribble or the catch. He can obliterate defenses in transition. He can do pretty much anything, save for defend like Jimmy Butler.
And he can do it all over an extended period of time.
Harden leads all guards in minutes per game (38.5). The numbers he puts up shouldn't be sustainable, yet they are. There's a video game-like consistency to the frequency with which he can register 25 points, five assists and five rebounds in a single game. Those are basically his season averages.
"Yes. Yes," Harden told NBA.com's Fran Blinebury when asked if Houston is the league's best team. "We are."
Who is the NBA's best shooting guard today?
That much is still up for debate; Harden's standing among the league's top shooting guards is not.
Just as he replaced Bryant in this year's All-Star Game, he's firmly planted himself atop all other 2-guards, supplanting anyone who was previously ahead of him. Wade, Kobe, all of them.
You name them, Harden, right now, is above them. And at only 24, he's only going to get better. Already one of the most gifted and effective superstars in the game, Harden is only beginning to distance himself from everyone at his position.
Soon enough, the widening gap will be one others cannot hurtle, leaving everyone further behind him than they already are.