James Harden and his beard have led the Houston Rockets this season to the top tier of the NBA. Houston has its eyes set on a deep playoff run in a crowded West this spring, and Harden will be the one running the show.
Harden is having a great statistical season. His 24.9 points, 5.7 assists, 4.6 boards and 1.5 steals per game could easily earn him a spot on one of the All-NBA teams at the end of the year.
We all know Harden has his flaws. His 3.7 turnovers a night are far too many, and his lack of defensive awareness at times is a big hit against his superstardom (although, coach Kevin McHale discovered that Harden is much better guarding a bigger man in the post than he is at chasing a speedy guard around the perimeter). However, Harden's minor issues pale in comparison to his strengths.
Harden is a top-three pure scorer in the league, along with Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. He's a sharpshooter from long range, hitting over 45 percent of his attempts since the All-Star break. As a defender, you may settle for those odds, because it isn't any better if you let him drive to the hoop.
When Harden gets in the paint, it's almost an automatic two points. His deceptive quickness and pump fake let him slip by defenders and penetrate the lane. He's a spectacular finisher around the rim. He is also a natural at creating contact (sometimes he tries to embellish that contact) and drawing the foul. Harden holds the ball out with his strong hands and lures defenders into trying to go for the steal, which almost always results in a foul call. His 85.8 free-throw percentage takes care of the rest.
Despite the acquisition of Dwight Howard in the offseason, Harden is the unquestioned leader both on and off the court. He is the go-to guy, especially down the stretch. Obviously, his ability to carry the team will be most crucial come playoff time, but let's evaluate how he's done so far.
As a team leader, one of the most important qualities is being clutch. You want your best player to demand the ball in crunch time and come through when you need him most. Harden has done a solid job thus far with the clock winding down. In the last five minutes of a 5-point game or less, Harden is tied with Kyrie Irving for the most points in the NBA. He is second in the league in points per game in the final frame with 6.9, trailing only Durant.
Harden has proven that he can play at a high level throughout a game, even when under pressure down the stretch. He has made several cold-blooded plays already this season, like this one against the Portland Trail Blazers and this one against the Washington Wizards.
This is the biggest difference between this year and last year for the Beard. Last year, there were times when Harden would disappear at the end of games. His isolations where he lets the shot clock run down were not effective because they often resulted in a rushed, contested shot. This season, Harden still is stagnant on offense at times, but he has practiced and perfected his stepback jumper in those situations.
Harden is an elite player, that is not the argument here. The question at hand is how well has he led the Rockets this season.
With all things considered, I think Harden has done a terrific job at the reins of this team. The Rockets lost several embarrassing games to non-playoff teams early on in the year, and Houston's legitimacy came into question. However, in 2014, the Rockets have gotten rid of the humiliating defeats. They have done a great job of taking care of business against inferior teams, and they have proven they can beat the best of the best as well.
This team is a lot different than it was at the beginning of the season, and I think that Harden's leadership, whether it's in the team huddle or out on the floor, is a big reason why. I would also give a lot of credit to Howard for creating a positive atmosphere in the locker room and Patrick Beverley for giving the team physical and mental toughness on the court.
At the end of the day, however, this is Harden's team. I've said it before and I'll say it again: The Rockets will only go as far in the playoffs as Harden will carry them. Every key moment, every critical possession, Harden will be the one in the spotlight.
With this current core, as Harden matures as a player (remember he's only 24 years old!), he is capable of eventually leading this team to the NBA Finals in the next few seasons.