As much as the foul hunting and zillion between the leg dribbles annoy most NBA fans, we may ever truly appreciate James Harden for the player that he is. It might take the next Harden - which might take 30, 40 or even 50 years - before we acknowledge the legendary run he is on. Scoring guards of his caliber are not new to the NBA. Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen the likes of Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant tear through the league. But Harden is on a scoring run that is a level above them.
He’s been an extraordinary player ever since he joined the Rockets. He always had the talent to be special when in OKC but his talent was put to best use in Houston. Just last season he was the league’s MVP and twice before he was the runner-up. The Beard is also a top-5 player in the league and is the frontrunner to repeat as the league’s most valuable player. The other-wordly run he is on is something we have never seen before. We are seeing history being made in front of our eyes and it is time we get a real grasp of what he is doing on the hardwood.
Since December 13th, the Rockets have played 19 games. Not once has he failed to score 30 points or more in those 19 games. In this run, he is averaging Wilt Chamberlain-like numbers - 42 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds while attempting 15.5 shots from beyond the arc (and making 38% of them). Holy Shit. He is going to be the first player ever to attempted 10+ shots from three and 10+ from the free throw line. His TS% over this stretch is 63.2% with his Player Efficiency Rating for the season reaching a career-high at 30.2. In this stretch, the Rockets have gone 14-5 despite injuries to Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela.
Last season was supposed to his peak. Twice before he had fallen short of winning the MVP and third time's the charm as he walked home with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. He was one win and a team shooting performance of horrifically epic proportions away from making the Finals and ousting the most talented squad in league history. Had he decided to call it quits over the summer, Harden would have done enough in 9 seasons to be a Hall of Famer with the 2017-18 season being the pinnacle of his career.
But the mark of a true superstar is that they are never satisfied with their accomplishments. They strive for more despite reaching the top of the mountain. He is at the peak of his prime in his age 29 season, so why not see if the sky truly is his limit? Despite the poor first two months of the season, Harden is taking this injury-riddled group of misfits and guys on two-way contracts to the playoff. When this run began on December 13, the Rockets were 12-14 and were the second worst team in the West. Today, they are firmly in 5th place and are vying home court advantage.
Last season was the closest Paul, Harden, or Mike D’Antoni had ever been to the Larry O’Brien trophy. Their title hopes for this season hinge on Paul’s health and GM Daryl Morey’s ability to find another serviceable player or two. The Warriors are looking at their best with DeMarcus Cousins starting with their “turmoil” looking like a thing of the past. The Rockets still are one of the worst defensive teams in the league with a Defensive Rating of 113.4 (4th worst in the league) after posting a 106.1 defensive rating last season (6th best in the NBA). These are all factors that Harden cannot control - though some defensive effort wouldn’t hurt the Rockets.
No matter what happens in the postseason - yes, I have them as a lock to make the playoffs - what Harden is doing is already etched in the history books. Even if he were to have a slump on April, May, and June (should they somehow make it that far), we all realize that the Rockets only got that far because of Harden. This is Iversonesque and Kobe-like but somehow better than both. His scoring tear reminds people of another Rockets legend - Tracy McGrady - but it appears to be a lot smoother.
Unstoppable scoring at a majestic level. Unrelenting and ruthless. It is different from what Durant, Curry, LeBron and Russell Westbrook have done in recent years. The closest thing to Harden is a young Michael Jordan who put up megalomaniac numbers as a young Bull. That picture, however, has been lost in the annals to that of Jordan holding up 6 fingers Vivint Smart Home Arena in front of all the Jazz fans.
What separates him from the contemporaries is we don’t often notice the immediate impact of their scoring. How often have we looked up a box score to see that Durant has 27 points early into the fourth quarter? He does it quietly and chips away his shots one at a time. The same can be said for LeBron. His trademark 27-7-7 is so often brushed off. But with Harden, each shot he makes is meant with a loud roar at the Toyota Center. The fire spreads around the arena as he nails consecutive shots from beyond the arc before he drives down the lane for a thunderous dunk. Before you know it, the game is his and he’s riding the wave of momentum to the W. Every bucket etched into memory. There are no surprises that he’s on 40 by the beginning of the 4th. And yet, he is a lot more like his contemporaries than his scoring predecessors.
Harden is significantly more efficient than Iverson. And unlike Kobe in those initial years after Shaq left, James has not been a diva. Kobe has the cutting edge and mentality of someone built for an individual sport but was forced to share the court with 4 other guys. Oh, and he too was high volume shooter who was inefficient. He is averaging over 35 points per game (a mark only bested by Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain before him). And is doing it at an efficient clip - similar to Curry and Durant. Efficient scoring while being among the league leaders in usage, a trademark for a player on a championship team.
He is no means changing the way basketball is played. While LeBron has a massive impact basketball, is it, in fact, Stephen Curry who has had the bigger impact on the hardwood itself. His shooting has revolutionized basketball and has expanded the space on the floor. His limitless range has changed the way defenses play and react to any shooter. LeBron is the epitome of an effective, efficient way on both ends of the floor. Durant’s jump shot might go down as the most unstoppable shot since Kareem’s skyhook. The one thing Harden over them all is sheer volume. Just a barrage of shots that gets the job done. Were it not for this, the Rockets might have been one of the worst teams in the West.
His run could end tonight. But he could go out in empathic style. And, it will be a tale of almosts and nearlys. The times when he nearly was voted as the league’s MVP. The time when he almost won the title.
This is exactly what makes runs like this so special. The craze and hysteria make Harden and those before him incredibly special. At the time of Kobe’s scoring mania - before their second run of title contention - it felt like he was never going to take his foot off the throttle. It sealed him as a Laker for life and fans to this day have yet to let go of his memory. Iverson before him showed what a player - who on a good day is 6 feet tall - showed how a miniature basketball player could rule the NBA. McGrady as well scored the ball as few have ever done. They are ruthless, and ferocious, and merciless. But at some point, it comes to an end. Today, tomorrow or sometime next week; they fall back down to Earth. The burn out is undefeated and Harden too could become its next victim.
We’re in the middle of a historic run that will only be appreciated for its merits long after Harden has retired. This is The Beard at his best when a year after we thought he had reached his peak. We may not all accept it yet but he what he is doing is absolutely stunning.