- The Rockets started off the season slow but are again a top-three offense thanks to a historic run by James Harden. The Crossover breaks down his recent success.
Even before Chris Paul bowed out with a hamstring injury, the Rockets were short a superstar—a deficit owed to the 33-year-old point guard’s noticeable downward slide. Paul wasn’t himself. He wasn’t shaking bigs off the dribble the way he had so often, and so crucially, last season. His automatic mid-range game wasn’t as consistent and thus wasn’t as punishing. The formula for Houston’s success in 2017-18 positioned Paul as a counterbalance for James Harden. When he struggled to carry that weight, it compounded the flaws of an already shallow roster and an oddly unstable defense.
James Harden answered the call. Paul has missed five games and counting, the bench is still lacking, and Houston—while proactive in trying different approaches—has yet to figure out its coverages. None of that has stopped the Rockets from being one of the most dominant teams in the league over the past 10 games, in large part because Harden bounded toward history. A dig into the record books from the Elias Sports Bureau revealed that in the past 30 years, only Harden, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant have totaled 400 points over a 10-game stretch. Harden’s feat is even more impressive than that sounds, considering: six of his games came against top-10 defenses; and over that 10-game span, he outpaced the next-highest scorer (Anthony Davis) by more than 100 points. And, just like that, the slow-starting Rockets are again a top-three offense, within a half-point of the top spot.
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This is the stuff of MVPs. Harden, even as the league’s reigning most valuable, hadn’t been much of a presence in early discussion for the award. The past month should be enough to erase some penciled-in ballots. Since Paul’s injury, Harden is averaging a cool 41.8 points per game. Harden is as impossible as ever, and he remains defiant in the face of the usual tradeoffs between usage and efficiency. The only players in NBA history to carry more than 35% of their team’s possessions while managing 60% true shooting are the Harden of last season and the Harden of this season.
Somehow, even after all the breathless praise of Harden and the Rockets last season, his rare combination of speed, strength, and craft seem understated. The number of defenders who can credibly hang with Harden on the drive is small enough to be counted on one hand, and even those select few are liable to bump and poke at Harden enough to gift him some of what will surely be many free throws.
The way Harden plays seems to frustrate opponents and observers in almost equal measure. Say what you will about his style, but its viability—in the regular season, at the very least—is not up for debate. The best basketball players in the world don’t want to be duped by Harden’s trickery, yet they are. NBA officials don’t want to call reward what might be a flop, yet they sometimes do. Harden barely leaves any other choice; he initiates so much contact and manipulates defenders so deftly as to put all involved on the spot, leaving them not only at the mercy of his moves but of the letter of the law. What is clever is not always counterfeit.
Yet there is still more bristling than there should be when Harden is lauded for what he is. Let’s make it clear: Harden is one of the greatest offensive players to ever play the sport. If this were all some trick, its secrets would have been revealed long ago. Instead, there is a body of work spanning tens of thousands of minutes and thousands of shot attempts characterizing Harden as one of the best to ever do this. The entire league knows exactly what he wants to do and which direction he wants to go. Still so many are powerless to stop him, caught between not wanting to bite on his fakes and frankly, needing to. What else is there to do when a superstar who controls the offense takes—and makes—26-footers with casual regularity? There is no more potent freeze in today’s game than this step, which is less a jab and more of a haymaker:
Harden may not be the best pure three-point shooter in the league, but he is the best creator of that shot—the very kind that shapes how opposing defenses can go about their business. Fittingly, Harden’s three-point percentage is up this season, even as his attempts are more technically difficult. Harden was already one of the least-assisted scorers in the league. With Paul unable to attract the same kind of attention and now not playing at all, Harden is creating even more for himself and thus, for the Rockets.
If others could do what Harden does, they would. Exceedingly few have the skill to even attempt it. Even among those who might try, most lack the body control, the creativity, and the conviction. Harden scores as he does because he knows exactly who he is.