NBA free-agency tracker:

Houston Rockets: With Omer Asik Playing a Lesser Role, James Harden Primed to Sneak Into MVP Race

Yahoo Contributor Network
COMMENTARY | So far this season, we haven't seen James Harden at his best for the Houston Rockets.

The fifth-year guard has struggled with foot injuries in the early going, and he's also battled a flu-like sickness that has run through the Rockets' locker room.

There's no doubting that The Beard hasn't hit his stride yet this year. Blame it on the injuries. Blame it on his ineffective 3-point shooting. Blame it on Kevin McHale (they're calling him McFail). Blame it on his ego. Blame it on Houston's defensive indifference. Blame it on the failed Omer Asik and Dwight Howard experiment. Blame it on whatever you want (within the realm of possibility), and, chances are, there would probably be a little truth in your argument.

While there's plenty of blame to go around, the truth is that we're dealing with the first month of the NBA season, and, as the Rockets sit at 7-4 (7-3 when Harden plays) and everyone aside from Greg Smith is still healthy, there are no serious red flags.

Even with all the little tweaks, lineup changes, injury bugs, and spacing issues, Harden is still having an elite year statistically. There are currently three players in the NBA who are averaging at least 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists: LeBron James (Miami Heat), Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder), and Harden. Not too bad for a guy who has had trouble finding his stroke, right?

Harden ranks fifth in the NBA in scoring (serendipitously less than a point better than Kevin Martin) at 25.2 points per game. Harden ranks sixth in the NBA in assists among non-point guards, averaging 5.2 dimes a night. He 's averaging the third most free-throw attempts per game, trailing just KD and Howard, who should be excluded from the leaderboard because of the hack-a-Dwight scheme (he deserves zero credit for being the guy that everyone fouls on purpose to try to get back into the game).

Even with Harden's feet heeling up and his endurance improving, the MVP might still be a little out of reach for the Rockets' stud guard. However, a slight change in the Rockets' style of play and a few subtle changes in the rotation will really help his cause dramatically.

Since Harden missed the November 13 overtime loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, he has come back to a different team. Omer Asik, who missed a few games with a trade-request-induced illness, is apparently coming back to the team November 19.

However, after a really impressive offensive display on November 16 against the Denver Nuggets, the Rockets, and Harden in particular, would benefit greatly from McHale continuing to use Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, and Omri Casspi at the 4 (with Casspi also sliding over and playing some 3 at times; probably in place of Francisco Garcia, who I believe should be stripped of his rotational minutes).

I know James Harden broke out last season with Asik playing the 5, and obviously Asik was a big part of Houston's playoff run. But anything more than 12-18 minutes for Asik works against the team's offensive game plan. Against the Nuggets, the Rockets were stretching the floor, using either four-out, one-in sets or five-out sets (depending if Howard was on the floor or not). The spacing was perfect for most of the game, and aside from a few defensive lulls, this was one of the Rockets' best games of the season.

Houston set a season high with 27 assists (16 combined for Harden and Jeremy Lin) and also shot 43% from behind the arc. The Rockets had seven players score in double-digits and were led by Howard, who thwarted Brian Shaw's Hack-a-Dwight strategy, finishing the game 17-24 from the free-throw line.

So, how do these relatively small changes make Harden an MVP candidate? Because the Rockets are starting to look like the run-and-gun team that we envisioned before the season, and Howard's ineffective post-up game makes it clear that he won't be stealing any MVP votes from the best shooting guard in the game.

Harden is the engine that makes this team go and when he's getting to line, distributing, and hitting 3s at a normal clip (something we haven't seen from him yet this season), he's the kind of superstar that can bring this team to championship relevance. With improved spacing on the floor, provided by stretch-4's Casspi, Jones and Motiejunas, the sky is the limit for this team offensively.

Also, offensive improvement by perimeter players like Lin, who has improved his shooting stroke dramatically (44% from distance) and Parsons, who has averaged over 20 points per game in his last five games, provide Harden with enough help that he doesn't have to put the team on his back at all times. In the beginning of last season, Harden's win/loss splits were so lopsided that it was clear his supporting cast hadn't caught up to him yet. Now, they're all rising to the occasion.

It's a new age in Houston, and no longer will Harden, Parsons and Lin be forced to compensate for the Rockets' lack of interior prowess with a gimmick style of offense. Inside, the Rockets can bang with the big boys now and out on the perimeter, they're as potent as any team in the NBA. So, why can't Harden steal the award from King James?

The campaigning needs to start early for Harden to win the award. Is it out of the realm of possibility? No. Is it a long shot? Yes. However, Dwight's offensive ineptitude, the Rockets' exciting, fan-friendly offensive style, and the fact that voters are always looking to give the award to someone new, all help his cause.

Before you completely disagree, just watch Harden go up against the Dallas Mavericks on November 20 on national television. The last time the Rockets took on the Mavs, Harden torched the smaller Monta Ellis for 34 points on 11-17 shooting; I expect much of the same Wednesday night.

Oh yeah, and Harden is second in the league in turnovers per game. How much does that detract from his candidacy? Not much considering that the guys he around him on the turnover leader board are fellow elite players like Russell Westbrook, Durant, James and Ellis.

The way I see it, the best players in the league turn the ball over many times near the basket while attempting to make the aggressive play. Isn't overthrowing a lob and having it go out of bounds the same as throwing the ball to your center with two seconds on the shot clock after you failed to create a shot for 20 seconds? Obviously, turnovers matter, but not everything can be defined as good or bad and right or wrong. Harden turns the ball over a lot, but that's nothing new for star players in the NBA.

M. De Moor is an NBA junkie and a graduate of Montclair State University. He is inspired by the likes of Harden, Bob Cousy, Pete Maravich, Bob Dylan and Isaac Brock.

Sign up for Yahoo Fantasy Football
View Comments