James Harden averaged 29 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game for the Houston Rockets this year. It's a stat line that, according to Basketball-Reference.com's database, only two other players have managed since the NBA started recording steals in 1973: Michael Jordan, in 1988-89, and LeBron James, in 2007-08 and 2009-10.
Jordan and James made the All-NBA First Team in each of those three seasons. Harden's name, however, didn't appear on any of the three 2015-16 All-NBA teams when they were announced last week. Tops in the league in total points and second in points per game, first by a mile in free throws made and attempted, sixth in both total assists and dimes per game, third in Offensive Win Shares, sixth in total Win Shares, fourth in Value Over Replacement Player, a league-leading 38.1 minutes per game while playing in all 82 contests ... but not a spot as one of the top six guards in the league this season.
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It represented a pretty stunning fall for a player who finished second in Most Valuable Player voting among media members in 2014-15 while earning NBA players' vote as the league's MVP, and who had earned three straight All-NBA nods, with a Third Team berth in 2012-13 followed by First Team placement in each of the past two years. This time around, though, Harden didn't receive a single First Team vote, and while he finished with more "award points" than any other player not to crack the top 15, his 106 points still came up well short of the totals needed to displace Golden State Warriors sniper Klay Thompson (164 points) and Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry (155 points) for a Third Team spot.
"I mean ... there's no answer for me. I don't know," Harden said when asked why he thought he didn't make one of the top three teams by teammate Jason Terry on his show, "The Runway," on Wednesday night. "That's something that I've been thinking about."
There is an answer, though, and Harden quickly eluded to it.
"But like I said, man, you know, it wasn't a good year," he said.
No ... no, it wasn't.
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Coming off 56 wins, a Southwest Division title and Houston's first Western Conference finals trip since 1997, the Rockets stumbled out of the gate, opening the season with three straight 20-point losses. They'd rebound with four consecutive wins, setting the template for a season marked by inconsistency, mediocrity, offensive explosions and defensive implosions. Another three-game losing streak meant the end of Kevin McHale's tenure as Houston's head coach, but elevated assistant J.B. Bickerstaff wasn't able to coax much defensive improvement or consistency of effort from a roster that often seemed allergic to playing hard until trailing by double digits.
With the defense, both his own and the team's, slumming it in the bottom third of the league in points allowed per possession, Houston had to outscore its opposition to win, and Harden did produce in bunches while bearing a remarkable offensive burden for the Rockets. He finished a career-high 32.5 percent of Houston's offensive possessions with a field-goal attempt, foul drawn or turnover, the third-highest usage rate in the league, and the Rockets' attack went from top-five caliber (107.2 points per 100 possessions, which would've finished between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors in the offensive efficiency rankings) to the bottom of the barrel (99.1 points-per-100, better than only the destitute Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers) whenever Harden hit the bench ... which is why he rarely did, leading the NBA in total minutes for the second straight season and averaging a career-high 38.1 minutes per game.
Houston needed every last Harden drive, stepback, flail for contact and finish just to make the postseason. They didn't clinch the West's No. 8 seed until the final night of the regular season, needing a win over the flaming wreckage of the Sacramento Kings to finish off a 41-41 campaign and ace out the Utah Jazz for the conference's final playoff berth. Their prize: an opening-round matchup with Golden State, who summarily dispatched them in five games despite injuries limiting back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry to just 38 total minutes in the series. Notching one victory against the 73-win defending champs would seem like the sign of a valiant effort ... if the Rockets hadn't utterly buckled following Curry's knee sprain just before halftime of Game 4, as Houston went from the precipice of a 2-2 series tie and the chance to capitalize on the Warriors' misfortune to 48 minutes away from an early summer vacation.
It was, all told, a pretty fitting end for the NBA season's biggest disappointment, and likely the end of the line for the never-quite-took partnership between Harden and Dwight Howard. Outsized numbers aside, the 15-win drop-off, meek postseason exit, and the combination of Harden's persistent defensive lapses and disappointing start to the season after coming into camp out of shape — according to McHale, at least — helped make it easier on the electorate of sportswriters and broadcasters not to agonize too much over elevating Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Thompson and Lowry over him on their ballots.
"I guess the media was looking at it like, 'The Rockets were coming off the Western Conference finals and they're fighting for the eighth seed,'" Harden said. "But we're still in the playoffs, you know?
"Even with all the things that happened this year, all the negativity, we still had an opportunity to make the playoffs and, you know, had to finish off a good season. Those numbers are ... I don't even know who's doing those numbers. You know? That's some history right there."
There are those who'd agree. Ethan Rothstein of Rockets-focused blog The Dream Shake, for example, called the voters' decision not to put Harden in the top six among NBA guards "a historical, unconscionable collective disrespecting of Harden by the NBA media that I hope will lead to serious introspection on how fairly they treat this team." That's a bit strong for my tastes, especially after watching Harden-led Houston spend so much of its season shooting itself in the foot and out of ballgames, but it's a fair reminder that sometimes individual brilliance can be obscured by a collective failure.
On the other hand, though ... to the extent it's an issue, it's Harden's issue.
Yes, his individual productivity outstripped even his 2014-15 numbers, and yes, with the Ty Lawson trade a wholesale dumpster fire, Howard not what he once was offensively, and the Rockets lacking another capable shot creator until the late-season addition of Michael Beasley, Harden deserves plenty of credit for ostensibly dragging the Rockets to a top-10 finish in offensive efficiency.
But so did Thompson, for giving CP3 and Jimmy Butler a run for their money as perhaps the best two-way guard in the game, narrowly missing the All-Defensive Team while hitting the third-most 3-pointers ever and playing an integral role on the best regular-season team of all time. And so did Lowry, for being the best guard in the Eastern Conference, leading the Raptors to the best season in their franchise's history and, similarly, bringing nearly as much to the table defensively as he does offensively. And if you're going to try to argue for Harden over Steph, Russ or Paul, well, good luck with that.
They weren't the ones whose elevation Terry took issue with, though:
— Noah Coslov (@NoahCoslov) June 1, 2016
... and, if all we're talking about was statistical production, there's a case to be made for Harden being a superior performer to Lillard this past season. But suggesting that voters shouldn't consider Lillard's role in galvanizing a Portland Trail Blazers team that most everybody expected to finish in the lottery but instead ended in the second round of the playoffs, and in creating a culture of hard work, self improvement and inclusivity that helped inspire career years from multiple young teammates, seems off-base.
Houston was behind the 8-ball from the opening tip last season, thanks in part to Harden opening the season in worse shape and with a duller all-around effort than he carried into the '14-'15 campaign. Attitude reflects leadership, and for the Rockets to return to the upper echelon of the Western Conference, Harden's going to have to be the one to kickstart the desire to make that difficult climb once again next season.
To his credit, Harden seems intent on using this "snub" as fuel for his own furnace this summer.
"That's extra motivation for me, you know, to come back and be a better basketball player overall," he said. "I'm not going to get down on myself. I know what I bring to the table. That's another reason why I'm more excited about what we have as far as coaching staff and players coming in next year. So, you know, more motivation for me. I've got to get back in the gym, better myself, and everything else will work itself out."
Two summers ago, Harden entered the season proclaiming himself the best basketball player in the world and, because he'd put in the work to match the words, he put together the kind of season that carried his team to new heights and firmly established his place among the NBA's legitimate superstars. If he recommits himself in that same way this summer, new head coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey could find themselves in possession of the kind of weapon that renders these sorts of arguments irrelevant through sheer, undeniable excellence with a sterling win-loss record to match.
NOTE: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect portion of a quote from Harden's interview. He said, "That's some history, right there," and not, "That's an issue, right there." We regret the error.
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