WASHINGTON – James Harden had to scurry off to the Houston Rockets’ team bus after another spectacular statistical performance, made even more remarkable because he made it look so routine. Security guard leading the way, Harden made his way down a hallway, where a misplaced mirror leaned up against a wall. Harden walked by, caught his reflection in the periphery and paused. Harden then stepped back to briefly gaze and admire, rubbing his patented beard to make sure he looked OK, and strolled toward the exit.
The swag champ has returned.
If it hasn’t been apparent by a recent run of brilliance that hasn’t been seen since Michael Jordan more than a quarter-century ago, or an early season eruption that harkens back to the pre-merger magic of Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Oscar Robertson, Harden’s bravado is back.
New Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni has worked with great scorers and great playmakers at his various stops around the league, but in Harden he found a guard who can do both. Harden has long dominated the ball as a facilitating shooting guard, but D’Antoni ended speculation about what he truly is by stamping him with the label of full-time point guard. Now that Harden is setting up teammates better than anyone else and currently leads the league in assists, who is the league’s best player at his position?
“Best point guard or best player?” Harden responded when asked.
“I am,” Harden told The Vertical.
D’Antoni already twice unlocked the MVP in Steve Nash and the early returns on his partnership with Harden have yielded the kind of mind-blowing production to rival an unburdened LeBron James and an unleashed Russell Westbrook this season. Harden, the bobbing, weaving and probing scorer who has turned drawing fouls into fine art, and D’Antoni, the architect of the innovative offense in Phoenix that served as the precursor to the current high-scoring, pace-and-space NBA, have teamed up to make stat sheets great again, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising considering the track records of the parties involved.
“I thrive on scoring the basketball and creating shots for my teammates,” Harden, averaging 31.6 points, 12.7 assists and 7.1 rebounds, told The Vertical. “I go into every game doing what it takes to win, whether it’s assists, whether it’s scoring, rebounding, whatever it is. [D’Antoni] puts a lot of trust in me, and my teammates do as well.”
Harden was mostly overlooked after dropping a career-best statistical performance last season. But that effort didn’t make a sound, muted by the malaise of disappointment and dissension. When the Rockets followed up a trip to the Western Conference finals by barely reaching the playoffs with a 41-41 record and he failed to make any of the three All-NBA teams – despite being the fourth player to ever finish with averages of at least 29 points, 7.5 assists and six rebounds – Harden learned that nothing he does individually can remove the stench of team failings.
So, while he would join Archibald and Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 30 points and 10 assists in the same season – and could become the first player since Archibald in 1972-73 to lead the league in scoring and assists – if he is somehow able keep up this insane pace for an entire season, Harden said he isn’t making it his priority to become a unique footnote in history.
“I just want to win. I don’t really think about doing all that other stuff,” Harden told The Vertical. “Being runner-up for MVP [in 2014-15] and having just a not-so-good last year, it was good for me. It was a growth year for me. I learned a lot of things and got better and just have a different mentality coming into this year.”
In addition to hiring a coach to maximize the talents of the player to whom he handed the franchise, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey added Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon last summer, surrounding Harden with the personnel that could exploit his ability to slash and finish or kick out when the defense collapses. “A lot more space. A lot more opportunity for me to get to the basket, for me to find guys,” Harden said of his new system. “Previously, it was a little bit more crowded. You’ve got to respect our shooters and you’ve got to be able to find them and know where they are at all times, or you’re going to pay for it.”
Harden, shooting 50 percent from the floor and 41 percent from three-point range, has recorded at least 12 assists in five of Houston’s seven games and is the first player since Jordan in 1989 – the year Harden was born – to have four consecutive games with at least 30 points and 10 assists. The scoring could dip, but D’Antoni said maintaining double-digit assists for the rest of the season shouldn’t be a problem for Harden, even after Patrick Beverley returns from a left knee injury. “I don’t see why not.”
But in order to be considered the best, Harden can’t make his presence felt on one side of the ball. His indifference toward defense has inspired its fair share of hilarious memes, Vines and YouTube videos. Combined with D’Antoni’s reputation for fielding teams that view defense as the necessary break between offensive possessions, the potential is there for Harden to become even more of a sieve – but teammate Trevor Ariza refuses to allow that to happen under his watch.
“As bad as people say [Harden] is defensively, I know he can play defense. He’s too athletic not to be able to,” Ariza told The Vertical. “So what I try to do is continue to stay on him, continue to push him, like, ‘Yo.’ I don’t care how mad he gets at me because it doesn’t matter. I’m not doing my job if I don’t let him know what he’s not doing. Defensively, we try to hold each other accountable. He knows that. He can do it on both sides. When we see he’s not doing what he’s supposed to do, us, as a group, we let him know.”
With the ball in his hands more, and running an up-tempo offense, Harden has an easy excuse for not having the energy to have enough on defense. But D’Antoni believes the increased responsibilities on offense will spare him from getting worn down because “he starts with [the ball], he doesn’t have to wrestle and go get it.” Harden said the challenge would be more mental than physical. “Just being locked in,” Harden said. “It’s my job to go out there and play both ends of the floor at a high level. We’re all going to make mistakes, but we have each other’s backs and we compete.”
After an offseason of introspection and transition, Harden is out to be a better player than the one whom his NBA brethren chose as MVP two years ago. “He understands what he’s up against,” Ariza told The Vertical. “It’s going to be tough for him, but the good thing about him is, he doesn’t want it to be easy. We’re here to assist and help him. And we want to see him be great. Because we see what he does everyday. We know how hard he works. We know he can reach his potential in this system.”
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