It could be the question that decides the MVP race, among other things. Are the Houston Rockets an overall limited team that superstar James Harden has single-handedly lifted to a 16-8 record, or are Harden’s ridiculous point totals a reflection of the system rather than the player?
The Rockets’ latest win over the Cleveland Cavaliers put that question front and center thanks to Harden’s performance.
The Beard dropped 55 points. He was pretty efficient doing it with 20-of-34 shooting from the field. He dished out eight assists with six turnovers. He made 10 3-pointers for the second time in his career, putting him in a club occupied by only Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and J.R. Smith.
On such an amazing night from Harden, one that has become the new normal for the NBA’s top scorer, the Rockets beat the 5-19 Cavaliers by only six points and trailed with as few as two minutes left.
That seems odd, doesn’t it? A player efficiently breaking the half-century mark and his team barely beating one of the NBA’s worst teams? It certainly feeds into the narrative that Harden’s points are cheap compared to other MVP candidates, because of a Rockets system that puts the ball in his hands more than any other player in the NBA.
And yet, a team struggling despite 50 points from a star isn’t unique to the Rockets. Of the five non-Harden 50-point efforts across the NBA this season, the players’ teams are 2-3. In Harden’s four 50-point games, the Rockets are 3-1. In Harden’s tenure with the team, the Rockets are 17-6 when he breaks 50 points, while other players have produced a 50-22 record going back to 2009.
That seems like a pretty good sign that Harden is helping his team as much as anybody when topping 50, a question which only he seems to face. The use of “volume scorer” as a pejorative always comes with an implication that the player isn’t an efficient scorer (e.g. Westbrook, Russell), and yet Harden’s career-high .626 true-shooting percentage, which accounts for the historic number of free throws he draws and makes, is higher than Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Luka Doncic and a number of other superstars this season.
In the end, Harden is a cheat code, just not one as aesthetically pleasing or entertaining to a number of fans as the other players who have dominated the league. The Rockets have built their team around the ability to give the ball to a player who can stay efficient even as defenses throw everything they have at him, and that certainly makes him valuable. And it probably saved the Rockets from a very embarrassing night against the Cavaliers.
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