By Zach Naidu
James Harden wants you to know — he’s damn good.
Often times, once an NBA player has reached his 6th or 7th season, his reputation is fully-formed. Rotation player, starter, all-star, elite (top 10-12) or super elite (top 5). The super elite class is the hardest to break into. In recent years, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have firmly held places in the super elite class, with Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Harden hovering around the final two spots. For years Harden has been categorized as an elite player, winning an MVP last year. However, multiple playoff failures despite stellar regular seasons dominate Harden’s reputation.
This year though, the man with the beard has eclipsed a new level of excellence.
Fresh off scoring 61 points against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, Harden led the Rockets to a two-point win over Eastern Conference powerhouse Toronto Raptors Friday night. The vintage performance against the Knicks capped a five-game stretch during which Harden averaged 52.2 points per game. His encore performance against Toronto delivered a victory against the owner of the second-best record in the NBA.
With injured Chris Paul and Clint Capela sidelined due to injury, this Houston Rockets roster is disgusting on paper. It has no business contending for a winning record, let alone a playoff spot. And yet this Rockets team firmly sits as the 5th seed in a loaded Western Conference.
Criticisms concerning Harden’s shooting percentages given his abnormally high usage rate cloud some of Harden’s success. But plenty of highly-touted players before Harden have received the keys to an offense and failed to come anywhere near the level of consistent production the defending-MVP has shown this season.
Through 46 games, Harden is scoring an outrageous 36.33 points per game. Over the last two months alone — a 28-game stretch that included performances with and without Chris Paul in the lineup — Harden is averaging just a shade under 40 per game at 39.98. He is well on his way to scoring the most points per game since Michael Jordan averaged 37.09 in 1986-1987, and perhaps will even top that.
James Harden is not just an elite player. James Harden is a super elite, once-in-a-generational talent. It’s time to start accepting Harden is closer to all-time great Kobe Bryant than volume scorer Carmelo Anthony. Harden hasn’t had the luxury of playing with another bona fide star to compete for a title with until Chris Paul arrived last year. With Paul, he immediately came within one game of advancing to the NBA Finals.
I’m a well documented die-hard Dallas Mavericks fan. Based on purely an inter-division rivalry, my least favorite team is the Houston Rockets. But as a basketball purist, I can’t help but appreciate the brilliance James Harden displays on a nightly basis.
The Rockets have substantially regressed from last year’s 66-win team. In addition, the return of Chris Paul will cool Harden’s numbers to mere super-star (rather than super-human) numbers. But Harden’s documented ability to carry his team and explosively score with such ease has established him as one of the greatest offensive forces to be reckoned with of all time.
Arguably the best player in the Western Conference not on the Golden State Warriors plays for Houston. So don’t be surprised if this underwhelming version of the Rockets makes some noise in the playoffs. James Harden certainly won’t be.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu