Mike D’Antoni’s decision to move James ‘The Beard’ Harden to point guard has him playing some of the best basketball of his life and a real shot at a seemingly overdue Maurice Podoloff trophy.
There are a few sure things in this our short human adventure; death, taxes, heartbreak… and a James Harden trademark Euro step to the hole. He is so much more than a fancy dribbler or a guy who can shoot threes though. As one of the NBA’s premier talents, he is playing with a chip on his shoulder, intent on exorcising the ghosts of last year while renewing his claim to basketball’s top award that was seemingly denied him two years ago. This year, The Beard is flourishing in his new role as point guard of the Houston Rockets, showing off his well known playmaking skills and his often underrated leadership. Leading the NBA in assists at 11.2 per game and near the very top of the scoring charts (2nd) with 29.2 points a game, Harden is having one of the most explosive offensive seasons in NBA history and rightly one of the headliners of what’s shaping up to be an extremely historic MVP race.
He may not be Mr. Triple Double but Harden has quietly amassed 19 triple doubles this season – good for second in the league – including two 50-point triple doubles and a historic seven 40-point triple doubles. But besides behemoth stats and triple doubles, there’s a much bigger narrative working in Harden’s favour. After a dismal last season that saw the Rockets barely scrape into the playoffs at 41-41 (.500) and Dwight Howard leave in the offseason, the team are on pace for 50+ wins and are well locked into the 3rd spot in the West. It’s the kind of rejuvenation no one predicted and the kind of narrative that shows his leadership skills in a favourable light; even he knows this.
“I do, 100 percent,” he said after collecting his 17th triple-double of the season in a rout of the Los Angeles Lakers. “Two years ago the Warriors were in first place and Steph had sat out the fourth quarters of some games and what not. This year it’s almost the same way. My numbers are comparable to almost anybody in this league and then we’re third in the West when basically everybody basically counted us out. And we’re just winning. We’re having fun and no other All-Stars on my team or guys that have ever been All-Stars on my team. I don’t want to get all in depth with that. But we’re having fun and we’re winning and that’s all that matters.”
It’s absolutely astonishing how quickly Harden has taken to his new role as point guard in a new offensive scheme. He is basically a juiced up reincarnation of Steve Nash and has been the perfect anchor for Mike D’Antoni and his spread pick-and-roll system. This band of misfits, a team lacking any other star presence – made up of young players (rookies and sophomores), veteran journeymen, and others looking for a new lease on life – have managed to hold their own throughout the season. They’ve maintained a clutch hold on the 3rd seed in the West and have earned tough wins over the Spurs, Warriors and Cavaliers – one of only three teams to do this (Memphis, Chicago) and it all starts with their leader and best player, Harden.
The Beard is on pace to be the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1965 to average better than 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds (29.2 points 11.2 assists, 8.1 boards) per game over the course of a full season, and he’s doing it very efficiently too. Of the 32 players averaging 20 points per game this season, Harden is No. 4 in True Shooting percentage at .621, third in Player Efficiency at 27.8 and leads the league in Win Shares per game with a whopping 13.6. He’s also in the top three in Box Plus/Minus and Value over Replacement Player.
Furthermore, he is dishing out very high-value assists that have led Houston to become the top rated and most efficient offense in the NBA (115.97 points per 100 possessions) this season. According to NBAMiner.com, 4.61 of his dimes are for three-point shots while another 5.85 of his assists lead to layups or dunks. Put that together and 10.5 of his 11.2 dishes (93.5 percent) are on buckets at the two most efficient areas of the court. Based on data at NBA.com, he has created 1,911 points off 1,519 potential assists, which means his teammates are shooting an effective field goal percentage of 62.4 percent when he passes them the ball.
When you combine his scoring and passing, he has accounted for 3,955 of the Rockets’ 8,071 points this season, an impressive 49.0 percent of them. Harden is responsible for 56.5 points per game, second only to Nate “Tiny” Archibald (56.8) on the all-time list of most points responsible for. He’s also one of only nine players to ever average 25 points and 10 assists for a season and still has a chance to lead the league in scoring and assists for only the second time since Tiny Archibald did it in ‘72-‘73. Given his ability to score, it remains to be seen if he can cap off what is already a pretty spectacular season with this monumental achievement.
If you’re not yet blown away by the basic and advanced stats or Harden’s supreme confidence in the incredible work he’s done this season, maybe the opinion of the defending 2-time MVP and the first unanimous MVP in NBA history might tip you right off the edge.
“You kind of have to reward the better team, I would think, record-wise,” Curry said. “That’s just kind of going in the history of the MVP award. So, I think James will probably edge him out just off of that.”
The Beard looks odds-on favourite to win the award and despite triple-double mania from Russell Westbrook, the tremendous work James has put in all season to elevate his team beyond most people’s wildest imagination is definitely worth an MVP award.