Dime Drop: Will we ever fully appreciate James Harden?

Houston’s star guard continues to create history with his dominant, lethal offensive prowess. But the 30-year-old former MVP has somehow become one of the most polarising players we’ve ever seen.

By almost every measure, Harden is the most elite of the elite. His closest counterpart in scoring this year (Giannis Antetokounmpo) is 8.1 points back per game. He’s top 10 in assists per game with 7.5. He’s won half of the Western Conference Player of the Week awards so far this season. 

His Houston Rockets are currently 11-4, sitting third in the West, having just had their 8 game win streak snapped by the Denver Nuggets (second in the Conference). And yet, somehow, the media coverage of Harden seems to pale in comparison to the likes of LeBron James and Luka Doncic.

Is it possible that the hyper-analytically focused Rocket’s offence has created a clinical weapon, ruthlessly effective but devoid of the necessary humanity required to win the approval and support of the general public?

Let’s look at Harden’s offence in some more detail… per <Cleaning The Glass> Harden’s shot distribution breaks down as; 50% from three, 29% at the rim and of the remaining 21% from mid-range, just 2% are long twos. Almost analytical perfection.

“I think that a lot of people like to normalise greatness when you see it over and over again, but it’s not normal because there’s nobody else that can do it,” Rockets teammate Russell Westbrook, per ESPN

Impressively, despite a huge usage rate of 40.2, Harden remains incredibly efficient, ranking in the 82nd percentile for points per possession. And yet his style of play is too difficult for some to stomach. A stark contrast to “beautiful basketball” with flowing player and ball movement, Harden frequently isolates breaking down his opponent one-on-one.

Part of this style of play is by design, the mutation of the concept that by having your best player with the ball more often, you have the best chance at success. Part of this, despite the presence of Russell Westbrook on the roster, is by necessity. Where would the Houston Rockets be without Harden?

Cleaning the Glass projects the Rockets to win 62 games this season (based on performance so far). If Harden were to be removed, that number would drop by 47 games. Essentially, James Harden is the difference between being a conference contender battling for a top seed in the playoffs… and the worst record in the league. 

With such an over-reliance on his contributions and a huge workload, is his perceived postseason shortcomings really that unfathomable (I am desperately not trying to make excuses for him either)? His durability is unrivalled, missing just 25 games past seven seasons (excluding the current campaign), that’s less than 3.6 games missed each year.

We, myself included, are failing to appreciate Harden whilst we have the opportunity. Whilst opponents may Fear the Beard, it’s time we, as fans, revered the Beard.

Weekend Watchables

Friday 22 November 3:30am (Saturday morning) – Houston Rockets @ LA Clippers

James Harden and the streaking Rockets head to LA to take on the Clippers in what promises to be a clash of Heavyweight conference contenders. Paul George will face off against former teammate, Russell Westbrook. And as this isn’t part of a back-to-back for the Clippers we could even get to see George and Kawhi Leonard (assuming his knee is ok) on the floor at the same time. Oh, do I even need to mention that James Harden will also be involved?

Saturday 23 November, 12:30am (Sunday morning) Miami Heat @ Philadelphia

Jimmy Butler makes his return to his former team, who could really do with his presence right now. Philly, currently fifth in the Eastern Conference, haven’t had the start they were hoping for, looking nothing like the potential NBA Finalists many predicted them to be. Miami, behind Butler and unlikely hero’s, Rookies Tyler Hero and Kendrick Nunn, currently sit in the third seed and are one of the surprise teams so far this season.

Sunday 24 November, 8:30pm Dallas Mavericks @ Houston Rockets

I know I’ve picked Houston twice, but this is another great match-up and it a fantastic time for UK viewing. Luka Doncic, in the midst of firmly establishing himself as a top-five player in the league (maybe higher), heads to in-state rivals to face of against Harden. With both players having comparable styles of play, this should be a really interesting barometer of Doncic’s greatness.

You can hear more from Mike weekly on the Double Clutch Podcast, the UK’s leading NBA podcast.

Stats referenced courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference.

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