Just twelve months ago, James Harden was almost indistinguishable from Steph Curry in the race to MVP. Many considered that Harden had done more, with less, than his rival in the Bay area. His defensive efforts, previously so openly mocked on social media, were on display. His Rockets made the conference finals. And his piers recognised him as their MVP, at the first ever players awards.
One year on and the Beard’s summer vacation has already started, the matador defence videos are back out in force on social media and his name is no longer mentioned in MVP discussions. So where has it gone wrong?
Harden’s 3125 minutes logged this season have been by far and away the most by any player. In fact his closest rival is a full 232 minutes (or 4.8 full games) behind him. I know, I know, it’s not surprising given that the Houston run everything through him. But do they? In terms of usage percentage, Harden trails Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker and Steph Curry. So perhaps this misnomer comes from seeing him on the floor more than anyone else.
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So why has Harden fallen away from the pack – at least in public opinion? The 6'"5 lefty is averaging career highs in points, assists and rebounds. Over the past season, Harden had five games of 40+ points and 10+ assists. That’s as many as the rest of the NBA combined! In fact, since 1983-84, only two other players have achieved such a feat. Michael Jordan in 1988-89 and Allen Iverson in 2005-06. But it’s never really his offence that’s been called into question, has it?
And this is where it gets more difficult to quantify Hardens value from a statistical viewpoint. The NBA helpfully made some additional defensive stats available to the public this playoffs, so we have somewhere to start. Whilst I realise the sample size is small, and the opponent (the Warriors) are historically good, there are some interesting figures. Harden’s defensive field goal percentage (dfg) is 46.8%, the usual field goal percentage for those players he’s defending? 44.7%, so we can deduce that players score more easily against the Beard. No surprise, but not exactly damning.
Closer to the hoop though, and we start to see some problems. Harden's dfg within six feet is a staggering 90%. That’s nine out of every ten! That’s almost running lay-up lines in practice good. And, for clarification, its 24.3% better than the same offensive players’ season averages. Clearly and worryingly the Beard does not appear to be engaged on the defensive end. The old coaching adage; “Offence wins games. Defence wins championships” still carries weight, so where do Harden and the Rockets go from here?
Interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has withdrawn himself from consideration for the role permanently and, as reported by ESPN Harden will have play a part in selecting the franchises next coach. Is it a wise decision to give any player, regardless of his ability, that much power? Harden has already commented on the team's need to upgrade their roster – and he’s obviously not happy with the current situation. But should the immediate and medium term future of the franchise be placed in the hands of such a mercurial player?
Perhaps, given last year’s success, the plaudits and the adulation he received from peers as well as the huge contract Adidas gave him, made Harden complacent? Perhaps he just wasn’t physically prepared enough to endure the heavy minutes he logged across all 82 games and be effective on both ends of the floor. But it’d be foolish to think that Harden won’t rise to prominence against next season.
Prior to his 2014-15 MVP’esque season, Harden spent his summer with Team USA winning gold at the FIBA World Cup in Spain. Following team practices, Harden, Paul George and his former Thunder Buddy, Durant, would face off in heated 1 on 1 match-ups. Is it a coincidence then, that his best season followed on from the challenge of having to prove your worth on a daily basis against some of the best players in the world?
With the Rio Olympics approaching quickly, Harden will again have the chance to pit himself against the NBA’s best in practice and relight that competitive fire. Houston’s early end to the season is also a blessing in disguise, as the long summer provides plenty of opportunity to rest that body.
You can bet he’s been hearing his critics loud and clear, so with the Olympics and some fresh legs, can you see anything less than resurgent Harden next season… Once more, the Beard will be feared.