Houston Rockets 111, San Antonio Spurs 105: The Incredible Evolution of James Edward Harden, Jr.

Often times in the NBA, a player has a performance that makes fans speechless. Take D’Angelo Russell’s recent 44-point showing to bring the Brooklyn Nets back from a 28-point deficit to beat the Sacramento Kings, or, earlier in the season, when Derrick Rose turned back the clock and scored 50 against the Utah Jazz. There have been several of these types of performances in the game of basketball that make our jaw drop, have us scratch our head in befuddlement or some combination of both.

James Edward Harden, Jr., however, is of a different making. Every time we think James can’t best himself, he changes the lens through which you look at him. It has been a great privilege, nay, honor, to witness the evolution of Harden since he came to Houston in 2012. By now, astute Rockets fans know how the guard out of Arizona State has added layer upon layer to his game with each passing season.

During the Kevin McHale era (2012-2016), James evolved into the best shooting guard of his era. In contrast to more stationary, pure shooting guards like Klay Thompson, James showed his ability to drive to the bucket in addition to being a highly skilled three-point shooter. The euro step was Harden’s most famous move during this era, as he became the engine of the Rockets’ offense. It is remarkable to look back and see the types of players that surrounded James during this time, many of whom are no longer in the NBA or have had significant declines in abilities over the last few years, including once star player Dwight Howard. During these years, despite the roster construction, James Harden was able to lead the Rockets to four straight playoff appearances, including one Western Conference finals. This poses the now-not-so-arguable belief that James ensures you at least a playoff appearance:

Following a disappointing 2015-2016 season in which Kevin McHale was fired and problematic locker room chemistry derailed the team to 8th place and a 1st round playoff exit, James would reach the next step in the evolution of his game through new head coach Mike D’Antoni. At the time, many Rockets fans found the hiring of D’Antoni questionable given his lackluster track record with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. However, in hindsight, it was clear that MDA was the perfect fit for Houston. It is rare for a team’s front office, head coach and star player to all be aligned and share the same philosophy, but that is what Daryl Morey and Co. were able to finally achieve in 2016. The team would adopt a strategy that perfectly encapsulated the game and scoring efficiency of James Harden. They would take more threes, restricted area shots and free throws than ever before and by-and-large eliminate the inefficient mid-range shot. The Rockets finally had a system, such as the Chicago Bulls’ vaunted triangle offense, the Golden State Warriors’ chaos in motion, or the San Antonio Spurs’ unselfish ball movement offense, through which they could plug players into with aplomb.

During the MDA era, James evolved more rapidly with each passing season. In 2016-2017, D’Antoni anointed Harden the team’s leading point guard. This was unsurprising in that James, despite being a shooting guard, was one of the best passers and playmakers in the league. Still, the transition to the point was revolutionary in that James became the unquestionable engine of the Rockets’ offense. His usage rate went from 31.8% in 2015-2016 (the last year of the McHale era) to a now league-leading 40.6% in 2018-2019. In 2016-2017, he averaged 11.2 assists per game when he had previously never averaged more than 7.5 in a season. With the move to the point, James evolved his playmaking skills in concert with the rise of Clint Capela as the team’s starting center – the tandem of the two was undeniable and downright beautiful to watch.

In the 2017-2018 season, Daryl Morey helped usher in the next evolution in James in the trade for (and eventual signing of) Chris Paul. With Paul, Harden would evolve his leadership skills all while continuing to grow his offensive game. We would be introduced to the now celebrated step back three, which officially surpassed the euro step as James’ most famous, unguardable move. Paul would also help instill in James an improved defensive capability. The team’s switching defense, crafted from the mind of Jeff Bzdelik, allowed Harden to quietly establish himself as a top post-defender, dogging criticisms of years’ past regarding his defense. Harden would go on to finally win his first MVP after being runner up to Steph Curry in 2014-2015 and Russell Westbrook in 2016-2017.

In 2018-2019, we have witnessed several evolutions to James’ game. The step-back three has become only more potent and his defense more stout (he is tied for first in steals at 2.2 per game and leads in deflections at 3.8 per game). More notably, he leads the league in scoring at a blistering 36.5 points per game and has scored at least 30 points on all 29 NBA teams. Further, he has begun to evolve two new moves: the side-step three and the floater, a move Rockets fans wish he had in the 2017 playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs. We have even begun to see an effective mid-range game similar to the one that Chris Paul has mastered. It is remarkable to see a player evolve his game so dramatically with each passing year while several NBA star players are content with specializing.

The recap for last night’s game required the above to be written simply because Harden willed the Rockets to a win. In the 1st quarter, James put the team on his back yet again, scoring 27 points, a total suitable for most star players in a single game. San Antonio didn’t have answers for James’ three, in which he was 3 of 4. He even hit a Dream-like turnaround fade away, a direct slap in the face to LaMarcus Aldridge’s most effective shot. At the end of the 1st quarter, the Rockets were up 36-24.

The second quarter saw the Spurs cut the Rockets lead to six as the team continued to get into foul trouble, an issue that has seemed to plague them this season. However, Harden simply wouldn’t allow the Spurs to get closer, putting up another ten points in the quarter to give him 37 points at the end of the half. The Rockets would enter halftime up 15.

The third quarter saw a Rockets collapse to which fans have become accustomed too many times this season. The Rockets continued getting into foul trouble, sending the Spurs to the line seven times. Demar DeRozan began to find his patented mid-range game, scoring seven in the quarter, while Derrick White got hot from three. Harden did what he could to stop the bleeding, adding another nine points to bring his point total to 46. The other Rockets, however, simply couldn’t buy a bucket, and the team headed into the fourth with the game tied 81-81. The Spurs had effectively erased the Rockets’ 15-point lead in one quarter – there is a reason Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time.

In the 4th, the Spurs continued chipping away at the Rockets, as the organization’s well-known unselfish ball movement offense had the team up by six. Several of the Rockets players continued struggling behind the arc, including Danuel House, who was 0-4 from three-point range after having connected on so many threes since his vaunted return to the team. House has shown his youth in crunch time these last two games, making some critical turnovers. His game shows excellent promise, and he fits the Rockets system perfectly, but he still has some maturation he needs to achieve. With time running out and the Spurs up 100-94, Harden saved the team once again, scoring the next five field goals (three 3-pointers, a fadeaway jumper and floating jump shot) to give the team a 107-102 lead. Some critical defensive stops from PJ Tucker then sealed the deal, and James Harden would go on to tie his career high in points with 61.

James has now scored 50 points or more eight times this season. While scoring is on the rise in the NBA, no other player this season has had more than one +50-point game. With Lebron James missing the playoffs this season, one could argue that James Harden is simply the best player in the NBA and has been so for the last few years. After last night’s performance and now back-to-back games with 57 and 61 points, how is James Harden not already your 2018-2019 MVP?

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