We are now at the halfway mark of the first year of the James Harden era in Houston. The sample we have is now sufficiently sizable to assess our return on the trade and forecast future expectations.
After 53 games in red, the 23-year-old Harden is now averaging 26.1 points per game (#5 in the league), 5.7 assists per game, and 4.8 rebounds per game, while posting a PER of 23.4. He’s found a second burst, in February averaging 27.8 points per game on 53% shooting, to go along with 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. All of this has come in the process of leading his team to a spot where, by Hollinger’s odds, they are a virtual certainty to return to the postseason.
When immediate news of the trade first broke, I expressed my concerns. I saw Harden as a complementary piece, a second or third banana – I wasn’t sure if he was worth giving up what could have become a high lottery pick coming from Toronto. In retrospect, those doubts have been proven absurd. One can count on only one hand the number of players definitively preferable to Harden long-term as a centerpiece and still on that same hand, the number of players definitively preferable to Harden going forward for just this year. Combine that with his Team USA pedigree (and associated appeal to fellow stars) and it’s clear the Rockets got a bargain deal.
How many players would you say that for sure, you’d rather have for the rest of this season than James Harden? The only three I can say are definitively preferable are Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul (assuming Paul is healthy). Provided objectivity, one can make cases for Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony, but I’d personally prefer the Bearded One. Unlike Bryant, Harden’s team actually wins and with far less talent. At worst, that puts Harden as the seventh best player in the league.
How about that same question, long-term? Expand that list of James, Durant, and Paul to include Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall (given the Wizards’ recent surge upon his return.) We don’t know if Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose will return to form and I’ve never been a Westbrook fan. At worst, that pits the 23-year-old Harden as the ninth best long-term prospect in the league. But a strong case can be made for Harden over any of Love, Irving, and Wall. He’s easily the best long-term shooting guard prospect and might already be the best shooting guard in the league…
Is Harden a ‘superstar’? He’s not one of those transcendent generational players like a Lebron or Olajuwon, but if you’re waiting on that to build your team, you will be left holding the goods for quite some time. And I’m not so sure that kind of player is necessary to win a title. Just two years ago, we saw Dirk Nowitzki lead an explosive group to the throne past Miami. In that similar sense, I think that with a strong supporting cast, and a sufficient second fiddle, Harden can be the best player on a team that at least competes seriously for a title. Harden may not be able to outduel Lebron James over a seven game series, but that he had it in him for at least one nightmight be sufficient proof that Houston can at least one day be extremely competitive.
On this point, I think that the argument can even be raised that the Rockets, right now, have a stronger core than they did in the Yao-McGrady days, given the assumption of signing a second star. Longtime readers know my opinion of both players. Yao was solid but undependable, especially in the postseason, a defensive liability and as great a threat to go 0 and 0 as 40 and 20. You couldn’t even get him the ball against a basic fronting scheme. McGrady, on the other hand, was other-worldly, especially in the playoffs, but one must admit, he simply wouldn’t drive to the hoop to punish the defense. McGrady-Yao as a duo was a better core, but Harden by himself could be a better piece than either, certainly Yao.
The real tragedy of this tale is that with a superstar again onboard, few in Houston have been able to watch. So who is James Harden? You read the stats but who is he and how does he do it? The fascinating thing about Harden is that he really doesn’t have any extraordinary physical gifts. The only attribute one can really cite to is ‘old school strength.’ At 6’5, he’s not tall. He’s not long or noticeably athletic. He doesn’t have exceptionally large hands. Of the league’s top players, he stands alone as ordinary. So what does he have?
The closest comparison I can think of is Brandon Roy, another guy who was just ‘a basketball player.’ A guy who just ‘balled’ and put his head down and did what he had to do. But unlike Roy, Harden doesn’t even boast the midrange shot.
The Bearded One dribbles low and is at his best driving to the rim off the pick and roll. He likes to shoot 3’s and never takes anything in between. He can’t post up. And his signature characteristic is probably that he travels every time he drives. (Watch closer. That’s no Eurostep; he’s taking atleast 2.5 steps each time.)
The details are unclear but where would Washington be had they traded Brad Beal for Harden, pairing the latter with John Wall, or Golden State with a Curry-Harden duo (after a trade of Klay Thompson)? Frightening. Also worth mentioning that after the Rudy Gay trade, the value of that Toronto pick is plummeting daily.
It’s debatable how Harden will age as his career continues. On the one hand, he doesn’t rely on athleticism to earn his paycheck, so that bodes well. At the same time, can his body hold up with each year after continuously attacking the rim, play after play?
Harden is fifth in the league in drives per game (among teams subscribing to tracking technology), and much of what Houston does is predicated on this style. But while the preference serves the team, as I mused in my most recent column, does it really benefit the individual?
The Rockets’ offense overall may suffer, but as he ages, Harden needs to add some more wrinkles to his game. For longevity, he should spend the summer on his footwork, adding moves that will free him up in the midrange. These shots are deemed ‘inefficient’ but they will save Harden’s body over the course of the more meaningless games, allowing him to still stay effective. And to compensate for the dropoff, Houston management will need to pluck that second star.
With Harden, that aforementioned task will be much easier.