I’ve had seven hours to reflect on this blasphemy, and I’m realizing I don’t regret making this statement. Yes, I’m well aware of the challenges in making cross-positional, cross-generational comparisons. (Sheesh, some of you have to take all of the fun out of life). And yes, I’m aware of Hakeem’s postseason brilliance. (As one reader noted, I’m not sure what relevance those circumstances have to my claim – we’re arguing abilities not historical body of work.) But what James Harden is doing right now, in carrying an all-time offense, is at the very least on par with anything Olajuwon produced on that end.
Where Olajuwon, of course, set himself apart was the defensive end. In fact, Olajuwon’s age 27 season (where Harden currently is), in 1989-1990, was the most prolific of his career on the boards and at the rim as he averaged a whopping 14 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game. Imagine what those numbers would look like at the pace of today’s game. In Olajuwon’s MVP season, 1993-1994, he averaged 27.3 points (the second highest mark of his career), 11.9 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per game. Harden is averaging 29.4 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds. The Rockets will probably finish close to the 58-24 mark they posted in 1993-1994. I’m not going to break down the advanced metrics because its almost 9:00 P.M. and I don’t have the mental energy for that, and more importantly, those sorts of factors hold no weight in hypothetical banter of this sort. For now, it will take a good argument to convince me against my claim.
It’s easy to get caught up in James Harden’s day to day brilliance. But one thing that does not garner enough attention is his remarkable durability. As they say, ‘availability is among the best of talents.’ (Wait, has anyone ever said that?) This season, Harden has appeared in 70 of Houston’s 70 games, averaging 36.5 minutes per contest. In fact, in the last three years, Harden has only missed one game. He played in 81 games in 2014-2015, and 82 games in 2015-2016. In Harden’s first year with the team, he missed five games, and then nine in his second year. During the win-streak tribute, I was reminded of the tragic nature of Tracy McGrady’s stint with the team. By age 27, T-Mac’s skills were already eroding and his fall from superstar status had already begun. Meanwhile, James Harden appears to be improving with age. So far, we have been fortunate this time around.
I wrote back in April of last year, and again in July, and had been discussing for some time on Twitter of the prospect of making James Harden the full-time point guard. It was one of those ideas regarding which almost everyone agreed made perfect sense but would just never happen. With just twelve games remaining in the NBA season, I can now safely confirm that The Point Beard Experiment was a complete success. Not only did James Harden prove capable of playing the position, he has spearheaded one of the most prolific offenses in the history of the league. It’s interesting now, in hindsight, to think back to the reasons given for skepticism over the positional change. Turnovers have still been a problem, but as Mike D’Antoni said early in the year, that’s an overhyped concern and not a reason to stifle creativity. My personal main worry was the physical toll of playing the position – as I wrote earlier, the demands of bringing the ball up court against pressure should not be underestimated. But as Mike D’Antoni said when discussing the change, moving Harden to point guard would mean he would no longer need to fight off the ball to receive it. Regardless of how much energy expenditure was offset, the season is coming to a close with no dip in production from Harden. He’s in peak MVP form with the playoffs right around the corner.
It’s exciting to consider that this is just the start. Still at just 27, Harden is likely to cut down on the turnovers as he learns the position and the system. His roll men, Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell, will get better with age, and he’ll get even more in sync with his shooters, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, with time. This is not even to mention the skill improvements Harden has made every year since joining the Rockets.