Over the summer, our beloved James Harden became a punch line.
Most people didn't go as far as to compare him to bottom-dwelling gunslingers like Corey Maggette or Ricky Davis (remember when he threw the ball off his own backboard in the waning seconds of a game to try to get a triple-double? Classic), but The Beard got a lot of negative attention for his defensive indifference and his poor playoff performances. As fans, we were bombarded by GIF after GIF of Harden stepping out of the way instead of taking a charge or lazily letting his man go by him and unsuccessfully attempting to poke the ball from behind instead of moving his feet.
Amongst all these jokes, The Beard's true identity became muddled. People were calling Harden a ball hog; a bad passer; an awful teammate; a choke artist. He got the works.
Now it seems that Harden is going to have the last laugh. The Beard has unquestionably taken the leap into superstardom this season, combining his cerebral, all-around stellar offensive game with a fantastic motor while sprinkling newfound leadership skills and defensive intensity on top.
After graduating from the school of USA basketball and passing Coach K's class with flying colors, The Beard headed into the 2014-15 season with a chip on his shoulder and an image to repair. Although the 13-4 Houston Rockets are still relatively unproven (the combined records of the teams Houston has beaten are 77-117 and the combined records of the teams its lost to are 42-22), Harden has been nothing short of spectacular, and sooner or later, he'll shed his old reputation and forge a new one; as a top-five player, mentioned in the same breath as Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul.
It became evident that Harden was an All-Star level player after his first two games as a Rocket, when he put up 37-6-12 in his team debut and followed it with a 45-point performance two days later. Daryl Morey put his faith in Harden -- simultaneously changing the fate of the franchise- -- and Harden delivered by transforming from sixth man to NBA All-Star.
Two years later, the circumstances are remarkably different. Although things started sweet in Houston for the former Sun Devil, it was apparent that 25-year-old guard was at a crossroads to enter the season; it looks like he's Euro-stepping in the right direction.
Harden is a throwback stud with streetball written all over his game and more grit than Rooster Cogburn. Almost every non-big-man superstar (even though most of the big men are too) is an athletic specimen capable of jaw-dropping dunks or gravity-defying bursts of speed, but Harden doesn't fit the mold.
He's not long. He's not a great leaper -- although he's been known to make a poster or two -- and doesn't possess great foot speed (by NBA standards). He doesn't have a particularly high release point on his jumper. He almost exclusively goes left and rarely shoots layups right handed (which Mattt Bullard seems very proud of realizing lately).
Superstars like Durantula and LBJ don't have anywhere near as many physical obstacles to overcome, but Harden has a counter for each one of his deficiencies.
He's smooth. He's shifty. He has unbelievable core strength and body control. He makes every inch of space count. He has great vision. He's a great ball handler. He has extremely quick hands defensively. He maximizes all of his talents and couples them with one of the best basketball IQs in the NBA.
If he were a running back, he'd be LeVeon Bell, patiently waiting for the hole to materialize, unfazed by the shackles of his internal clock winding down. If he were a baseball player, he'd be Matt Holliday (at the plate at least), utilizing the entire field, while taking into account the count, situation and defensive alignment.
Even before this year, The Beard had all of these attributes. However, the 2014-15 version has some new wrinkles and better circumstances.
The Rockets best offensive player is playing defense all of a sudden. Due to said deficiencies, he's never going to be a great defender, but he was never expected to be one. Over the summer ,Harden must have realized that he couldn't afford to play the lazy defense he played last year and be a leader; it just didn't give him the kind of credibility with his teammates that a superstar usually gets. To make matters worse, he plays on a team that starts an elite defensive point guard, Patrick Beverley, who made Harden's defensive laziness even more evident with his rabid brand of ball hawking.
In Houston's first 17 games, Harden has posted a Defensive Wins Shared mark of 1.3, which leads the NBA. If he continues on this pace, he'll post a DWS of about 6.4 over the course of 82 games. Only two guys in the NBA had a DWS over six last season and only five posted at least 5.0 DWS, so if he keeps it up, the metrics will put him in elite company defensively.
Honestly, I don't put a lot of stock in DWS and I don't feel like he'll ever become anywhere near an elite defender, but the fact that a largely accepted equation pins him as the league's best defender is certainly a positive sign.
(Note: By the way, Kobe Bryant is tied with Jeremy Lin for the second-worst DWS total in the league at -.2. Only 13 guys in the NBA are in negatives... and nine of them are Lakers.)
With this newfound defensive effort, Harden can now lead the Rockets on both ends of the floor (although his defense wasn't the only reason he couldn't be an effective leader a season ago, which I'll get into soon). With Dwight Howard serving as the family equivalent of the cool dad who lets his kid get stoned with his friends at home because he himself is immature, Harden is the dad who loves you with all his heart, but wears the mask of a guy who was in the Army too long.
Personally, I prefer Harden's type of leadership to Dwight's and I find Dwight's constant goofiness extremely annoying, but together (and with a little veteran leadership by Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry, and whatever effect Beverley's craziness has on everyone else) they combine to create a stable team environment. No, they aren't battle-tested as a unit and there's no shit on the fan yet, but I'll guarantee that ego issues won't trouble this team.
This year, Harden's proven to be a diverse defender. He's proven that he can guard starting 2s and 3s, although Ariza draws the better of the two opposing wings. Due to The Beard's body size and ability to stay in front of most guards, he's able to switch onto most opposing players, which is a weapon (especially late in the shot clock).
Even when he's at a serious disadvantage in either quickness or height, he uses his quick hands to poke the ball away, which any basketball player knows is the ultimate way to shake an offensive player's confidence, making them weary of attacking him. He's also great at anticipating passes, cheating just enough so the pass still seems possible to make, before jumping the route like a cornerback and making the steal. He's also shown an awareness of his opponents' tendencies, forcing his man to drive with his weak hand or leaning on the correct shoulder in the post, not allowing his matchup to turn in the direction/shoot over the shoulder he wants to.
Last year, the Rockets had too many mouths to feed, too much hero ball and the roster just didn't fit Morey's threes-dunks-free throws mentality. Jeremy Lin just wasn't a good fit and he had absolutely no self-awareness. Harden may have shot poorly in the playoffs, but Lin blew Game 4 with a turnover Olden Polynice wouldn't have made and also ran the ball up the floor three other times late in games when he should have pulled it out and burned clock, only one time converting a layup (the other times he doinked a layup off the backboard, which was put back by Howard, and missed an easy layup).
Chandler Parsons was a great player for the Rockets, and I'm not trying to bad mouth him, but he didn't help Harden either. Parsons is a jack-of-all-trades guy who was forced into being a spot-up shooter and wing-isolation player. That just wasn't his game, although he was enough of a chameleon to be effective in the role. By the end of the year, it seemed like he and Harden weren't on the same page either, even though they're both to blame for that (but since Parsons is gone we can just blame him and not think twice about it).
Without Lin and Parsons, Harden is the only guard who can create defensive movement from the perimeter, but he's one of the few guys in the league who can excel in that role.
With a roster rebuilt around the team's two stars, complete with a myriad of shooters and a nice combination of youngsters and vets, Harden's newfound maturity and improved motor complete him as a player, and he's shining as bright as anyone in the NBA. The Beard is second in the league in scoring, trailing only to Kobe Bryant, while taking 5.5 fewer shots per game than the Old Mamba. He's the only guy in the league averaging 20-6-6, currently ranking 10th in assists per game (first among non PGs and LeBrons) and fourth in the league in rebounds per game by a guard.
Harden can beat defenses in almost every way imaginable. Not only can he wreak havoc in isolation situations, bully smaller guards in the mid-post (once in a while in the low-post, but not often), make defenders pay for going under screens and tear up a defense in the pick and roll, but he can make double and triple reads as a passer, not just seeing passing lanes but creating them as well. His ability as a passer has been overlooked by many at this point in his career, as has his willingness to do so. By the end of this season, everyone who owns a television set will know what he can do in terms of getting his teammates involved.
Harden hasn't shot well from distance this year (34 percent) and his overall field goal percentage is right at the NBA's equivalent of the Mendoza line (40 percent is the unofficial Mendoza line: I guess we should call it the Cousy line, right? The Schayes line doesn't sound as good), but he's leading the league in free throws attempted and free throws made.
I wouldn't worry too much about Harden's percentages; at least not yet. Last year he had serious trouble from distance for the first half of the season, shooting 32 percent from deep, before shooting 41 percent the rest of the year. Last year he was missing most of his long balls short in the early part of the year, but this year he seems to be spreading out his misses, meaning that his legs and stamina aren't the issues, so maybe he just needs a few more reps to get going.
There's no doubt in my mind that Harden needed the criticism he received this summer. It was his wake-up call. He had such a defeatist mentality on the defensive end last season and it was a detriment not only to the scoreboard, but also to his rapport with his teammates. It's natural for young superstars -- and Harden still is young at 25 years old -- to have to readjust their psyche; it's just part of the maturation process. Finally, it looks like he has boosted his motor and taken on the leadership role that an elite offensive player should.
Personally, I'm all for optimism early in the year, especially when it pertains to the Rockets, but looking at Harden in this glowing light, even after just 17 games against mostly sub-par competition, isn't simply optimism; it's reality. He's playing at a level we haven't seen before on both sides of the ball and there's no reason to believe he can't keep it up if he stays on the floor (which should be a little more of a concern than usual because he didn't get a lot of rest this summer).
The way he's kept Houston afloat through all the injuries has been nothing short of spectacular, and as Bill Worrell was howling about Saturday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, it's great to see a supremely-talented-but-flawed player bloom into a sure-fire superstar. Harden is entering his absolute prime: the time in a player's career when they learn to maximize every advantage they have and conceal each disadvantage.
Some guys never turn the corner, never learn how to mask their weaknesses, never put it all together; we're finally seeing Harden do that, and it's a beautiful thing to watch.