Let's take a trip back to right about this time last year, when James Harden joined Kevin Durant and others promoting NBA 2K15. Harden had come off a first-team All-NBA season, but had somewhat become a laughingstock because of footage of him falling asleep on defense time and again.
And then, during said promotional event, he said this:
"I'm the best all-around basketball player in the NBA," Harden said. "Steph Curry would probably be the best shooter, pure shooter, in the NBA. KD would probably be the best scorer in the NBA, and Anthony Davis would probably be the best shot-blocker in the NBA."
Around the same time, he said this to Scoop Jackson:
Scoop: Bottom line, you are on this team and a lot of players aren't, but in your mind, who is the best basketball player alive right now?
Scoop: That's what I was about to say, "including you." You made that sound like it was an easy answer.
Harden: It is. Myself.
Harden was roundly mocked for this. Both of those claims would involve defense, and he was laughable on that end in 2013-2014, plus he fizzled in the Rockets' first-round exit against the Trail Blazers. This is in a league where LeBron James had already made four straight NBA Finals, Kevin Durant was healthy, Paul George was healthy and Kobe Bryant was gearing up for one last ride.
After those interviews, Harden was the captain on the U.S. Men's Basketball team that took gold in the FIBA World Cup. He wouldn't say it, but he quite clearly purposefully tanked on defense the previous year because he wasn't in good enough shape to play 100 percent on both ends, and the Rockets needed his offense more.
But while much of the national mockery was focused on those soundbites, Harden was busy fulfilling what he said to Scoop directly after the above snippet:
Scoop: Then here's the question: Are you where you want to be basketball-wise, even if you are the best?
Harden: Nowhere near close. I've got a long way to go, a lot of learning to do, improvements to make. Um, you know, as long as I'm listening and focused on the right things, I can reach my potential.
Scoop: So in your mind, you haven't reached [your potential] yet?
Harden: Not even close.
That was the last time anyone could feel comfortable doubting James Edward Harden, Jr.
He responded with the greatest non-Olajuwon season the Rockets have seen since Moses Malone patrolled the paint in the Summit. 27.4 points, 7 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals per game. Tops in the league in minutes played, points scored, free throws attempted and free throws played. Night-in and night-out dominance.
He did everything. Many nights he did it without Dwight Howard or Terrence Jones. At the end of the season, he did it without Patrick Beverley or Donatas Motiejunas. He did it at the start of the season with Francisco Garcia, Tarik Black, Joey Dorsey, Isaiah Canaan and Alexey Shved getting an unfortunate amount of minutes.
It didn't matter. Harden excelled, and the Rockets won and won and won. He led the league in overall win shares. The Rockets still had some talented complementary pieces playing with him on a daily basis — Trevor Ariza, in particular, was of tremendous importance and Donuts played well starting in place of both Jones and Howard — but everything went through Harden.
He led the NBA in overall win shares, and his fingertips were all over the team, especially as the year went on. Mid-range chucker Josh Smith went from having some of the worst shot selection in the NBA to seeking his shots within the function of the offense as a surprisingly sweet-shooting stretch-four. That doesn't happen without Harden taking the controls of Kevin McHale's system and being defenses to his will, freeing up shots that others didn't have to create for themselves.
And that's before we even talk about defense. He set career highs in steals (1.9 per game) and blocks (0.7), plus a career high in defensive win shares (4.2) and in defensive rating (103). He was a big part of the eighth-best defense in the NBA. But those are all numbers.
Harden was a solid defender on a consistent basis. He had his momentary lapses — almost everyone does — but overall he got his hands in the passing lanes, stayed with his man and, most importantly for the Rockets in the playoffs, was a capable switcher onto bigger players in the post. He routinely wound up between bruisers like Zach Randolph and the basket, but more often than not would budge nary a foot.
He showed all year by carrying the Rockets and never waning, never slumping, that he was in peak physical shape. That he didn't wear down in the playoffs after leading the league in minutes is flat-out astonishing. Considering he was fouled (far) more than anyone else in the league, it would have been easy to imagine a scenario where a variety of ailments kept him out of peak form. Not so.
Harden didn't exactly elevate his game for big portions of the playoffs. Against the Mavericks, he didn't have to, deferring to the aerial assault Howard and J-Smoove rained down on Dallas. There was no need for him to take over, so he relaxed and saved energy for the next series, when Houston needed him desperately.
In Game 1, he came out flat, turned the ball over 9 times and the Rockets lost. We were perplexed by how J.J. Redick was able to stay in front of him so well (that didn't go away) and needed a rebound effort. In Game 2, he dropped 32 and the Rockets won, but he still coughed up 7 turnovers and didn't get into a rhythm.
Glossing over Games 3 and 4.... Glossing... Glossing...
Backs against the wall in Game 5, Harden finally delivered a playoff performance worthy of his superstar status, turning in a triple-double (26-11-10) despite shooting a woeful 1-8 from deep. The Rockets had their mysterious Game 6 comeback entirely with Harden on the bench, but Game 7 was MVP time. He sat just four minutes and 53 seconds the whole game, shot 18 free throws (a playoff career high), and got 31-7-8 with three steals against a Clippers team folding to the Rockets' greater will.
Ironically enough, his best playoff series as a Rocket came in the most brutal playoff loss. The first two close calls in Oakland, he exploded, particularly in his instantly memorable Game 2: 38 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals and just two turnovers. He was also hyper efficient (38 points in 21 shots) and played stifling defense on Klay Thompson.
He had one more epic performance in him, in the Rockets final victory of the season. In Game 4, down 3-0 and in Toyota Center, Harden couldn't miss. He dropped 45 points in every which way, including 7-11 from behind the three-point line. He grabbed another 9 rebounds, dished out 5 assists and had 2 steals and 2 blocks. He was a force unlike any other player in the series in that game. He just finally ran out of chances, and Game 5 happened. As this is a celebration of James' season, we'll just say it could have gone... better.
The season, really, could not have. Harden transcended to the elite players in the league — and got a shoe deal commensurate with such status — by his consistent, dominant performance. He was a joy to watch all year long, and he just turned 26 yesterday. There is much more to come.
To go back and read all of our Rockets season recaps, click here.