Yes, doubters. And there are plenty. Seems crazy after James Harden followed up his near-miss (or should we say, should-have-been) MVP season in 2014-2015 with an arguably better year statistically in 2015-2016, but the illogical Beard hate is real.
Look no further than the All-NBA teams from a season ago, which notoriously left Harden off in favor of several inferior back court players (we all know who those players are, and I fully expect several Bay Area bandwagoners to blow up my Twitter maniacally defending Klay Thompson and his 3 rebounds, 2 assists and half a steal per game while simultaneously dumping on the Beard’s historic stat line the moment this piece goes live, but que sera). The Rockets are the team observers in the national eye love to hate, and Harden is the face of the franchise.
If the way things look so far in the offseason and preseason hold, however, there will be no other choice than to finally recognize the Beard for what we Rockets fans have known all along: that Harden is one of most unstoppable offensive forces in recent NBA memory.
Earlier this summer, new Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni turned some heads even here at TDS when he suggested that the Beard could potentially average 12 assists per contest. After seeing early glimpses of how Harden looks as the point man in the D’Antoni system, the coach might not be that far off.
In the five preseason games that Harden was active, he averaged 29.6 minutes per game, or almost a full 9 minutes less than his average last year, and in that limited time this preseason, the Beard’s numbers were staggering.
He finished with 21.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 10.8 assists, and a steal on 46.7 percent shooting from the field. Sure, it’s just preseason, an admittedly small sample size, and the Beard also did rack up his fair share of turnovers — somewhat indicative of his usage rate; Jason Kidd and Steve Nash each led the league in turnovers, twice — but this should give us an idea of what type of production we can see from Harden in this system based around the Beard’s skill with the ball in his hand.
D’Antoni recently referred to Harden as “one of the best pick and roll guys I’ve ever seen,” and and went on to tell the Houston Chronicle:
“It’s way ahead of what I thought, but that’s because James is so good at what he does. He’s got everybody involved, and we have good shooters. There’s a lot of stuff we need to get better on. Right now, it’s preseason, I’ll take it with a grain of salt.”
While D’Antoni reaffirms how early it is, he’s also correct that the Rockets have a lot of things to get better at (ahem, defense), and he’s correct about the plethora of long-range shooters now surrounding Harden.
Last year, Trevor Ariza was the second-best offensive option on the team and the most likely recipient beyond the arc of a Beard assist. The additions of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon make last year’s top three-point threat now the third or fourth best option on the team, which will only enhance Harden’s effectiveness at collapsing the defense.
As for the defensive side, Harden recognizes the need to solidify that end of the court. He spent his summer un-injured and Kardashian-free and came into training camp in-shape and ready to work. With the renewed focus on defense, a return to the Beard performance of 2014-2015 (+1.0 defensive plus-minus, 4.6 defensive win shares) is certainly not out of the question.
“Obviously, we know we can score the ball extremely well. I think, as the season goes on, we’ll get more comfortable with each other and it will continue to look better. The only thing we’re really focused on is defensively getting stops, because we can score. If we get stops, the offense will become a lot easier.”
If Harden continues to look great offensively under D’Antoni while picking up the pace on the defensive side, critics in the national media will have no choice but to recognize. In fact, it’s already slowly starting. ESPN’s Amin Elhassan has Harden as his early pick for MVP this year. I would tend to agree.
As long as many others in the national press, however, are overly focused on Harden’s faults (every player has them) while conveniently overlooking the negatives of some of the guys touted as All-NBA last year over the Beard, Harden may have to be dang near perfect just to get the full recognition he really deserves outside of Houston.
That’s just fine for him, however. He’s using it as motivation to get better in all facets. And better than the 29.0 points, 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds he averaged last season is a scary thought for the rest of the NBA. Harden also told the Chronicle:
“That’s a good thing when they’re talking about you. When they're not talking about you, you have to worry. I take the good with the bad. I think everybody has flaws and everybody has some great qualities. I focus on what I do well; try to get better at the things I don't do well.
“Motivation? Yeah, sure, But everything motivates me. Obviously, you hear the negative talk. That's motivation to show I can lead these guys. That we're not really talked about, that motivates me. Being better this year than the year before, that motivates me. Everything motivates me. I just want to be the best player James Harden can be. That's all I really care about."