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Rockets season recaps: James Harden and the cult of perception

James Harden's been made out to be a lot of things. But what we don't hear enough of is how good he's been. That may not matter if he and Mike D'Antoni fail to turn around the Rockets.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

There's been a lot said about James Harden this year. Off the court, people have discussed his offseason eating habits (Jimmy Jam came into the season looking a little rounder than we're used to seeing him), his dating habits (no need to elaborate there) and his attitude (it's been reported Harden rides to road games solo in a black limo, separate from his teammates).

On the court, we talked about his defense, his turnovers and his inability to make nicey nice with season-long sulker Dwight Howard. The 2015-2016 season was a referendum on all the things The Beard was not. Or at least was not perceived to be.

Sure, some of the criticisms are correct. Harden's defense did slip this season. And of course, he turned the ball over a motherload of times, now holding the all-time NBA record for cough-ups in a season.

But while some of the vines look silly bad, statistically, Harden was just a slightly below-average defender on the year, not the all-time worst the social media scuttlebutt would have you believe.

And the turnover situation is ultimately indefensible, but it's important to remember that Harden was literally the only capable ball handler on the Houston roster, and he's certainly not a point man by nature or in practice. But with Ty Lawson a no-show at best, Jason Terry fast approaching his 39th birthday and Patrick Beverley barely passable as a creator—despite being the one-time Most Skilled Player in the NBA—the Rockets were forced by necessity into their worst-case scenario- running Harden as the primary ball handler the vast majority of the time.

Maybe it's the hyper-news age we live in, the unextinguishable thirst for constant content that regularly analyzes and deconstructs players on a daily basis, but Harden's game has been criticized more than any star player I can remember that put up the numbers he's reached.

His ridiculous stats have been covered all season here at TDS (most notably here and here), so no need to dig back in again, but Ethan said it best in his piece when he laid out Harden's statistical peers this year: LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

Harden completely carried the Rockets to .500, and this team would have been in line for a top 3-5 draft pick and a book-it-now 55 losses without his presence. The Beard was that good, yet was inexplicably left off of all three All-NBA Teams.

Part of that, again, had to do with perception. After all, the media votes for those teams.

There was a narrative this year that Harden's cancerous attitude and ball-hogging was turning the locker room sour, Dwight Howard into an old man and the overall on-court product into mediocre at best. (Ed. Note: Heck, I even wrote that at one point, which I now regret) Harden's rep took a huge hit this year as a result of the Rockets' chemistry issues, problems we now find out were mostly centered around Howard's inability to accept his role, not The Beard's unwillingness to share and share alike.

Yes, Harden should indeed drop the diva act on the road, but it wasn't a private car ride that made the Rockets chemistry go haywire this year.

Harden was not perfect this season. In fact, no player is. But he was significantly better than he gets credit for. And he will likely get even better. The 26-year-old Beard will turn 27 right before the season and enter directly into his physical prime as a player.

The Rockets have just hired a coach that, for all his faults (and there are plenty), does have the potential to help lift Harden into a separate stratosphere as an offensive force if they can hit it off. Rocket veteran Terry told Jonathan Feigan of the Houston Chronicle today:

"I told people D'Antoni works perfectly for James. If you look at your numbers, you're primarily, basically, the point guard for the Rockets. You fill up the stat sheet. The ball's in your hands 90 percent of the time. It's kind of similar to to what Steve Nash was able to do his two years in Phoenix where he became two-time MVP. You're right there on the cusp."

While no one is confusing Harden for Nash — their styles of play are vastly different — if D'Antoni can help improve both The Beard's decision-making and his opportunities through offensive principles, look for an already-historic Harden box line to become even more robust under the now clean-shaven D'Antoni. (Bring back the 'stache!)

This is a pivotal upcoming season for Harden's career. Changes are coming to Houston both in the coach's office and on the hardwood. There's $40 million in money to spend (provided Howard opts out), a Kevin Durant sweepstakes to settle, a possible infection of Linsanity to navigate and various other roster-change possibilities.

Harden is signed for just two more seasons. If he, and the team, fail to make further progress, who knows where The Beard's path leads after the 2018 season?

After this past year's failure, however, Harden's been presented with a golden opportunity to learn from the ills that plagued both himself and the Rockets. The slate is being wiped clean, and team management is aligning him with a coaching hire that was made for one reason and one reason only: to get the most out of The Beard.

We're looking at a just-entering-his-prime elite player with a new coach whose strengths seems to align perfectly and a front office that's 100 percent invested in making the most of Harden's attributes (whether you agree with all of their decisions or not). These next few years will author the story of the first half of James Harden's career. The time is now to make the most out this marriage of franchise and player.

Last year may have been a better year for James Harden than many out there perceived it to be, but should he fail to help ensure last season was just a blip on the radar of an ultimately stellar and winning career, the current perception may become his reality.