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James Harden’s play is a key reason for the January swoon

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It’s time to talk about James Harden.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

We’re practically a full month removed now from the Houston Rockets’ stellar December. The team went 15-2 during the month, which included wins over the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, while squeezing in one 10-game winning streak and the beginning of a nine-game winning streak that eventually stretched into the first part of January.

With the Rockets finally getting some refreshingly positive national press and James Harden being mentioned in many places as the clear early-season MVP front runner, Houston has suddenly hit their first real adversity of the season.

Since the close of the nine-game streak that ended on January 11, the Rockets have lost 6 of their last 9 games, and perhaps for the first time this year, a little bit of doubt has crept in from us observers as to the true ceiling of this team as constructed (though the Rockets themselves do remain confident).

There’s been a myriad of reasons for this January slippage. The roster has been in flux, with Ryan Anderson in and out of the lineup for a full week with the flu, Eric Gordon doing the same over toe, ankle and back injuries and Clint Capela still getting back into game shape after missing a month with a leg fracture.

The team has also lost a little of it’s defensive intensity, is having trouble defending the paint at the moment and has fought against a hellacious travel schedule that has them looking noticeably worn out. But one main factor that needs to be included when taking a closer look at the Rockets’ current slump is the play of James Harden.

The Beard’s touch has taken a noticeable hit, in particular from beyond the arc, where he is shooting just 30 percent for the entire month of January. Harden shot 37 percent in November and 36 percent in December, so the falloff is a significant one. His overall field goal percentage is just 43 for the month, a drop from the 45 percent he was shooting in November and December.

Harden is also assisting less and turning the ball over more. His 6.5 turnovers per game in January are almost a full turnover more than his number before the new year, and while his 10.6 assists a game since January 1 are still undoubtedly elite, the 12 assists plus he was averaging over the season’s first two months was on another level.

Maybe it’s simply because those type of ridiculous individual numbers are unsustainable and Harden was due for some type of a regression, but I think most keen observers would say that the entire Houston offense just looks out of sync as a whole right now as well. They have a 111.8 offense rating on the season, but only a 109.5 rating in January. That slips even further to 108.1 if you isolate just over the last nine games in which the Rockets have really been struggling.

Maybe it’s the minutes. The Beard is seeing as much court time as he has all season right now. Harden is averaging 37 minutes per game in January, a full 1.2 minutes more than he was playing in December. Sure, the 27-year-old is squarely in his prime, but the guy always plays a ton of minutes. And he never misses games. Ever. With coach Mike D’Antoni’s insistence on never really resting anyone (except for old man Nene), we can expect that to continue. But maybe the guy just has some dead legs right now, and we’ll see things sharpen up after a post-All-Star-break second wind.

But regardless, Harden’s stellar play was consistently cited when the Rockets were winning, so it’s only appropriate that it’s also called out when the Rockets are struggling, especially when The Beard’s play is one of the reasons why.

In fact, if the Rockets don’t soon break out of their mid-season funk, Harden could see a big part of his advantage in the MVP race start to slip as well. The Beard’s big leverage was that he was leading the Rockets to wins. Lots of them. Analyzing the better statistical advantage between Harden and Russell Westbrook is ultimately an exercise in futility. Both are having remarkable enough seasons that significant MVP-worthy stats and analytics can be used to favor either player, depending on who one likes better.

What was unquestionably a James Harden advantage — leading his team to success in addition to the copious box lines each night -- is now suddenly a relatively close margin. While the Rockets have been struggling, the Thunder have won 7 out of their last 10 contests and now sit at 28-19, or just five games back of the Rockets in the Western Conference standings. As the gap between the two teams’ records shrinks, so does any discernible lead for the Bearded one over his former teammate in the MVP voting.

In addition, a few potential cracks in the Rockets’ surprising first-half chemistry are also beginning to show. Houston jelled faster than anticipated given the new pieces in the rotation this year, however, they’ve recently had to answer for a now well-publicized argument between Harden and second-year forward Sam Dekker.

Dekker played off the incident to the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen today, and should the Rockets adjust and get back to their winning ways in relatively short order, we’re likely to hear nothing more of the incident. Continue to struggle, however, and you can bet more questions will be raised about the team’s current state.

In fact, fail to snap out of it, and you can bet GM Daryl Morey will be looking for a shakeup as we’re now less than one month away from the trade deadline in February.

First thing’s first, however, and that’s seeing if the team as it’s currently constructed can work their way out of this sloppy malaise. The fastest and most direct way for that to happen is the Rockets’ superstar Beard needs to shake the funk that’s plagued him since the new year.

Get back in the MVP groove, and we’re likely to not only see the Beard in the lead for the Podoloff Trophy, but also see the Houston offense that had the Rockets as one of the NBA’s best early season stories start humming once again.