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Rockets season in review: James Harden

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The Beard was great last season. He could be even better this year.

BIG3 - Week One Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

In our final recap of our summer series taking a look back at this past season, we finally get to the straw the stirs the Rockets’ drink.

And it’s easy to forget about what James Harden did this year for the Houston Rockets after the Game 6 no-show left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth at close of the season. But now that enough time has passed for the emotions of that ugly defeat to fall by the wayside, perspective allows us to view The Beard’s 2016-2017 season for exactly what it was: One of the greatest single season offensive performances the game has ever seen.

The Beard averaged 29.1 points per game, the highest total of his career, and second in the NBA to Russell Westbrook’s 31.6. He also dropped 11.2 dimes per game, again the best mark of his career, and this time leading the NBA. It was a scintillating display of scoring almost at will combined with setting up his teammates for a historic year of shooting beyond the arc (the Rockets’ 1181 team three-pointers were a league record).

He also led the league in total win shares (15), offensive win shares (11.5), and topped the NBA in both free throws attempted (881) and made (741) for the third consecutive season.

He finished the year as a First-Team All NBA selection and was the only unanimous choice for the top squad. He pushed the Rockets high above preseason expectations, finishing the year with 55 wins, which was the fourth-highest total in franchise history.

He was also one of the game’s true iron men — perhaps even to his detriment -- as he played in 81 games in 2016-2017 and has now missed just two games total over the last three seasons combined. Not only was he one of the game’s best this past year, he also came to work every night.

He did finish a disappointing second in the final MVP vote to Westbrook, but make no mistake, what Harden did this season was just as impressive as the nice, round numbers Westbrook put up. He also led his team to greater success, all the while playing a brand new position on the basketball court. The guy is the clear-cut MVP in my book. And it shouldn’t have even been particularly close.

But old arguments aside, as good as The Beard was this past season, he wasn’t perfect. He set the all-time record for turnovers in a season, besting the mark he set himself the previous year. Harden finished with 464 turnovers, or 90 more than last year, and has now led the league in total turnovers in four of his five seasons in Rockets red.

As much as those sky-high numbers are a result of his high usage and the pressure put on him by the Houston system (and his assist to turnover ration is still in fine shape), you’d like to see some of those totals go down. There are definitely a few head-scratchers with Harden, many of which are a function of his dynamic playmaking, but being slightly more judicious with some of the long-range passes will help keep the turnovers down and the offense under control. And help with the defense too.

And those turnover numbers should go down this season. With Harden finally getting some help in the playmaking department in the form of fellow future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul, Harden will handle the ball less, his usage should go down slightly and the turnovers should also fall as a result. Paul’s steadying presence should bring a surgical component to the Houston attack that they lacked last season. On paper, he’s the perfect foil for The Beard.

We heard some of the same arguments when Ty Lawson came to town, but Paul is an entirely different stratosphere than the suddenly washed-up Lawson. Players this talented, this creative and this good find a way to be successful together, and you can expect Paul and Harden to do the same.

The incoming presence of Paul should also leave The Beard a little more rested both physically and emotionally down the stretch. The mental strain and the toll on Harden’s body were both plainly evident against San Antonio, and having a secondary option more than capable of doing all the same things Harden can with the offense should give The Beard more freedom to take a night off if needed and also to help maintain his play at top physical and emotional capacity throughout a sure-to-be grueling NBA Playoffs.

But other than those minor blemishes, Harden is clearly a top five NBA player (he’s top three in my book). I said that after last season and some people laughed. But The Beard’s 2017 was historic.

He was good enough to draw in another Hall-of Famer who would’ve been welcomed with open arms at just about any other NBA city. And he’s good enough that when he signed his record-setting extension earlier this month, only fools honestly questioned whether or not he was worth it.

Top player, in his physical prime, locked up until age 33, at rate that should remain at roughly the same percentage of the team’s total salary should the league continue to grow; what’s not to like?

And with his future for the next six seasons now certain, Harden can concentrate on bringing an NBA title back to H-town.

The Rockets are better than they’ve been in years. They have their first true superstar duo since the Tracy McGrady - Yao Ming days. They have multiple guys who can score. They have a cadre of impressive shooters. And now, with the offseason signings of P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who join with Trevor Ariza and the multiple time first-team All Defense (7 to be precise) Paul to form as formidable core group of versatile defenders as there is in the league, the Rockets look like the clear second-best team in the West after the Golden State Warriors.

Like pieces of Jenga, that should allow The Beard to build off of and improve last season’s already historic year. He should be more efficient, more effective, and fresher down the stretch. And with two already near misses in the MVP race, an improved Rockets team gives him perhaps his best shot ever at the award.

And though the Warriors are indeed the Association’s prohibitive favorites, the season still needs played on the court, and not even the finest prognosticator can accurately factor in for the randomness of injuries or the very human condition of complacency or any number of very real things that can trip up the on-paper front runners.

In that sense, Harden is coming off his finest year to date, yet still stands on the possible precipice of something even greater, both individually and for the team.

It’s a great time to be a Rockets fan, and we owe most of that to the continued brilliance of James Harden.