After 2017’s infamous Game 6 defeat at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, many questions arose from Houston Rockets fans and foes alike as to the intestinal fortitude of James Harden. The more level-headed among us realized, however, that Harden was still growing as a player, and with simply a little patience and some lineup tweaks, there would be MVPs and/or titles in the future for The Bearded One (I mentioned this in last season’s Harden recap).
Well, Harden went out this season and proved us patience preachers correct by putting in his finest season of work to date, and when the NBA awards ceremony commences on Monday night, he’s virtually assured of his first-ever MVP trophy.
The Beard led the Rockets to a franchise-best 65-17 season and the top overall seed in the NBA playoffs for the first time in team history.
The individual stats he piled up were mind-boggling: He led the league in scoring with 30.4 points per game and was so unstoppable as a scorer he forced the Association into creating one set of rules for The Beard and another set for everyone else. In addition to prolific buckets, Harden also continued to set up his teammates at a blistering pace, averaging 8.8 dimes per game, good enough for third in the NBA.
His advanced analytics were even more impressive. Harden finished first in the league in total win shares (15.4), offensive win shares (11.6), win shares per 48 minutes (.289), overall box plus-minus (10.9), offensive real plus-minus (6.69), usage percentage (36.1) and PER (29.8).
He finished second in VORP with 8.3, behind just LeBron James (8.9), and his finished second overall in total real plus-minus with 6.71, behind just teammate Chris Paul (6.99). His true shooting percentage was 61.9 percent, which was a top 20 finish, and ridiculously high for a player taking 10 three-pointers per game. In short, it was one of the finest offensive seasons in NBA history.
Even Harden’s historically maligned defense improved noticeably. He finished seventh in the NBA with 1.75 steals per game, and his defensive box plus-minus (+1.3) and his defensive real plus-minus (+0.2) both finished on the right side of the spectrum, showing he had an overall positive impact for the Rockets on that end of the floor. He even finished in the 72nd percentile of the entire league as an iso defender, being scored on just 38 percent of time on such situations.
He did still occasionally struggle off the ball, but by basically any overall measurement, The Beard greatly improved on a prior area of weakness.
And contrary to what many Harden haters would have you believe, he also had a great postseason. He scored 30 or more points in 8 out of 17 contests and went for 40-plus three times. As a result, he finished fourth in playoff points per game with 28.6. He also finihsed ninth in playoff assists with 6.8.
He was again a positive on the defensive end, finishing third in playoff steals with 2.2 per game, and he was once again a positive in defensive box plus-minus and defensive real plus-minus.
He did have issues with his three-point shot, hitting just 30 percent from downtown in the postseason, but he was over 50 percent overall on his twos, and his true shooting percentage was 55 percent.
But where Harden has taken the most criticism is for his failure to win a title. This ignores the phenomenal impact he had all year, that he led the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals, helped push the Golden State Warriors to rough-and-tumble seven games, and that the Rockets only lost the series once his chief sidekick in Paul went down with an injury. Otherwise, this Houston team is likely hosting the trophy.
Strangely enough, many of the same people calling the Warriors the greatest team of all time are also the same people who criticize Harden for not leading the Rockets to the upset without both Paul and an effective Luc Mbah a Moute. I find it a wildly inconsistent stance, but we’re used to that as Rockets fans and supporters of The Beard.
But with the MVP likely out of the way in a few days, the only thing left to cement Harden’s status in the annals of the all-time greats is that championship ring. And there’s no denying that the time is now. He’s currently 28 and will be 29 just before the start of next season. He’s squarely in his physical prime.
And this is the time many of the all-time greats were finally able to turn the championship corner. Michael Jordan was 28 in his first title season. Hakeem Olajuwon was 31 when he won his first ring. Dirk Nowitzki was 33.
So if Harden is going to finally get over that hump, it’s going to be in one of the next several season’s. Houston’s title window is now.
That being said, anyone criticizing The Beard for not getting it done up until this point is willfully ignoring that his Rockets have lost to the Warriors three times over the last four seasons. The Dubs can’t be the greatest ever while their opponents are simultaneously bums for not upsetting them. That logic simply doesn’t jive.
They’re also ignoring the role luck plays in these things as well. Houston was one healthy hamstring away from a ring this season.
And they’re also missing out on simply enjoying one of the greatest offensive players the game has ever known. After all, he will be your MVP in just two days.