If James Harden’s entire 2018-2019 season had to be summed up in as few words as possible, it would probably be this: The Houston Rockets needed him to be the best player in the NBA, and he was.
Very few generational players are given an opportunity to flex their superstar power. Fewer welcome it. And even fewer flourish in it.
After a crushing loss to Dallas on Dec. 8 and descending to 14th in the West with an 11-14 record, the Rockets desperately need a quick fix. Following a win against Portland the next game, what ensued was one of the greatest offensive displays of all time. As you know, James Harden would go on to score 30 points in 32 straight games, second only to the great Wilt Chamberlain.
During this stretch, Harden averaged an incredible 41.1 points a game, with the next-closest being Paul George at 32.4 points a game. He was also tied for 11th in the league in assists with 7.4 a game, matching the likes of Kyrie Irving, and averaged 7.7 rebounds. Arguably the most impressive is that he was still able to get 2.2 steals a game, good enough to land him at third in the league, only .1 steals behind Paul George and Russell Westbrook.
For the length of Harden’s incredible 32-game run, the largest narrative that surrounded it was that his heavy usage was purely out of necessity; the Rockets needed his immense scoring to stay afloat. In hindsight, they accomplished much more than that.
From Dec. 13 until the end of the streak on Feb. 21, the Rockets went 21-11. Only six other teams had a better win percentage during that time, and only two other teams won more games, the Bucks and Warriors, with the Nuggets matching that 21-win mark.
It was mostly all done without Chris Paul and/or Clint Capela on the floor too. Paul went down only five games into the streak and would proceed to miss 17 straight games. Capela stuck around for the first 16 of those games, but would miss 15 of them after a thumb injury. Six games without either Paul or Capela overlapped.
James Harden propelled Houston from nearly dead last to contention for homecourt advantage in the playoffs, and the only thing more preposterous than his stats during the 30-point game streak is his season as a whole.
Harden is currently averaging 36.5 points a game, the highest PPG total since Michael Jordan in 86-87, and the second highest in 40 years. From Dec. 13 until March 10, Harden averaged exactly 40 points per game over 39 games. Only Wilt Chamberlain averaged more (a common theme), and Elgin Baylor comes up as the next closest with 33 games.
Harden has had eight 50+-point games this season, and is the only player in the league with multiples of them. He is currently tied with Jordan for the second-most 50-point games in a season since ’76-’77, only 2 behind Kobe Bryant’s ‘06-’07 season. Worth noting: the Bulls won only 40 games that year, the Lakers won 42 games, and the Rockets already have 46 wins with 9 games to go.
He and Wilt are the only two players to have scored back-to-back games of 55+ points, and Harden did it twice this season. Harden also joins Jordan, Kobe, and Chamberlain as the only players to have multiple 60-point games in a season, topping his season off with a 61-point masterpiece Friday night against the San Antonio Spurs.
Always more than a scorer, Harden is tied for ninth in the NBA in assists at 7.7 a game. He is one of only two players (LeBron James) averaging at least 25 points and 7 assists a game. Harden is tied for the league-lead in steals with Paul George at 2.2 steals and stands alone as the NBA’s leader in deflections (3.8 per game). Among guards, Harden is tied for second in blocks per game at 0.8 BPG.
The biggest standout for Harden on defense is his dominance in defending in the post, something he noticeably takes pride in. According to Synergy, amongst players who have played 50+ games this season, no one gets posted up on more than Harden at 2.8 possessions per game, a frequency of 20.3 percent. The next-closest is Clint Capela at 1.9 possessions per game. Among those players posted up at least once a game, Harden is eighth in field goal percentage allowed at 37.4 percent. Incredibly, he is tied for first with Eric Gordon (1.2 possessions per game) in turnover frequency at 22 percent, and only 8 percent of his defended post-ups result in fouls.
The truth is that numbers, no matter how staggering they are, hardly do his importance to the Rockets justice. They have simply needed him to be the best player on the floor every night.
Even though he has missed four games this year, Harden in still in second place in total minutes played this season and averages the second-most minutes at 37.3 a game. His usage percentage is an insane 39.5 percent, the second-most in NBA history since the stat was tracked. No one is in the iso more than Harden, either – and, seriously, this isn’t close at all. Harden averages 16.7 iso possessions a game. The next-closest is Westbrook at 4.9 a game. Harden also scores the third-most points per iso at 1.08 points, averaging 18.1 points out of isolation per game. Only 13 percent of Harden’s shots are assisted on. In comparison, nearly half (47.8 percent) of the shots Giannis Antetokounmpo makes come off assists.
The reigning MVP’s historic season also includes arguably the best play of the year:
JAMES HARDEN WINS IT FOR THE @HOUSTONROCKETS FROM DOWNTOWN!— NBA (@NBA) January 4, 2019
Final in Oakland:#Rockets 135#DubNation 134 pic.twitter.com/SOJ374U8P0
Unfortunately for the Rockets and Harden, this wasn’t the team they expected to have after their incredible 65-win season last year. Some bad offseason moves coupled with injuries got them off to a slow start, so acquiring the all-important first or second seed might not be there for the hopeful repeat MVP. But, since that 11-14 start, the Rockets have the second-most wins and second-best win percentage (72.9 percent) in the NBA, going 35-13 – behind only the Bucks’ 36-11 record during that stretch. And Houston is doing it in the much harder Western Conference. Ask Lebron James what that difference is like.
Undoubtedly, The Beard has proved himself to be the most important player to a winning team, while also making the case for being the best player on the planet. The wins are there, the stats are there, the effort on defense is there, the lack of a real supporting cast (unfortunately) is there, and a whole lot of historical numbers are there. Harden also set the narrative in the league this year. He was the most talked-about on a nightly basis.
Not saying it’s a lock, because we all know how the national media often feels about anything Rockets, but there needs to be a pretty massively big case made for anyone else being MVP.