James Harden did something this year that only three players had done before: average 36 points per game for an entire season.
Since the introduction of the shot clock in 1954, averaging that many points has been rare. Wilt Chamberlain did it five times but was playing against kids smaller than Zion Williamson’s high school basketball league. Michael Jordan announced his presence as a force in the league when he did it in 1986-87. And Elgin Baylor did it while serving as an army reservist who could only play when the Lakers had home games in 1961-62.
None of the other three were older than 27 when the accomplished the feat, but James Harden did it at age 29. Chamberlain and Baylor dominated a league that wasn’t prepared for their athleticism and ability. Jordan did it when the league didn’t have the leapers or speed to hang with him. Harden did it despite not being a freak athlete or physically gifted in ways that his peers aren’t.
Oh, and before we move on, there’s a valuable piece of data we need to cover. It’s pretty important, so get ready.
Are you ready?
MJ, Chamberlain, and Baylor each averaged more free throw attempts per game in their 36+ PPG seasons than James Harden this season.
Yes, more than Harden. Yes, all three of them. Yes, Wilt took more free throws in each of his five seasons. Yes, NBA Twitter and Reddit are lying to you when they say that no one else ever got so many free throws.
No player in NBA history ever averaged 35 points per game, six assists, and five rebounds per game.
Until this season, when Harden averaged 36.1/7.5/6.6.
All that preamble exists just to underscore just how historical James Harden’s season was from a statistical perspective. Those same kind of ridiculous milestones were used to justify an MVP win for Russell Westbrook two seasons ago, but at this point we know that Harden’s brilliance will never be fully appreciated by the league, media, and fandom at large.
That’s a real shame, because the best guard in the NBA since Jordan is playing in the NBA right now and not enough people are taking notice. The man is special and we’ll never see another player with his combination of intelligence, passing ability, dedication to his craft, shot-making ability, and ruthless efficiency.
The discussion about what Harden meant to the Houston Rockets this season would span hours. Few thought that Harden had another gear after last season’s MVP campaign and this season’s slow start. Yet, as he’s done many times before, Harden took his game to another level and propelled Houston to a 53-win season. In so doing, he developed his stepback into a signature shot and revolutionized the art of creating space on a three-pointer.
After Chris Paul injured his hamstring once again in mid-December, Houston was 16-15 and facing the toughest stretch of schedule of the season. Of their next nine games, seven came against playoff teams. Even here at The Dream Shake, we talked about how Houston would be lucky to win three games and stay afloat until Paul could return.
The Rockets went 7-2 and Harden declared that he was still the best player in the NBA. Among those wins were a clutch win over the San Antonio Spurs where Harden dropped 39, a Christmas Day win over the Thunder where Harden dropped 41, a blowout over the Celtics where Harden dropped 45, and the game of the season against the Golden State Warriors where Harden dropped 44, including the game-winner in overtime.
Maybe you noticed a trend in those wins. Heck, it became impossible as the #UnstoppableTour picked up steam and Harden dropped 30 or more points in 32 straight games. In 18 of those games, Harden dropped 40 or more points. Four times he scored at least 50, including a 61-point performance at Madison Square Garden. Harden had a streak of five straight games of over 40 points. In a totally different five-game stretch, he averaged 52 points per game. I had to check several times as I wrote these down because not only do they seem unreal, but I had totally forgotten about the details, because even I’m guilty of taking the Beard’s transcendent game for granted.
In today’s NBA, players are judged by their team’s success. With that in mind, Harden received much of the blame for Houston’s step backwards (no pun intended). Houston’s 11-14 start was the result of several factors, and blame belongs at the feet of everyone involved in the organization, but Harden will always be the face of the franchise and thus an easy target.
The start of the 2018-19 season felt eerily similar to the 2015-16 season for Houston. That year, Houston was coming off a Western Conference Finals loss to the Warriors and had swung for the fences in an attempt to close the gap. Daryl Morey brought in Ty Lawson, and Houston promptly started 5-10 and fired Kevin McHale just 11 games into the season. The Rockets never recovered, finishing 41-41 and barely making the playoffs before getting blasted 4-1 in the first round by a 73-win Warriors squad. This year, Houston started poorly and Mike D’Antoni found himself on the hot seat along with Morey, who hadn’t made as big of a swing, but had tried to fill in the gap left by Trevor Ariza’s departure with Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, and James Ennis III. Needless to say, the production from those three was about equal to if Morey had brought in Lawson for a second go-around.
Unlike that disappointing season, Harden refused to let this iteration of the Rockets die without a fight. With Paul injured and Houston clawing their way up from 14th in the Western Conference standings, Harden took D’Antoni’s plan for him to be a point guard to the next logical step. When D’Antoni came aboard three seasons before, the plan was to run the offense through Harden because, well, they were already doing that. With Harden as a point guard, the Rockets could get into their sets earlier and run a more efficient machine around their all-world superstar. After the 11-14 start, Houston closed on a 60-win pace.
In the process, Harden learned valuable lessons and improved his game to account for them. After running out of gas against the Spurs in MDA’s first season, Harden improved his stamina and helped develop an alley-oop game with Clint Capela. After last year, Harden realized that he would need to be able to step up in Paul’s absence, and he worked on his stepback three and his floater to add more weapons to his offensive arsenal, which in turn made defending him even more of a nightmare for defenses.
This season, Harden utilized both of those tools, throwing every ounce of energy into every game and utilizing every tool in his toolbox to get wins for Houston. Again, it’s easy to get caught up in the now of Harden’s game, but the really impressive thing is that he continues to add to his game in a way that no one else in their prime does. Steph Curry’s game isn’t any different than it was three years ago. Ditto for Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook. Harden changed positions, worked the floater and alley-oop pass into his game, and created one of the league’s very few true signature shots since the one that this website is named after.
In the interest of fairness, the matter of Harden’s playoff performance deserves mention. Let’s start with the numbers.
Harden 2018-19 stats
In the postseason, defenses tighten up and work hard to force offenses to take less efficient shots. In the first round, Utah sold out to slow Harden by forcing him away from the three-point line and into Rudy Gobert. While the strategy failed in Games 1 and 2, it was extremely effective in Games 3 and 4, where Harden went 11-39 from the field and 8-25 from deep. Incredibly, Harden made a total of three two-pointers in those two games, but still kept attacking in Game 3 and worked his way out of a funk in which he began the game 0-15.
Part of Harden’s struggles come from officiating, where referees swallow their whistles, but only for the Beard. Per FiveThirtyEight:
Every year, we hear from opposing fanbases that Harden’s act won’t play in the playoffs when the officials won’t give him so many calls. That is true, but it’s egregious that the discrimination seems aimed specifically at the Beard and no one else. As I write this, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 11.5 FTA per game, up from 10.5 in the regular season. Kawhi Leonard is getting 8.3 FTA when he only got 7.1 in the regular season. When the margins became razor thin in the postseason, efficient shots are at a premium. That’s why it’s frustrating that the officiating flips for Harden when it matters most.
Part of that could be Harden’s reluctance to drive against defenses waiting to meet him in the paint. Harden is faced with two options on every play in which he isolates. He can either shoot a stepback 3, or he can drive to the rim and read the defense, which will be trying their hardest to not foul him while forcing him to pass the ball off for less efficient shots.
With Clint Capela crumbling in the second round and CP3 unable to find the fountain of youth, Harden was forced to carry the team for practically every possession. By the end of the game, his exhaustion probably prohibited forays to the rim, and a lack of trust in teammates to make shots that they seemingly couldn’t make anymore made the decision easy for him.
There isn’t a simple way to “fix” the problems with Houston’s offense in the postseason. They don’t run actions like Golden State because no one can run actions like Golden State. They don’t even have a secondary ball-handler that defenses fear anymore, and their alley-oop threat was neutralized by Kevon Looney. The Rockets could work on a more pass-based offense, but would that be better than Harden having the ball in his hands every time down the court? The short answer is that it wouldn’t. The long answer is that it definitely wouldn’t.
Focusing on Harden’s playoff failures against perhaps the greatest team of all-time is an unfair move. After all, Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis have failed to even put the shadow of a scare into the Warriors. But that’s not the company of the players that Harden keeps. He wants to be considered one of the best to ever play the game, and for him to accomplish that, there’s one last step he needs to take to put himself in the discussion with that pantheon of greats.
He failed to do it this year, and he’ll be the first to tell you that that makes the entire season a failure. That still doesn’t mean we can’t look back at his season with awe and appreciate that possibly the best and most complete offensive player ever plays for the Houston Rockets right now.