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Rockets 2020 Player Recaps: James Harden

It was another fine year for The Beard, but it once again ended in disappointment.

NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden

Recap: What more can be said about The Beard that hasn’t been said already? He’s simply the finest offensive player of this generation, as he racked up his third consecutive scoring title by averaging 34.3 points per game.

In fact, Harden started off the season so hot, it appeared he might average 40 a night, as he put up 39.5 points per game in November and 37.3 points per game December. He then cooled off after the new year, averaging just 28.6 points per night in January before returning to form pre-COVID shutdown and again after the bubble reconvened to finish with the second-highest scoring average of his career.

His percentages were right in line with what we’ve come to expect, as he shot 44.4 percent from the field to go along 35.5 percent from deep and an ultra-efficient 86.5 percent from the line on 10.2 attempts per night.

But it wasn’t all just scoring for Harden. He once again filled up the box by averaging 6.6 rebounds, and 7.5 assists per game, and he continued to squash the “no defense” narrative by solidifying his place as one the league’s premiere post-defenders while also averaging 1.8 steals per game and a career-high 0.9 blocks. Harden wins games with both offense and defense, and there’s no denying that anymore.

Despite another ridiculous year from Harden, the Rockets probably slightly underperformed in the regular season with just a 44-28 record, which is just a 50-win pace over a normal year, and Harden and Russ never did quite figure out how exactly to dominate simultaneously.

When Harden was hot to start the year, Westbrook was still figuring things out. When Russ was on a tear after the new year, Harden hit a slump. When The Beard was playing mostly very well in the bubble, Russ was still recovering from a quad injury and an earlier COVID-19 infection.

That’s probably the biggest failing of the season, in my opinion. Two MVPS, two former teammates, and two best friends, and we never quite saw any extended action of them dominating together. That has to change in 2021.

One final thought on 2020: that narrative that Harden underperforms in the postseason? The Beard averaged 29.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and 1.5 steals per game on 48 percent shooting from the field. There’s about 400 or so other guys in the league who’d give their left nut to underperform like that in the playoffs.

2021 Outlook: Despite the multitude of changes to the organizational structure for the Rockets this offseason and some fans’ opinions that this is the perfect time to blow everything up and start a-new, I don’t think there’s any chance that Harden gets traded. The Beard will be back, and it’s the right move.

It’s also the right move to bring some extra versatility back to Harden’s game. While Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni’s analytics-based threes-and-layups approach unlocked The Beard as one of the game’s best players, a slight change in philosophy could make a lot of difference.

While Houston’s prior philosophy isn’t going away entirely (it’s now part of various teams’ approach across the league), adding some movement plays for Harden off-ball, re-instituting the occasional mid-range shot (when appropriate), which was a formerly deadly shot in Harden’s arsenal, and bringing in a fresh big to bring back a lob threat for The Beard off of drives would all be prudent adjustments to make.

The last one, in particular, is important. While I don’t mind the Clint Capela for Robert Covington deal because of the immense value that RoCo brings, the lack of a rim-running big made a noticeable difference when Harden would attack. He went from three options on a drive — take it to the cup, dish out for three, lob to Capela — down to just two — cup or dish out. That limits the offense and makes it more predictable. That predictability was a big part of their downfall against the Los Angeles Lakers.

In addition, getting synched up with Russ, as mentioned earlier, is of prime importance. For the Rockets to be successful, they’ll need both of these guys at their best. Harden moving off ball while Russ creates? Give me some of that, please. Russ still playing gangbusters but being more measured with his shot selection and deference to Harden as the number one option? We need that.

All hope is not lost, Rockets fans. One of the best players on the planet still plays for our team. And while his prime is shrinking, he’s still technically in it. It’s not too late. One thing no one can deny Harden is that he’s improved his game in some fashion every, single season. Expect that to continue again this year.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what changes The Beard has in store.