Houston Rockets’ James Harden has been the NBA’s best Shooting Guard for a while since his move from Oklahoma City Thunder and the regress of Kobe Bryant in the years after. Moving to Houston gave Harden the opportunities he craved for on offense and the chance to step into the role as kingpin of the team.
No longer did he have to play third fiddle behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook or even fourth fiddle, considering Thunder General Manager Sam Presti signed Serge Ibaka to a four year $48 million dollar extension in 2012 opting to trade Harden. The rest, they say, is history.
Taking over the team’s reins, Harden has pushed himself into the books as a top ten player though he was shockingly omitted from last season’s All-NBA teams only a year removed from leading the side to the Western Conference Final and placing second in MVP votes behind Steph Curry. Dwight Howard was brought in to complement Harden’s efforts and form arguably the best inside-outside combination in the league.
However James’ offensive duties dissuaded Howard from sticking around long enough to get Houston another championship. Prior to the 2016-2017 season, Mike D’Antoni was hired as Coach and the celebrated offense-heavy trainer made it a point to have the heavy bearded Los Angeles man the centerpiece of his system. The biggest move he made, make Harden the Point Guard.
This move made sense at the time and still does because Harden’s skills as a scorer make him an easy target for double teams that frees up teammates for a kick out pass or more space to steady themselves and launch three point shots.
Another reason the move was a no brainer was the familiarity Harden had playing the role as primary ball handler. Despite being an elite scorer, James has increased his assist totals each season since 2009 when he was drafted into the league.
After increasing his averages in the three major categories-29 points, 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds- he got bested by the likes of Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson to the end of season elite select teams mentioned above.
In eight games played this season, Harden leads the league in assists (13.0) and has poured in 30.6 points all the while bumping his rebound average to 7.8. His first triple double came courtesy a 101-99 win at the San Antonio Spurs. But for some strange reason Harden isn’t respected as he should be, much like Sacramento Kings Center DeMarcus Cousins. The underlining explanation behind the overlook lies in his defense. Action on the side of the court is that one thing that separates Guards from the rest of the field. Back to back MVP winner Steph Curry has always been a great shooter so his ascent to the summit of offense-related records, such as the most three point made shots in a single game, is hardly a surprise to many.
Conversely his increased performance on the defensive end easily made him the ideal player to replace Chris Paul atop the Guard chart. So where does that leave the defensively woeful Lillard then? If Harden is a bad defender, then just take a look at Lillard defending pick and rolls or guarding opposing players. Lillard’s numbers in assists and rebounds (4.2 and 5.1 respectively), fall way short of Harden’s overall production. It can be argued, Lillard shares the floor with a slightly inferior squad compared to Harden’s Rockets and that can be a major reason behind his assist numbers.
However, in the 2014-2015 season where he shared the floor with All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, a better version of Dallas Mavericks Wesley Matthews and underrated big man Robin Lopez, the Oakland born player averaged 6.2 compared to 7 dimes recorded by Harden with Howard around. Comic appearances on vine and other social media platforms, issues dealing with colleagues and his ball dominant style of play have robbed him off his shine. Up north, Lillard’s fairy tale run with the Portland Trailblazers after the departure of the aforementioned trio, a rap album and on court chemistry with teammates has cast him in a better light.
Think of Harden as a little version of Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas and Lillard as a not too watered down version of Michael Jordan in this perception related discussion.
Long before the infamous no handshake by the entire Pistons team with exception of Joe Dumars and John Salley, Thomas was disliked despite playing with an inferior team that beat the superior Magic Johnson led Los Angeles Lakers side to win the Pistons first ever championship. Though Jordan took his will to win like Thomas too far, virtually no one does so.
For all his brilliance, Harden doesn’t feature in the good books of fans and pundits and that is utterly unfair.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah