James Harden’s Most Valuable Player bid is built upon far more than triple-doubles; it is built upon multiple historic accomplishments for both his team and himself. His case when based upon volume scoring and passing alone is enough to warrant the award and yet, scoring and passing are only a small part of his story this season and indeed Houston’s story as a franchise. Harden has redefined himself and in doing so, adapted himself into a player few believed him capable of becoming – a passing god. Houston too have redefined themselves, becoming one of the NBA’s all-time great offenses. So where does this almost fairytale like story begin?
A season ago the Houston Rockets were a mess. On November 18th, 2015 they fired head coach Kevin McHale, after a torrid 4-7 start. J.B Bickerstaff was then handed the reins to what many assumed would be one of the Western Conference’s best teams. Bickerstaff however knew differently, and the toxic, broken Rockets finished the regular season with a 41-41 record, finishing 8th in the Western Conference. Their bid to return to the Western Conference Finals had lasted just 5 games, as they lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors. Bickerstaff had had enough, and decided the situation in Houston could not be fixed. He declared himself out of the job within days. And, to cap it all off, Dwight Howard left to sign with his hometown Atlanta Hawks as the free agency period opened. So what did Daryl Morey do? Well, he did what any good general manager does, adapt.
Morey during his time with the Rockets has developed a reputation as one of the NBA’s most dedicated and talented general managers, and their turnaround this season is yet another notable moment in his career. The first order of business was to address the vacant head coach position, and in a move which could go down as one of the most brilliant in Rockets’ franchise history, 65-year-old Mike D’Antoni was announced as the new coach. D’Antoni was fully aware of the mess which awaited him, and yet with a history of success behind him – in many eyes, too far behind him – redemption was the name of the game; not just for himself but for a team and a star player, whom had the potential to be one of the greatest to ever play the game. D’Antoni’s offensive expertise was the perfect match to Harden’s offensive prowess and combined with Morey’s watchful eye above, Houston began building a true team, one which combined Morey’s analytical talents, D’Antoni’s offensive mind and Harden’s untapped potential.
Houston’s new redemption quest began at the 2016 Draft, which saw Houston select two centers, in an obvious attempt to at least patch the rather large hole Howard had left in his wake. Of the two picks, only Chinanu Onuaku has found minutes this season and made national headlines for his underarm free throws. The other, Zhou Qi, 7’2 from China had to postpone his rookie season due to a CBA clause. These two however were never intended as fixes, they were intended to present depth. Thus free agency was the true route forward and Morey, realising the selection of free agent ‘superstar’ centers was somewhat lacking, decided to adapt his approach signing veterans who fitted the system immediately. The signing of Nene, who wanted to move to a winning situation after several bad years in Washington, was an instant and unexpected success by many in the Houston front office and when partnered with fellow veteran power forward Ryan Anderson, the Rockets suddenly had its new and improved front-court. Many however didn’t see it this way, Nene had struggled during the previous season, starting only 11 games in Washington and as his game declined, so did his value. Anderson too, had only started 12 games in his past 2 seasons combined, but unlike Nene was still considered by many to be a formidable perimeter weapon – in the right system of course. These two veterans were to be partnered with the present, Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrell, who themselves has posted more than solid rookie seasons. It was a leap of faith, and one with which it is safe to say has paid off.
Morey and D’Antoni didn’t stop there, they also added Eric Gordon, another perimeter shooter, and a player who had become best known for his time spent off the court rather than on it. Gordon signed a four-year, $53 million contract, which when you consider the market, aka Evan Turner’s four-year $70 million, was a steal. It struck many as an odd signing and few could visualise Gordon and Harden complimenting each other, after all they play the same position and Harden certainly wasn’t about to become a productive, passing guard. In their eyes however it made nothing but sense and now, well the word ‘justified’ seems appropriate.
These three players, non entities at the beginning of the year have gone on to become some of the most impactful and in-form players of the 2016-17 regular season. Gordon has played 72 games thus far, for the first time since his rookie season, bringing a spark off the bench the likes of which Houston fans haven’t seen since, Mario Elie – who oddly enough bears striking similarities both on the court and physically to Gordon, minus his two championships. Like Elie, Gordon has been cold-blooded, averaging 16.3 points per game, courtesy of an effective field goal percentage of 52.9%, also the highest since his rookie season. Gordon even capped off his superb opening half of the season by winning the Three Point Contest at the All-Star Weekend.
As for Ryan Anderson, well he’s also has had a superb season, fitting the D’Antoni offense perfectly, stretching the floor and providing Harden with plenty of opportunities, to both score and find the open man. And indeed Anderson has been on the receiving end of many of those passes, leading to the highest offensive rating of his career, 113.4, yes that’s higher than it was during his Orlando days and that team went to the Finals. Nene too has revitalised himself and whilst his numbers don’t stick out, he is shooting his highest field goal percentage of his career at 61.9%. And he’s done all of this whilst encouraging the young and impactful Capela – who’s easily having the best year of his career averaging 12.3 points per game and 8.1 rebounds. The unselfish nature of these three impactful veterans, both on and off the court has been resounding and Morey has further strengthened this core of veterans recently by acquiring another, Louis Williams. Williams has fitted in instantly, bringing yet more firepower off the bench and strengthening an already historically good offense. Should Morey be up for Executive of the Year? Absolutely.
In his 7th season James Harden has had his career year, a year which many who have witnessed it will not be forgetting anytime soon. The Rockets, powered by the redefined superstar have become the second best team to watch, behind the team that has helped redefined the entire era: the Golden State Warriors. D’Antoni’s influence is obviously everywhere, and yet it has been Harden’s willingness to change which has led to unexpected results. With three games to play the Rockets are the 3rd best team in the NBA, holding top five positions in all of the following categories – offensive rating, net rating, assist percentage, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, pace and player impact estimate. Their complete revitalisation has been incredible and Harden’s influence is plastered all over it, in big three letter words – MVP. Harden’s unexpected season however shouldn’t have been so unexpected.
During the preseason nobody saw Houston making a dent, let alone becoming one of the greatest offensive teams to ever play the game, and few if any, saw Harden leading the league in assists*. Before the season even began Oddsmaking service, Bovada set Houston’s over-under line at 44, and to put that in some perspective with regards to Harden’s MVP case, Oklahoma City’s line was 43.5. And the mediocre expectations didn’t stop there, ESPN ranked Houston 14th overall in their preseason power rankings and SI.com too, had Houston 15th – 6 places below the Thunder. Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas had Houston’s over-under line at 41.5. Thus the quest began and now Houston are 53-26. They haven’t just beaten those odds, they’ve smashed them – and they’ve beaten the rest of the league too, outpacing the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA’s biggest overachievers category.
Opening night gave us but a glimpse of what was to come, and despite the loss – to my Lakers – Harden had 17 assists and 34 points. That 114-120 loss was free flowing and often ugly, but it was a sign of the improvements and possibilities ahead. His new found offensive freedom, had enabled him to dictate the entire Houston offense, something which he had often struggled to do with fellow star, Howard alongside. The first two months of the season will go down as some of Harden’s best, as over the months of November and December his new found willingness to improve his teammates and himself was obvious. Over the course of 30 games during the two month period, Harden posted double digit figures in the assist column for 26 games – averaging 12 assists per game for the entire stretch. It’s a monthly average which has since dropped to 10.4, but with the Playoffs approaching Harden has begun hitting an upward trajectory once again. His incredible passing season had led to him blowing away his previous assist total, 612 set last season and as it stands, his 862 assists this year, act as monument to just how easy Harden has found his teammates. In fact on most nights, Harden has been the best player on the floor, finding his way to the rim with sheer ease, nailing perimeter shots and all the while, making his teammates better and putting up better assist totals than Steve Nash, Oscar Robertson and others during all of their MVP campaigns.
This free flowing and often chaotic play-making has led to Harden averaging a potential 21.4 assists per game, whilst also averaging 66.7 passes, which is third in the league. He’s also 3rd in secondary assists and 3rd in free throw assists. Overall estimates judge Harden to directly generate 60-70% of Houston’s offense – with the points generated from his scoring and assists totalling the most in NBA history. He’s also the first player ever to score 2,000 points in a season and assist on 2,000 points in the same season. These incredible performances however do come at a cost, Harden will set a new NBA record for the most turnovers in a season.
Despite the turnovers it has been a complete season for Harden and the Rockets, with the individual and team achievements stacking up nicely on top of one another. Offensively, this team has been must-watch television. Houston have attempted a crazy 40.1. three-pointers per game this season and made a whopping 1135 this season, putting them ahead of both the Cavaliers and Warriors respectively. They average 115.2 points per game, second only to the Warriors and they run the court with the 3rd highest pace in the league. The Rockets offensive rating is actually the third-best mark of the last decade, trailing only the 2017 Warriors and the 2010 Suns. Harden has completely purchased into the system this season, and rather surprisingly too, they’ve got better on defense. Their 105.9 defensive rating, which currently ranks them 13th, is 8 places above where they finished last season and with Harden off the court, they’re more than competent and capable of sticking with opposing units – thank Eric Gordon for that.
Whether he wins the MVP or not (and it’s looking less likely now that Westbrook has pulled the triple-double wool over everyone’s eyes), James Harden’s season has been historic and it could get even better, depending on how far Houston progress in the Playoffs – never have I seen a player produce such brilliance with such ease. His historic triple-double performance over the New York Knicks is the best performance I’ve seen in my 15 or so years watching basketball. In 42 minutes, he had 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds, becoming the first player in NBA history to have 50 or more points and 15 or more assists and rebounds in a single game. It was however one of a number of outstanding regular season performances posted by this man this season. His 41 and 15 vs Cleveland, his 40,11 and 10 vs Toronto, his 40,10 and 15 on the very next night vs Charlotte will all live long in the memory.
Now all that remains for us to do is sit back, relax and enjoy a first round opening match-up between the two most likely MVP candidates. Houston will undoubtedly enter the favourites after easily winning 3 of out the 4 regular season match-ups, but with Westbrook’s recent demonic possession, Harden and Houston may be about to face their most intimidating challenge yet.