James Harden 1 was a good player and then James Harden 2 showed up. The enhanced version of James Harden has produced an elite offensive player and a league MVP. To realize how miraculous this is for James Harden is to first accept the obvious: veteran players in their prime do not change. They reach their prime with a skill set that has worked well for them. They know their lane. They do what they do. They stay focused on their job to win games for their ball clubs, and if they are the face of the franchise like Harden, they feel compelled to live up to that contract by continuing what they did to get there. That is what makes this James Harden MVP so extraordinary. He was once the third option. He was once Sixth Man of the Year. Jame Harden has indeed turned one page, added another. There is no going back now.
His competition for MVP was tough. LeBron could win the MVP every year and last season LeBron was tremondous. He played every game, didn’t have a second option, had his team blown up in February and still got his team to the NBA Finals. If LeBron won the MVP last night, outside of Rocket fan, there wouldn’t have been much pushback.
James Harden was reinvented though. He was the same and he was not the same. It’s not full circle, his defense is slightly better than last year, at least he is giving effort. But he is not the same player that media writers refused to put on All-NBA first, second or third team in 2016.
It’s redemption. The Eurostep, the hesitation dribble, the step back three, the finish at the rim was once mixed in with the Dwight Howard drama, the coming to camp out of shape, the Khloe Kardashian gossip, the Shaqtin-A-Fool laugh out loud he did what plays. All of it defined James Harden 1. Despite his 82 games played in 2016, career high shots made, career high rebounding, career high assists, his epic 29.0 points per game, his 25.3 PER, writers decided that was worse than six NBA guards who were selected above him, a laughable conclusion if it didn’t reek in arrogance, as in we are going to teach you a lesson. You don’t try on defense. Nothing else matters to us. But, it was more to it, of course it was. The lie about being a writer in this business it that is objective. It is not. Nothing with humans at the control is objective. We are led by our subconscious and our biases, implied as many of those biases are. In the large guard contingent, Harden has always had to do more; others have to do less. It is likability, not as a person per se, but the game. Where Steph Curry’s game elicits oohs and aahs Harden’s game has always been measure twice, cut once. When all things are equal, he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
But things are no longer equal. James Harden 2 came onto the scene coached by Mike D’Antoni. Their first game together Harden had 8 assists to 5 different players. That was a peek into what James Harden 2 was going to be about. It was the impact of the D’Antoni effect. On the Staples Center floor, in downtown Los Angeles, in Harden’s hometown, there was a birth. James Harden 2 came into the world.
What was James Harden’s 2 season in his MVP year? Four 50 point games. Seven 40 point games. Twenty-six games with 10 or more assists.
He made more three point shots than he ever has, despite defenders trying to take away the three but his stepback is layup-efficient. He had the second best offensive rating of his career and the third best defensive rating. He had a career high PER and usage rate, still a Harden dilemma. He dominates the ball.
Harden has never been an accomplished mid-range shooter and in 2017-18 it was the same old thing. 35% 3-10 feet. He is a three or layup kind of dude.
James Harden overcame a lot of stuff. The trade from OKC when the brass wanted Serge Ibaka more. That last horrible season in which he took the fall in the Dwight Howard fiasco and the Kevin McHale firing drama and the Rockets underachievement. Freezing in the playoffs against the Spurs. All that is in the rearview mirror, Harden has crossed the popularity chasm into superstardom.
Regardless of his chances at the NBA Finals next season, James Harden did the impossible and really the unthinkable. He changed how people think of him and his game. This isn’t some mad scientist experiment concocted in a lab. Harden always had this in him but D’Antoni is the first coach to challenge him to move the ball and set your teammates up first. Harden is gifted enough to be that person and still drop thirty.
Because no one challenged James Harden 1, it was business as usual. Until this D’Antoni and Chris Paul version. James Harden 2 was born and you can’t unring the bell. There is no going back. He has the MVP in the back pocket and on the mantel.
Mike D’Antoni did what Kevin McHale failed at: he changed James Harden for the better.