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 for the second time in three years Harden finds himself in a tight race for MVP but instead of Steph Curry as his main competition it is friend Russell Westbrook. 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, who just signed a hefty extension, they feel compelled to live up to that contract by continuing what they did to get there. That is what makes this James Harden season so extraordinary. Not because he may be the MVP. Not because he is a 29 point, 11 assist player. Not because he has a career high of 27.3. But because Jame Harden has turned one page, added another. There is no going back now.
His competition for MVP is tough. Russell Westbrook will break Oscar Robertson’s triple double record, possibly tonight. It is a historic Westbrook season after saying a bitter goodbye to Kevin Durant. But let’s not make it more extraordinary by the detail we are leaving out. Russell Westbrook has not changed. He is just more Russell Westbrook. It is Westbrook 95 miles per hour all the time. But James Harden is reinvented. He is the same and he is 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 a year ago.
The Eurostep, the hesitation dribble, the step back three, the finish at the rim was also 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 last year. Despite his 82 games played, 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 in an opening night loss to the Lakers. The loss didn’t matter. It was what James Harden did in quarter number one. He had 8 assists to 5 different players. That was a peek into what this season was going to be for Harden and 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 has James Harden’s 2 season been like? Two 50 point games. Eleven 40+ point games. Fifty-six games with 10 or more assists.
He is taking less shots than he did last year, saving fans from groaning whenever Harden holds the ball and dribbles incessantly and then launches a bad shot that may go in or may not. He is making more three point shots than he ever has. He is rebounding a career high 8.1 and it’s necessary because the Rockets are weak at the center position. Harden has a career high in assists, almost 4 more assists than last year. He has a career high PER. He has never been an accomplished mid-range shooter and this year is no exception. 35% 3-10 feet. His three point shot is a career low. His catch and shoot and pull up numbers are ordinary, 38.2% and 35.1% respectively.
But he is doing what James Harden 1 struggled at doing, emancipating his teammates, making sure they are having career years at his expense. Ryan Anderson is shooting 39.8% from three, his best mark in three years. Eric Gordon is shooting 37.8% from three and will be Sixth Man of the Year. Trevor Ariza is making 2.4 three point shots, tying a career high. Thank their talent and thank James Harden 2.
James Harden overcame last season in which he took the fall in the Dwight Howard fiasco and the Kevin McHale firing drama and the Rockets underachievement. Have fans and the media and Harden’s peers bought into Harden? Has he crossed the popularity chasm into superstardom?
Regardless of how the playoffs go and if Harden’s wrist recovers 100%, 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 year. James Harden 2 was born and you can’t unring the bell. There is no going back, MVP or no MVP, Western Conference Finals or not. Mike D’Antoni did what Kevin McHale failed at: he changed James Harden for the better.
photo via llananba