Welcome to the James Harden Prime

Continuing the tradition of elite shooting guards destroying their competition with excellence and arrogance, James Harden is proving he has no current peer. Not Klay Thompson. Not C.J. McCollum. Not Bradley Beal. James Harden is the best shooting guard in the game, bar none.

Harden can do what very few shooting guards can. He alters games. He creates fear when seconds run off and he has the ball in his hands. He is as close to unguardable as Steph Curry but Harden gets to the free throw line repeatedly and with minimal contact from the opposition, unlike Curry. The refs are confused about the Harden dribble and step back.

Night after night, and because his team needs it, Harden is dropping 40 or more, 35 or more. He has been the oxygen mask on the dying Rockets patient who is suddenly out of a coma and walking around asking for steak and potatoes.

The Rockets, lacking depth and with holes in their roster, counting on Austin Rivers no less, are something to worry about and only because James Harden is making mincemeat out of the MVP race. He is the MVP race.

James Harden is in his prime which means this onslaught of perfection isn’t ending anytime soon. James Harden is 29 years old. He won’t be 30 for another seven months.

He’s averaging 33.6 points and 8.6 assists. In only one super efficient year when he was still backing up Kevin Durant and Russ Westbrook, in the 2012-13 season, he shot 49%. But that was an anomaly. Mostly Harden is 43% or 44%, which he is this season.

Harden has never shot 40% from three. Ever. But it seems like his three ball always goes in. If nothing else, his three under pressure is money. What about jump shots? Same Harden thing. Not what you think. This dominant year for the Los Angeles native, he is making only 40% of his jump shots. His 4th quarter percentage is not particularly interesting either, 38%.

But it is what Harden does in the last three minutes. He shoots 42% from three. He buries teams. Defended. Not defended. It doesn’t matter.

The key to James Harden is the step back. When he shoots over 40%, more than likely the Rockets will win. When he shoots under 40%, the chance of them losing is high. But defending the Harden step back is complicated. You are constantly out of position. It is meant to make the defender fail.

Harden has more 40+ ppg this year (11) than LeBron James (3), Steph Curry (3), Anthony Davis (6), and Kawhi Leonard (1). He has scored 40+ points five games in a row. All wins. The last time the Rockets lost a Harden 40 was in November. He scored 40 points at Cleveland and 54 points at Washington and the Rockets lost both games. Losing isn’t what the Rockets are about; not anymore with Harden pulling their bones up from the dead.

He is 29 years old averaging 33 points.  His offensive rating is 118 and his defensive rating is 108. At the same age of 29, Michael Jordan averaged 32 points with an offensive rating of 119 and a defensive rating of 102. At the age of 29, Kobe Bryant averaged 28 points with an offensive rating of 115 and a defensive rating of 105. Harden is soaring very elite air as he is matching the best shooting guards in history.

But where is the Harden respect?

If he gets his second MVP this season, he will have one more than Kobe Bryant.  But Harden is The Beard. A step back revolutionary. He is not an idol.

Those of us who write about the NBA often rank who is who. The top-5 NBA players will usually go something like: LeBron, Durant, Kawhi, Anthony Davis, Steph.  Four of the 5 have won titles. But it’s not that simplistic a thing, missing out on a ring and everything that comes with it to explain the Harden omission. Harden is accepted, celebrated, applauded, admired but his offensive talents are not beloved like the great shooting guards of the past. Clyde Drexler seems to get more love than James Harden. Dwyane Wade definitely does.

In early returns of All-Star balloting, Derrick Rose received more fan votes- 150,000- than James Harden.

Harden is a money player but has faltered in the playoffs and off the court he has not connected the way other shooting guards have with the NBA’s obsessive fan base. There seems to be a search for Harden’s flaws as if he is supposed to be perfect while all the other scorers are accepted as human in what they can’t or won’t do. He has to abide by different rules and pass a different kind of test because that beard is hiding a part of his face from the crowd; it has secrets.

Immediately and in the present tense, what Harden can do is win games. What he can do is carry his team from the precipice of defeat. What he can do is stop the bleeding by raising his game to a level very few can match.

Eventually, Chris Paul will come back and Harden will tone it down to incorporate more of a team game. He can’t play at this level and then in the playoffs be spectacular. The Rockets need this Harden in four months.

But James Harden needs this James Harden right now.