James Harden is in the midst of one of the greatest streaks the NBA has ever seen.
The stats are mind-blowing: 43 points per game since December 12, 45 points per game in January, 52 points per game in his last five games. He dropped a career-high 61 points against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, his third game of 50 or more this month.
In that span, Harden has lifted the injury-ravaged Houston Rockets back into contention. They’re 16-6 in their last 22 games and are back in the playoff mix after a sluggish start.
Harden’s scoring surge has understandably vaulted him into the MVP conversation and perhaps made him the frontrunner.
But there is a nagging feeling accompanying Harden’s run. As incredible as it is, is this the best basketball being played? Harden and the Rockets have warped the game to Harden’s whim. As a result, he’s putting up historic stats. But that alone shouldn’t make him the MVP.
A one-player show
When we say, Harden is doing something we’ve never seen it’s because literally,no one has played basketball like this. Harden has scored 261 points in his last five games, and teammates did not assist any of them. Depending on your view, that’s either a damning reflection on Harden’s teammates or on his style of play.
Harden is leading the NBA in usage% (possessions that end with a player taking a field goal attempt, free throw attempt, or turnover), and it’s not even close. In January, his usage is up to 44.6% — the next closest player this month is Joel Embiid at 33%. This month, Harden has accounted for 42% of his team’s total shots, 43% of their three-point attempts, 61.7% of their free throw attempts, 50.6% of their assists, and 59% of their turnovers. It’s a one-player show.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey has said Harden might be the greatest offensive player ever, and he might be right. Harden gets wherever he wants on the floor, showing remarkable balance, strength, and agility. Harden, by virtue of the Rockets’ analytically driven offensive system, only takes certain types of shots, and teams know they’re coming. They know what Harden wants, and they still can’t stop it.
It’s a lethal attack. With Harden on the floor since December 12, the Rockets have a 117.7 offensive rating, which would be the best figure in the NBA over that time frame.
But is this even basketball?
That’s a well-contested, stepback three, early in the shot clock, with no passes that proceeded it.
Rockets guard Austin Rivers (who has supported and defended Harden’s style of play) gave Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp a rundown of the, um, game plan on offense.
“Just get the f— out of his way,” Rivers told Sharp. “Let him do the heavy lifting.”
Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni has admitted that adapting to this style of basketball is not that easy for other players. There’s a lot of standing around, and players have to be ready to catch and shoot when they do get the ball. It’s a surprising turn in style for a coach who once preached that “the ball finds energy.”
How many players could do what Harden is doing right now?
That Harden is shooting 44% from the field and 37% from three for the season on so many attempts, with such a heavy workload, is incredible. But the context of how he’s doing it matters, too.
To be clear, I’m not even against what Harden is doing. Some fans and analysts begrudge Harden’s playing style, from his isolation-heavy game to his tendency to draw fouls. I personally don’t mind it and mostly enjoy watching Harden. I can appreciate his unique skill set, athleticism, and ability to create some of the most spectacular highlights in the league.
I just question how much we should be valuing this run.
Shot selection is a big part of basketball, and most players don’t have a long enough leash to take some of Harden’s more audacious attempts.
In his 61-point performance against the Knicks, Harden took 20 three-pointers and made five of them. 14 of them were classified as step-back threes, and he only made two of those. There’s a weird separation between the Rockets’ search for the best quality of shots and Harden’s license to take low-percentage shots at a high rate.
Since December 12, Harden is scoring more points per game on “pull-up shots” than anyone else in the league. But the next nine players on the list are all shooting better percentages. The difference is in the number of attempts. Harden is taking nearly seven more pull-up three-point attempts per game than the next closest player.
It feels as though the bar gets lowered — even just slightly — when Harden has such an artistic license with which to work.
Take a slightly above average guard, give them unlimited touches, shots, and time, with no threat of being pulled from the game, and they, too, might be able to put up some gaudy numbers. Would they match Harden’s overall effectiveness, especially with defenses bearing down on them? No. That extra little percentage is what makes Harden a generational superstar. But the stats might be a bit inflated, and the stats are part of the current Harden phenomenon.
The Russell Westbrook case
The closest thing we’ve seen to this season from Harden was Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Westbrook averaged a 30-point triple-double and was in the MVP discussion all season.
However, some took issue with Westbrook’s play that year. His usage and shots per game were in line with Harden’s this year, though he wasn’t as efficient in scoring the ball. Some accused Westbrook of stat-hunting, stealing rebounds from teammates and taking shots without much consideration for the quality of the shot or the game situation.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote of Westbrook’s MVP case in 2016-17:
“It dovetails with the feeling I had all season that Westbrook bent the game to a (slightly) uncomfortable extreme: the highest usage rate ever, monopolization of the offense. It’s easy, and mostly right, to say he had to do that on this roster. It’s also reductive. It ends the conversation. It refuses to even entertain the possibility that other players might have benefited in the long run from Westbrook loosening his grip on the offense by 5 percent. Maybe it makes no difference. Maybe it makes the Thunder worse this season. I don’t know. But the usage rate gives me pause.”
The same argument could be applied to Harden this year.
Yes, Harden is working with a suboptimal supporting cast for now, but there are actual NBA players surrounding him. Some of them might thrive with more responsibility, or, you know, getting to touch the ball a little more.
Some might argue that Harden is defining the “valuable” part of “Most Valuable Player.” That, without him, the Rockets’ season might already be over. Maybe, but again, perhaps the Rockets would be just as good with Harden giving up that 5%, as Lowe noted, to let his teammates play.
If we scratch out Harden, it’s not clear who would be up next in the MVP discussion. Perhaps Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Stephen Curry or Joel Embiid. There might not be a current MVP frontrunner, and that’s okay — it’s January.
Of course, Westbrook won MVP in 2016-17; enough voters were inspired by his superhuman performance to give him the award. They may do the same with Harden this year.
But Harden and the Rockets willingly going 1-on-5, as awe-inspiring as it is, doesn’t necessarily mean Harden is having the best season.