James Harden has made a habit out of putting up astounding offensive numbers on a nightly basis. His style annoys some fans, but no one can deny its effectiveness. Harden has continued to score with ease this season, but in a recent interview, he claimed that these statistical accomplishments don’t matter to him as much as we assume they do.
James Harden’s rise to superstardom
The James Harden trade is one of the most important inflection points in modern NBA history. Losing the 2012 NBA Finals to the Miami Heat in five games did little to dim the future of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Their young core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Harden, and Serge Ibaka seemed destined to run the league for the next five years. That run of dominance never happened, in part because Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and three draft picks.
Harden’s talent was certified, but the Rockets were seemingly the only organization to realize that he was a budding superstar who could carry an offense on his own. In his first game for the team, he put up a stat line of 37 points, a career-high 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals in a win against the Detroit Pistons. The numbers would only get crazier from there.
Harden got better each season, but he fully took off after Mike D’antoni became head coach and chose him to be the point guard. After that point, Harden became the sun, moon, and most of the stars for the Houston Rockets offense.
Their possessions increasingly took on a similar shape: Harden with the ball at the top of the key, deciding whether to shoot a three, drive to the rim, or pass to a teammate standing behind the three-point line. This style annoys a substantial group of fans who don’t like the lack of ball movement (Harden’s usage rate ranks in the top five for each of the last five seasons) and are resistant to the heavy use of analytics or are frustrated by Harden’s masters-level flopping to draw fouls. Chris Paul eventually bristled at being relegated to just being a sidekick.
But Harden became an unstoppable force by playing this way. He’s won one MVP trophy, and is on track to win the scoring title for the third year in a row. He has the second-most triple-doubles among active players in the league.
Houston traded for Westbrook last summer, and while the team has reoriented itself since then, Harden is still averaging 35 points a night efficiently. And this is while he handles the ball less than he used to.
Do the numbers actually matter?
You’d think that putting up those sorts of statistics would be validating for James Harden, but the superstar says otherwise. In a joint interview with Westbrook for GQ, he talked about Houston’s championship hopes and his mindset for the rest of the season:
We haven’t been healthy yet, but we’re confident that once we get healthy and we put it together, it’s going to be pretty tough to beat us. Individually we’ve accomplished so much, broken so many records that are going to last forever. We’re not worried about the individual accomplishments. We want to do whatever it takes to win games. You know what I’m saying? Not necessarily me throwing 40 up or him getting a triple-double. Like, s***, that don’t matter. But right now we got so many guys that are out that we gotta pick up the slack. And once we get a full roster, we don’t have to do as much.
This is surprising to hear considering that there is recent evidence that the individual records do matter in Houston. At the end of a game against the Charlotte Hornets, Austin Rivers took a rebound from Harden, denying him another triple-double. Rivers apologized like a man who knew that Harden would be upset by this action.
Can James Harden’s style work in playoffs?
As great as Harden is, it is still fair to question whether this isolation-heavy style is built to last in the playoffs. Most of his most memorable moments in the postseason involve Harden performing well below expectations.
In 2016, He scored 10 points on 11 shots before fouling out in a 114-75 loss to the San Antonio Spurs that knocked them out of the playoffs. The last two years have seen Houston lose in series against the Golden State Warriors in different, but still agonizing ways.
Their recent playoff defeats have been largely down to a lack of versatility. Their role players aren’t skilled enough to create shots on their own, and their system only looks for three-pointers and shots at the rim.
A few mid-rangers from time to time could be useful. Harden’s hunt for fouls instead of good shots is more problematic in the postseason because referees tend to allow more physical play as the stakes rise.
There have been some analysts who attribute Harden’s struggles to the fatigue from playing heavy minutes in the regular season, but he’s not the only star who plays a lot of games.
A lot is on the line for the Rockets this year. If they can’t make more progress towards the Finals, then the scrutiny around the entire organization will intensify even more. Their decision to play without a true center has also made them bigger targets for traditionalists who already have issues with how Houston operates.
They’ve played well since downsizing, but the playoffs are a different beast. If the team is going to do any real winning in May and June, then Harden will have to rise to the occasion like never before.