The last time we saw James Harden on an NBA court, he was capping off an otherwise tremendous season with a game-ending turnover in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Dribbling the ball off his foot in the waning seconds of regulation was the low point of a 14-point, 12-turnover performance that sent the Rockets home and ended a strange Playoff run that saw Harden play both hero and goat.
Following a season where he averaged 27.4 points, 7.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds while leading the Rockets to a No. 2 seed in a loaded Western Conference and finishing second in MVP voting, Harden’s final game ended with a whimper that leaves him with the burden of proving that he is worthy of his new found superstardom in 2015-16.
The Los Angeles native’s rise from complementary piece on a stacked Oklahoma City Thunder to carrying a banged up Rockets team to within a few games of the NBA Finals has been one of the more spectacular runs in recent memory.
Few players have been able to make the transition from sixth man to face of the franchise as seamlessly as Harden, and at only 25-years-old, his best days of basketball are still ahead of him.
Armed with one of the illest crossovers in the L, a lethal stepback jumper, excellent court vision and the ability to get to the rack and dunk on someone’s head, Harden is easily one of the best offensive players in the game.
Some will knock him for living at the line (he led the League in both free-throw attempts and makes) but in a League that welcomes high scoring, you can’t hate on someone trying to get buckets by any means necessary.
On the defensive end, Harden is often abhorrent. Frequently falling asleep and losing his man on backdoor or baseline cuts, no other player in the NBA benefits more from having a premiere defensive big man having his back like he does.
While he has made a concentrated effort to improve on defense, there are still too many nights where he takes off on that end of the floor to take him seriously as a defender.
In a time where more and more players are taking time off for rest, Harden did the exact opposite during the 2014-15 season. Carrying a team that was plagued with injuries all season, he played in 81 games and led all players in minutes played.
Harden’s outstanding regular season was respected so much by his peers that he was named the MVP at the monstrosity that was the inaugural NBPA’s Players’ Awards. (I particularly loved when scantily dressed members of pop group Fifth Harmony danced seductively in the crowd while the players sat with their wives and when Kevin Durant, who was publicly vocal about a players-based award show, decided to no show.)
For as good as Harden was during the regular season, his Playoff performance raised a few red flags. Facing elimination in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Clippers, arguably the Rockets’ most important game since the 1995 NBA Finals, it was Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Dwight Howard, not James Harden, who led the team to a 19-point come from behind win that absolutely stunned Los Angeles.
During that game, Harden checked out with 1:32 left in the third quarter and only returned for a brief appearance at the one-minute mark in the fourth.
To his credit, the star shooting guard stormed back in Game 7 with a 31-point, 8-assist, 7-rebound performance to lead Houston to the Western Conference finals. But what does it say about a team’s star player when the team’s bench carries them to a win of that magnitude?
Against the Warriors, Harden’s Jekyll and Hyde performance continued. Scoring 38 points and 45 points in Games 2 and 4, respectively, Harden scored only 17 on 3-16 shooting and had a complete meltdown in the elimination game.
From the moment the final horn sounded in Golden State, Harden’s life has taken a turn for the bizarre that comes with fame. His elevated status in the League had him running with a new social circle that eventually led him to date Khloe Kardashian and land on the front page of gossip websites—a place not often reserved for NBA players and hardly ever positive.
And most recently, Harden declared that he “knew he was the MVP” last year and that he’s “the best player in the League,” putting a target on his back before the season tips off.
Entering this season, it’s Championship or bust for James Harden and the Rockets. Based on his performance last season (both in the regular season and Playoffs) and newfound superstardom, Harden has to back up his big talk with big play.
If he does, we could be anointing him the 2015-16 NBA MVP. With a deep Rockets roster gunning for the Warriors spot, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could also be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
If he doesn’t, the Rockets will surely be going home early again, and Harden will be back to showing up drunk singing Travi$ Scott songs outside of the club.
|SLAM Top 50 Players 2015|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.