The red-hot Houston Rockets had no problem devouring the still-struggling Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday night, as they cruised past them 125-112, becoming yet another team to exploit the Lakers’ surprisingly weak defense.
The star of the game was Rockets shooting guard James Harden, who put in 31 points to go with six rebounds and nine assists. The Lakers had no defense against Harden, who managed to hit jumpers and get to the free-throw line all night. Any attempt to reel him in was a lost cause.
But while the Lakers’ defense is notably atrocious lately, they shouldn’t be hanging their heads in shame just because they were unable to stop Harden, if only because it’s been the same way for every other team in the league. Harden has been an absolute scoring machine lately, carving up opposing defenses with his amazing ability to drive to the basket.
If Harden decides to take it to the hole, the odds are more than likely than he’s either going to score or draw a shooting foul, wherein he will almost certainly make both free throws. The fact that he’s also a reliable shooter who seems to be improving his stroke gradually as the season progresses certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Harden’s 26.6 points per game currently places him fourth in the league behind Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. Harden’s ability to put up tons of points was made apparent in the Rockets’ first two games, when he put up 39 against the Detroit Pistons, followed by 42 against the Atlanta Hawks. That pair of performances immediately erased any doubt that Harden was not only capable of being a starter, but that he was one of the premiere two-guards in the league.
The thing is, after that quick start, Harden went through a stretch where he was slightly underwhelming. He was still scoring at an impressive clip, but his shooting was down and he wasn’t looking like the unstoppable force that he was during those first two games. In the past month or so, however, Harden regained his offensive mojo and has become one of the scariest players in the league when it comes to putting points on the board.
Harden has managed to top 25 points in 13 consecutive games, as well as 16 of the last 17. Stopping him from getting to the basket is becoming an increasingly futile effort. What’s more important than Harden’s scoring numbers, however, is that the rest of the team is scoring with him, as the Rockets lead the NBA in points per game. Harden’s impressive 5.3 assists per game illustrate that he doesn’t just make plays for himself; he gets everyone involved. His effect on the offense goes far beyond his own numbers; he makes everyone else better.
But how do we put these numbers in context? Well, Harden is the best player on a winning team that has no other superstar players, which should put him right up there with his former teammate Durant as one of the best players in the league. He was already going to be an All-Star, but with the latest push, he’s become part of the Most Valuable Player race. Should he be ahead of Durant or LeBron James? No. But he definitely belongs in the discussion.
It’s not just that Harden is scoring, or that he’s doing it efficiently; it’s that he’s carrying such a young, unproven team to such success. Yes, there are some talented players on the Rockets, but none that could carry a team.
Jeremy Lin has great stretches, but he’s too inconsistent and too turnover prone. Omer Asik is a great rebounder, but he can only score at the rim. Chandler Parsons and Marcus Morris both have potential, but neither has fully realized it yet.
There’s a fair amount of talent on this roster, but Harden is the one who puts it altogether. Harden’s role on this team is similar to what Dirk Nowitzki did on the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks; in each situation, a superstar player acted as the galvanizing force that turned a group of talented-but-not-elite role players into something greater than the sum of its parts.
The thing is, Nowitzki was a 13-year veteran that year. Harden is only in his fourth year, which suggests that he still has some time to grow–both as a leader, and as a player. It’s doubtful that he’ll be able to carry the Rockets to the heights than Nowitzki carried that Mavs team, but he has the potential to make such a run in the future.
In the meantime, Harden can’t be given enough credit for what he’s given the Rockets. Before they traded Kevin Martin to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Harden, they were widely considered to be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, as many experts picked them to finish 14th or 15th in the West.
When Harden arrived, they instantly became a scary team and a likely playoff team. A year ago, people were questioning whether or not Harden could be effective outside of a sixth-man role.
Now, the question is whether or not he could become the best player in the league.
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