When Daryl Morey pulled off what, in retrospect, may be the greatest heist in the NBA over the past 20 years, acquiring James Harden for Jeremy Lamb, a draft pick that would become Steven Adams, and the remaining carcass of Kevin Martin, there was certainly a level of excitement that the trigger back to relevance for the Rockets had been pulled.
Even the fans who were least enthusiastic about the deal admitted that Harden immediately became the team's best player, and it wasn't even close, so at a minimum the deal upgraded the roster. The fans most enthusiastic about the deal thought the Rockets were getting a potential All-Star and someone who had the type of offensive ability to compete for a scoring title.
I think it's safe to say that, two seasons and three months in, the deal has exceeded the expectations of even the most staunch Harden supporters, and this was once again hammered home with more hardware for Harden.
On Wednesday, Harden was named Western Conference Player of the Month for the second consecutive month, taking home January honors this time.
The sixth year guard out of Arizona State also took home the award in December, and believe it or not, as star laden as the Rockets have been over the past 30 years (with multiple league MVP's, numerous All-Star caliber players), this was only the 13th time in team history that a Houston Rocket has won the Western Conference's highest monthly honor.
It's the very first time in franchise history that a player has done it in back-to-back months, and Harden joins Yao Ming, Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone as the only Rockets players to win the Western Conference Player of the Month multiple times. Harden is the first non-center in franchise history to accomplish that feat.
During the month of January, Harden averaged 25.8 points on a scorching shooting split of .476/.426/.874. He also averaged 6.7 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game in leading Houston to a record of 11-6 during the month. His 25.8 points per game average was fourth among NBA scorers and Harden's seven games recording 30 or more points led all players in the month of January.
Harden enters Friday's action as the league's leading scorer at 27.0 points per game, but he's been so much more for the Rockets this season. Offensively, he is essentially both the point guard and the go-to scorer. When the offense needs to be initiated in the half court, it's Harden who does it. Nobody is better in the league at finding open three point shooters, especially in the corners. When the team needs a big bucket at the end of games, Harden is typically isolated and asked to go get it.
Harden is in a three-way dog fight right now for league MVP honors with Golden State's Steph Curry and a quickly-coming-up-on-the-outside LeBron James, whose Cavs haven't lost in about a month. For what it's worth, Curry was the Western Conference Player of the Month in November, so if this were a prize fight, Harden is leading Curry 2-1 in rounds.
The upcoming month will be huge for Harden's MVP candidacy, with Dwight Howard out for at least another four weeks with a knee edema and with the Rockets playing 11 of their next 13 games against teams that are slated to make the playoffs. If he can somehow keep the Rockets in the upper half of the Western Conference playoff teams (they're a three seed as this is being written), it will go a long way to turning voters his way.
If this matters, Bovada.lv lists Curry as a 4/5 favorite to win the MVP award right now, with James next at 3/1 and Harden at 7/2.
In other Harden-related news, the Rockets guard was among a star-studded eight-man field named to compete in this season's Foot Locker Three Point Shooting Contest at All-Star Weekend in New York City on Saturday, February 14. The field looks like this (Three point related résumé included):
Marco Belinelli, Spurs -- Defending champ, Belinelli has the lowest 3-point percentage (38.2) of any player in the Three-Point Contest field. He's pretty much in this field on the equivalent of a "Masters green jacket." He will get smoked.
Stephen Curry, Warriors -- Drained 10 3-pointers Wednesday night in a 51-point performance against the Mavs, so he appears ready.
Klay Thompson, Warriors -- At 44.6 percent, Thompson trails only Kyle Korver in 3-point percentage this season.
James Harden, Rockets -- Fifth this season in 3-pointers made and attempted.
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers -- Other than Belinelli, Irving has the least made treys in the field, with 100. A noted chucker, he's pretty much in here because of the 11 threes he hit in his 55-point performance a few weeks ago against Portland.
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Kyle Korver, Hawks -- On pace to have the greatest 3-point shooting season in NBA history, currently leading the NBA in 3-point accuracy at 53.2 percent. Korver is attempting to become the first player in history to shoot at go .500/.500/.900 (50 percent from the field, 50 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent from the free-throw line). Total travesty that he isn't in the actual All Star Game itself, and I am picking him to make this his "EFF YOU" event.
Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers -- Leads the NBA in 3-pointers made (151) and attempted (375). Yay.
J.J. Redick, Clippers -- Currently shooting a career-high 43.2 percent on 3s. Went to Duke, so he can't win.