In watching the Golden State Warriors dismantle the Rockets twice in a week last week, it was difficult to make a case for James Harden as the presumptive league MVP if for no other reason than both Steph Curry and Klay Thompson seem to have good reason to consider themselves favorites despite being on the same team. Still, Harden's MVP credibility is real.
Prior to his team's loss in Houston Wednesday, former Rocket turned
traitor Maverick Chandler Parsons said his former teammate is the league's best. "For sure. He's the best player in basketball right now," he said of Harden. "The things he's doing are incredible. The scouting report is focused in on stopping him and you see he's still getting 30 a game. It's impressive."
But there is more to Harden's rising star even if you set his league-leading scoring average to the side. His defense has radically improved, no doubt owed to a much more vigorous commitment to that end of the floor, and he is shouldering the load of not just scoring, but facilitating shots for his teammates, something he is doing in bunches given that he is one of only two non-point guards among the league's top 20 in assists (Lebron James is the other).
What is most remarkable about Harden's performance isn't just the efficiency on offense, the energy on defense, the crunch time performances or the consistency from game to game, it's that what he is doing is completely sustainable.
People forget that James Harden is 25 years old in only his sixth NBA season. It is sometimes hard to tell given the steady way he plays. It takes some guys a decade to get close to what he is doing, most never get close. And with likely another six or seven years in his prime -- barring injury, obviously -- he is poised to be one of the best for quite a long time.
But, back to that sustainable point. It's not so much what he is doing, but how he is doing it. Harden has never been a high flyer. He's deliberate in his moves. Even his patented Euro-step move is achingly slow to watch despite being devastatingly difficult to defend. He makes contact -- he routinely leads the league in free throws, something he is doing again this year, and shoots better than 85 percent from the charity stripe for his career -- but it isn't the kind that impacts long term durability. He gets hit on the arm and bumped a lot, but rarely hits the floor.
And while the Rockets may eschew the midrange jump shot in favor of layups and three pointers, Harden is deadly from 15-18 feet, something players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant learned to develop as a means of extending their prolific careers and avoiding the kind of contact that becomes injury.
There are still weaknesses in Harden's game to be sure. He still has lapses on defense, though not nearly the eye popping number seen in compilation videos last year. There are times he settles for jump shots. Most importantly, on the whole, he has not been good in the playoffs, with only one or two series as notable exceptions.
But, it seems clear his game has taken a leap forward this season. It is obviously making the team better, but it is beginning to establish Harden as one of the top three or four players in the game. The NBA is littered with players who led the league in scoring or had monumental single year accomplishments, but Harden's play doesn't appear to be a fluke.
His skills are the kind that translate to long term success and he has improved upon them every season. If he continues, even incrementally, he and the Rockets are in good shape for years to come.