Is James Harden the most overrated player of modern era in the NBA?
There have been telltale signs of his inability to grasp the proverbial brass ring when it is presented. Yes, you have to give the Houston Rockets major props for coming back from three games down in the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers to win last year, but it was more in spite of James Harden’s deficiencies on the defensive end, in spite of his high assist-to-turnover ratio and in spite of a penchant for shooting the most difficult shots that they were able to do that.
When the moment is big and the lights are bright, Harden seems to be hiding within himself.
Looking at the numbers will certainly fool the casual observer. Harden is prolific. No doubt! He’s averaging 20 points and five assists per game for his career. Last season, he averaged 27 points and seven assists per game in finishing behind Steph Curry in NBA MVP voting.
This year he has upped the ante to 28 points and seven assists per game.
His scoring average has gone up in each of his six NBA seasons, and jumped by nearly 10 points per game once he got out of OKC.
However, let us go back to a pivotal moment in Harden’s time with the Thunder. 2012 was the year that they broke through the mire in the Western Conference and made it to the Finals with a terrific triumvirate of scorers in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden. The Beard averaged 16.8 points per game during the regular season that year. He would up that average to 18 points per game during a first round matchup against the Dallas Mavericks. But, it seems like the higher the stakes the lower the output for Harden.
That average would drop to 16 points per game on .358 percent shooting against the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals, and increase to 18 points on 49 percent shooting in the Western Conference Finals. Indeed, the Thunder were on a hot streak with a bevy of talent that had the NBA’s Old Guard shaking in their geriatric boots. That is until the wheels fell off against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Durant showed up, Russell Westbrook showed up too, but Harden did not. His point total would plummet to 12 per game on a woeful .375 field goal percentage. Harden shot a combined 4-of-20 in Games 3 and 4, scoring just 17 points total. The result was the Thunder losing in convincing fashion.
With memories of Harden’s collapse under pressure, the franchise chose to give Ibaka the big money deal, which forced Harden to go to Houston for the bread. All along James Harden was convinced that he should have been a starter in Oklahoma City.
Perhaps he may have thought he was better than Westbrook, Durant or both. It would not be a sin if he did. Such are the musings of your typical, prolific NBA scorer.
His first two seasons in Houston resulted in early exits from the playoffs, but last year looked to be different with him scoring at a scintillating clip. Dwight Howard was showing positive dividends as a defender and shot blocker, and they had a coach who was a former Hall of Fame player. The sky was the limit.
What could possibly go wrong?
After talking smack last year from January through June as to who he believed the NBA MVP should be, The Beard had a meltdown for the ages in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
The Rockets were 4-0 in the 2015 playoffs when facing elimination going into that game, and had just defeated the Warriors in Game 4. Harden would proceed to turn in his lowest total of the postseason, 14 points.
Ten of those points came from the free throw line. He was 2-for-11 and 0-for-3 from behind the arc.
This year, the Houston Rockets are a pale ghost of their prior selves. There have been roster changes and a new coach, but they still look decent from time to time when Dwight Howard dominates the paint. They have underrated wing Trevor Ariza, a still feisty Jason Terry, plus young size, youth and athleticism off the bench with PF Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverly and Clint Capella.
The addition of mercurial point guard Ty Lawson should have made them better than 4th in the Southwest Division. But the Rockets are barely hanging on to the 8th playoff spot in the Western Conference right now.
Meanwhile, James Harden is cruising along and getting his numbers and talking smack like he’s not on the clock. Yes, he’s an All-Star. Yes, he is an incredible scoring talent.
These days, fans and commentators seem to enjoy handing out hall passes to “elite baller” status for dudes that don’t play defense. People say Steph is a bad defender? Harden’s defense is offensive, pun intended. It makes my stomach churn to see him lazily fight through screens, loses his man on backdoor cuts or close out short on a shooter. His effort on the other end is remedial at best.
His numbers are what they are, but James Harden isn’t leading anybody, anywhere, Houston fans.
Maybe the Thunder had it right all along? Maybe Harden is better suited to be a supercharged third option on a really good team than being a high scoring, defense-averse, number one option on a perennial doormat.
James Harden still has a lot of questions that need to be answered. We'll see how answers them in a few months when the real season begins.