James Harden's Season Proving He's an Elite NBA Superstar

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

James Harden's superstar progression has been weird.

When he joined the Houston Rockets last year, he was everywhere. James Harden this. James Harden that. Look at what he's doing as a starter. Beard got game.

Praise doesn't rain down upon Harden as readily this season, which is somewhat natural. Stars don't improve by leaps and bounds every season. Once they've joined dignified ranks, they're there. It's all about sustainability and upkeep. 

For Harden, though, it's been different. Evaluating him last season was easy, simple. He had arrived. There was no need to pinpoint his exact destination. Point was, he was there, among the stars.

This season, as an incumbent star, his status has been met with more skepticism. When many people talk about him, they're almost afraid to overrate him, citing his exact placement with a lack of conviction, as Red94's Rahat Huq explains:

During a recent nationally televised broadcast–against whom I can’t remember–one of the play by play men said something like “Harden is one of the 10 or 15 best players in the league” and judging by his tone, you could tell he wasn’t fully confident in his assertion. The other day, I heard a host on local radio muse “it’s getting really hard to name 10 players in the league who are better than Harden.” Getting really hard? What am I missing here? Now, to be sure, prior to the season’s start, ESPN’s panel ranked Harden as the 4th best player in all of basketball, but that panel is composed primarily of geeks like myself so it isn’t really reflective of the conventional wisdom. So why is the conventional wisdom so down on Harden?

Beats me.

Huq isn't out of his mind. This stigma exists. How often is Harden referenced as the best shooting guard in the NBA? Not very. Not as much as you think. When he is, compliments come with disclaimers.

Kobe Bryant's injury this. Dwyane Wade's topsy turvy health that. One of Bradley Beal, Lance Stephenson, J.R. Smith DeMar DeRozan and Klay Thomspon could maybe, possibly, eventually catch him.

Truth is, Harden isn't just a star or candidate for the best 2-guard in basketball. He's an elite superstar, an unquestionable top-10 stud.

The proof, along with a few stray beard hairs, is in this season's pudding.


Outstanding Offense

Look, we all know Harden is an astute scorer with range, superior court vision and the ability to turn contact—real or imaginary—into free-throw attempts. But rehashing the outstanding never hurts.

Especially when it's this good.

Harden is once again averaging over 25 points per game, a pretty incredible feat considering he never broke 17 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, putting what he was actually sacrificing as a sixth man in perspective. Two seasons away from the shackles of Oklahoma City's second unit have equated to two straight 25-plus point-per-game seasons. 

Only six other players can say they've averaged at least 25 points per game more than once since 2009, when Harden entered the league—Kevin Durant (five), LeBron James (five), Carmelo Anthony (four), Kobe Bryant (four), Kevin Love (two) and Dwyane Wade (two). That Harden has been able to join such company despite being a full-time starter for only two of his five seasons is incredible. 

Likewise, so is the clique he joins with his back-to-back 25-point campaigns. Durant, Anthony and James are the only other three players who have poured in at least 25 points a night in each of the last two seasons.

To go along with his 25.5 points, Harden is also averaging 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.5 steals on 46.1 percent shooting, serving as Houston's primary playmaker and No. 1 scoring option. Not many other players can say the same. James and Durant are the only two others posting at least 25 points, four rebounds and five assists. Once again, that's some impressive company.

The difference in Houston's offense is obvious when he's on the floor. There's more structure thanks to his ability to hedge between scorer and distributor. Spacing is much better too, in large part because Harden does more than just hoist threes and attack the rim.

Post-ups on the block have become a more frequent part of his game. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), 3.4 percent of his offensive touches have come within post-ups, an increase from 2.6 percent last season. While hardly groundbreaking, the uptick adds a different dynamic to the Rockets offense, rendering it tougher to defend. In recent weeks, it's become necessary as well.

Dwight Howard has missed nine of the team's last 11 games, so head coach Kevin McHale has been forced to field Donatas Motiejunas at center for stretches at a time when Omer Asik is on the bench. D-Mo is more of a floor-spacing power forward than he is a low-post-savvy 7-footer. Having Harden operate near the block opens things up for shooters during those times when there's no paint presence.

Take this possession from Houston's recent victory over Oklahoma City:

Notice how the Thunder immediately collapse. They don't just double Harden in the traditional sense. Everyone on the floor is pinned near the paint, waiting for him to attack. Often times, he does attack or settle for a jumper, but you can see how his presence of mind to work deep inside the arc can open up the floor when neither Howard nor Asik is playing in the middle.

When you have a player who can impact offensive sets in every way imaginable, you're going to see results. And the Rockets have seen results:

Houston's Rocket Man
With HardenWithout Harden2013-14 Overall
Off. Rtg.110.9103.1108.6
Off. Rtg. Rank Equivalent1174

Sans Harden, the Rockets aren't a special offensive team. They're average at best. But when he's on the floor, they score at a rate comparable to the league's top-ranked point-totalers. Everything from their assist percentage to their true shooting and effective field-goal percentages journey upward. 

Granted, we've come to expect this. The Rockets are expected to shred nets with Harden. He's supposed to dominate himself. And he is. 

Six players under the age of 25 averaged at least 25 points, four rebounds and five assists on 46 percent or better shooting before now. Their names? LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant.

Harden is set to become No. 7.

Enough said.


Defendable Defense

There are plenty of things in life you'll never catch me doing. Among the most taboo are hang gliding  through Commonwealth Bay, lip syncing—or actually singing—any Ashlee Simpson song and commending Harden for his defensive performance.

That shouldn't stop me, or you, from acknowledging the obvious: Harden has, by and large, gotten better. He's not elite, nor is he adequate, but he's improved. That much is certain. 

From Huq:

People who have watched this team day in and day out would agree that Harden’s defense has actually come quite a long way but his struggles early in the year were so widely publicized that he has not been able to recover in the court of public opinion. As with most things, there is a bit of lag time before public perception catches up with reality and some of the commentary on Harden is reflective of that. He’s bad but not atrocious as he was earlier.

Cynical fans want to hear more than this. Huq is reaching, because, well, forget the eye test. Get some tangible proof.

Mission accepted, and accomplished.

Unlike last season, the Rockets' defensive rating is actually better with Harden on the floor. It was much worse with him in the game last year (104.4) compared to when he was off (100.7).

Almost Adequate Defender?
SeasonDef. Rtg. With HardenDef. Rtg. Without HardenDef. Rtg. Overall

Quite obviously, Harden has Howard to thank for his difference in numbers. But his individual statistics have improved too. 

Opposing shooting guards notched a 14.6 player efficiency rating per 48 minutes against Harden last year, according to 82games.com. Small forwards registered 15.6. Shooting guards and small forwards are going for 13.2 and 13, respectively, this year.

Improvement is improvement, and whether you're prepared to admit it or not, Harden has improved. Poor defensive sets will live in infamy because let's face it, Harden has put forth stinkers on defense in the past. I'm talking idle, utterly confused, he-has-no-idea-where-his-assignment-went disasters.

This season, though, he's been better, reaching a personal best in engagement and results. 


The Forgotten One?

Never forget Harden is a superstar.

Newspapers and blogs aren't littered with folks berating Harden or completely ignoring him, but there's this hesitant smog that casts a shadow over his status. Many are prepared to concede he's a star; they're just not ready to say what kind.

One dimensional? top 10? top 15? Overrated?

How about underrated?

Some blame can be attributed to ESPN's NBA rank. It overreacted to a great 2012-13 crusade and slid him into fourth.

At the same time, its spirit was spot-on. It's hard to name four active players better than Harden. It's impossible to name 10. There aren't 10. Come bearing five or seven names, or something like that, and you're in business. Spout off 10 and you're packing brass ones. Rusty, rundown, ramshackled brass ones. 

"You've got to be resilient and that's what I've been preaching with the guys and the coaching staff," McHale said after Houston's win over Oklahoma City, per The Associated Press (via ESPN). "You've just got to stay in the fight and keep swinging."

Harden keeps swinging. And connecting.

For the second straight season, he ranks in the top five of total win shares. James and Durant are the only other players who have finished in the top five in each of the last two seasons. Yet again, Harden is in their company. Their noble, world-class company.

Right where he belongs.


*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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