Back in October, the Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the basketball world by trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets, just days before the beginning of the season. The business move had many scratching their heads initially, but so far the aftermath has been prosperous for all parties involved.
The Thunder seemingly have not missed a beat, and at 21–6, possess one of the best records in the league. Meanwhile, Harden is relishing his role as Houston’s go-to-guy and moved into the NBA’s elite echelon in his fourth season. Fresh off Sixth Man Of The Year honors, a trip to the NBA Finals, and Olympic Gold in London, it was certainly no secret that Harden could hoop. Whether he could be a team’s number one option still remained to be seen, however, at the time Houston and OKC agreed the deal.
Any doubt regarding that was quelled immediately when the bearded man exploded for 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and four steals in the Rockets’ season opener against the Pistons, and then went off for 45 points and seven boards in the following game against the Hawks. Since then he’s racked up six more 30-point outings, and the Rockets are 7-1 when that happens.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive and make the right play at the right time,” said Harden after the Rockets’ 120-97 Christmas Day-rout of the Bulls. “When the opportunities are there to attack, I take advantage of it. When the opportunities are there to pass, then I do that. I’m just going off instinct.”
His instincts have him averaging 25.7 points (fourth best in the league), 5.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds. The southpaw is one of just a few players in the League that does damage at every level offensively: playing in transition and in the pick-and-roll, spotting up to shoot and pulling up off the dribble, finishing at the basket, and setting up teammates. Harden is always under control but moves with the force of a freight train at the same time, and while he’s a predominantly left-handed player, there’s nothing that can be done to stop it.
“He’s so versatile and he commands so much attention,” said Jeremy Lin. “Anytime you have a player like that with that caliber of talent and basketball IQ, it makes the game easier for you because the defense has to focus on him.”
Plus, he lives at the free throw line, where he shoots 86 percent. With 217 makes, he leads the league in total free throws made. He also leads the NBA with 10.1 attempts per game, and 8.7 makes per game as well. “It gives me confidence, hitting easy shots, easy free throws. It opens up my entire game. That comes with me being aggressive and me being in attack mode,” Harden said of his ability to get to the line. He sets the tone for the Rockets who have followed suit accordingly, scoring a league-best 106 points per game, including 18 fastbreak points per game, also tops in the NBA.
“When James starts playing downhill from the other side of halfcourt, and he starts dribbling and there’s no bigs down there – they’re running alongside him – he is really good,” Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said in awe of his star player. “He puts so much pressure on the defender, and he just keeps coming at you. He gets that weave going, then when he stops and makes that last final move, there’s a lot of power, a lot of strength. [He's] a really tremendous finisher. When he’s playing like that, it’s just a lot of trouble for people out there. I would hate to be on the other end of that rundown because he’s coming downhill fast, it’s hard to guard.”
Harden has met and exceeded all expectations thus far. Now we must see if – and how far – he can carry the Rockets in the post-season.