Is this man the next Michael Jordan?

Jesse Kass

James Harden is a polarizing player. He is a player who will often seek out contact, merely looking to draw a foul rather than convert a basket. Harden has also had his issues on defense, where some embarrassing lapses in focus and effort are well-documented. Despite the criticism, Harden remains one of the league’s top talents and has embraced a new role to take his game to new heights. 

The 2015-16 season was a rough one for the Houston Rockets. A slow start led to the firing of head coach Kevin McHale just months after reaching the Western Conference Finals the season prior. The Rockets meandered to a 41-41 record and were promptly dispatched by the Golden State Warriors in 5 games, much of which came without the league MVP Steph Curry.

Harden put up incredible numbers during the 2015-16 season, averaging 29 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.1 rebounds. However, the Rockets team turmoil and underwhelming performance seemed to affect Harden’s standing among the league’s elite, as he was left off all three of the All-NBA teams.

This season, the Rockets brought head coach Mike D’Antoni into the fold, looking to unleash the Rockets offense even more. D’Antoni’s first decision as head coach? Make James Harden the team’s point guard. D’Antoni explained his rationale to FanSided’s Jared Dubin:

Normally, they would just bring it up, move it two times, then give it to him, then let him [initiate the offense]. And after he’s struggled to get the ball or had to wrestle to get the ball. We’re just trying to make it easier for him. Why camouflage it? You know that’s where it’s going. You know he has to make plays. So why not do it?

Mike D’Antoni

The idea for D’Antoni makes sense; cut out the middle man and get the ball in the hands of Harden, who makes the majority of the plays for the Rockets anyway. The early returns of James Harden the point guard have been remarkable. Through 9 games this season, Harden is averaging 30 points, an astronomical 13 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game.

While Harden remains near the top of the league in usage rate, it is only up a slight uptick from 32.5 last season to 33.7 this season. Despite handling the ball at roughly the same rate, Harden has embraced the facilitator role, raising his assist average from 7.5 last season to 13.0 this season. When looking at assist percentage, which is an estimate of the field goals assisted by a player when he’s on the floor, Harden has exploded, going from what was a career-high 35.4 percent last season to 62.1 percent this season.

Harden’s 13 assists per game are nearly 3 assists higher per game than the next closest player in the league (Russell Westbrook at 10.1 per game). Perhaps most impressively, Harden’s huge rise in assists have not come at the expense of his scoring. In fact, Harden has raised his scoring average from 29 points last season to 30 this season. After putting up 32 points and 15 assists last week in a 114-106 win over the Washington Wizards, Harden put himself alongside the most elite company possible.

Anytime you put yourself in the same company as Michael Jordan, you know you’re doing something special. The four straight 30 point, 10 assist games for Harden not only makes him the first to reach that feat since Michael Jordan, but also makes him the only other player to do so since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976. To add onto that, Harden has posted 5 games this season with at least 15 assists, the entire rest of the league only has one such game.

When looking at Harden’s production this season, the main glaring flaw is the turnovers. Right now, James Harden is averaging 5.8 turnovers per game. That number is certainly too high, but when considering how much Harden has the ball in his hands, and the fact that his assist to turnover ratio is still over 2 to 1, it’s hard to fault him too much.

Harden recently proclaimed himself as the best point guard and player in the NBA. Right now, despite the incredible stats, that claim is certainly false. Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul  all their say about that, with each providing more on the defensive end.

The Houston Rockets largely are what they are at this point; a great offensive team, a bad defensive team, and a slightly above average team overall. The Rockets are currently 5-4, averaging 107 points per game and giving up 106.7 a game. Harden, who certainly still has his faults and inconsistency on defense, must shoulder some of the blame for that.

However, it’s time to appreciate James Harden for the remarkable things he is doing rather than focus on all the things he can’t do.

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