ROUNDBALL DAILY

James Harden’s rejuvenation is the most refreshing thing about the NBA this season

James Harden has radically changed his game this season, and with it, the Rockets’ fortunes. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

His life has been simplified, condensed down to pick-and-roll decisions and (maybe) the bi-monthly trimming of his beard.

James Harden seems like his true self again, or maybe even a better version of the player that carried the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals in 2015.

Sure, he’s still practicing his signature dribble-hypnosis, scoring like breathing, draining stepback threes and normalizing the Eurostep. But he’s doing a lot more now, thanks to Mike D’Antoni, and his name and the team have both returned to the top of the sport.

After making the much-publicized move to point guard, (“This is probably what I should have been doing all along,”) Harden told Sports Illustrated, he’s been able to use his unique gifts in a way that perfectly befits the new brand of basketball, innovated in part by D’Antoni, that’s now dominating the NBA.

Houston Rockets guard James Harden, right, drives the ball defended by Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, March 1, 2017. The Rockets won 122-103. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

Harden is running the high screen-and-roll to perfection. He’s cashing open threes, driving to the basket, and finding open teammates all over a spread-to-the-boundaries court. The Rockets are being piloted completely by his devices, his basketball navigation guiding them through each possession, with shooters like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson ready to be weaponized at a moment’s notice.

There’s no more in-fighting with diva big men or dealing with paparazzi as a result of a diva girlfriend. (Who’s the bigger prima donna, Dwight or Khloe? Maybe ask Kobe).

There’s no more using up possessions like Allen Iverson or a 2000’s-era star, frustrating teammates with shot clock-burning, flopping, overdramatized foul-drawing, and lack of effort on defense.

Now, as Lee Jenkins wrote in SI, he’s actively trying to make his teammates happy, considering that even as he’s making passes.

It seems like everything but Harden’s crusty, bird-inhabited beard seems rejuvenated, like he replaced his Gatorade with Kombucha. It all makes perfect sense–and it was accomplished after Rockets G.M. Darryl Morey doubled down on his superstar’s talents and the continued evolution of the game.

Morey’s vision was brilliant, and it’s resulted in 44 wins so far, and third place in the Western Conference standings.

To hear Harden’s name return to the MVP discussion is refreshing. It almost feels like he’s been vindicated.

Last year, his lack of defense severely overshadowed his ballhawking offensive style. He seemed more like a manufactured superstar than a real one–as evidenced by his exclusion from every one of the All-NBA teams.

The game seemed like a chore for him, and his team played that way. The Rockets finished 41-41, and were bounced in five games in the first round of the playoffs by Golden State.

Harden’s accepting, calm demeanor, which benefits him on the court, was interpreted as laziness.

It became such a P.R. issue that Adidas even did an ad trying to accentuate Harden’s positives and excuse his shortcomings.

“What if I was all defense?” is a hilarious line. I mean, how about some defense?

But all of that has been washed away this year, turned around by the perfect GM, the perfect coach (and our choice for Coach of the Year), and the perfect position to maximize this basketball savant’s talents.

Will it make a difference in the playoffs?

That likely depends on what happens with Golden State or San Antonio. At full strength, both still figure to have enough to out-execute Houston’s one-man show.

But just the fact that we’re talking playoffs, and Harden’s MVP candidacy, is a welcome change from last season’s disappointment.

James Harden, as we knew him, is back, and basketball is more fun because of it.

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