ROUNDBALL DAILY

James Harden has become the league’s best scorer, and he’s done it in the most difficult way possible

James Harden

 

He’s not the greatest scorer of all-time, no matter how many whiskey sours Darryl Morey throws back, or which algebraic theory he applies to points per possession.

But reigning NBA MVP James Harden just might be — under-appreciated.

Harden has elbowed, Euro-stepped and double-step-backed his way past Steph Curry and Kevin Durant to earn the title of absolute best scorer in the league.

He’s averaging an illogical 33.6 points per game, to go along with 8.6 assists per. Over his last 11 games, he’s been downright unreasonable–averaging a ridiculous 41 points.

Harden went five straight games scoring at least 40, and did that against the likes of OKC, Boston, New Orleans, Memphis, and Golden State.

Despite his world-beating prodigiousness, Harden seemingly doesn’t have the fan base that some of the league’s other stars enjoy. He’s not beloved the way LeBron James and Steph Curry are. Sure, those two have their share of haters, but their fans are devoted and many. 

Harden’s approval rating among basketball fans is more like George W. Bush’s.

It’s understandable. Fans see Harden for his ball-stopping, defense-lacking, foul-drawing game. It used to be frustrating to watch.

But he’s evolved in recent years, becoming the most lethal scorer on the planet, and doing it in a way that takes advantage of the things Steph Curry exploited on his way to revolutionizing the game. Only, James Harden does things a little differently.

Steph will knock down impossible shots with only a fraction of space and barely any time to look at the basket. Harden does the same thing, except he doesn’t need to run off a screen or shake somebody with a v-cut. 

Harden dribbles himself open, hypnotizing defenders with slow, deliberate crossovers and then burying them the nanosecond they lose interest. He’s like a snake charmer, or the Great Tiger from Punch-Out.

He doesn’t need anybody else to get his own shot. He does it himself, through his own shiftiness, and his innate ability to guess the exact split-second you’ve let your guard down. It’s a talent exaggerated to a level we’ve rarely seen before.

We didn’t get here overnight, either. The Beard has renovated his game, remodeling it, innovating it, tinkering with it season after season. He’s been in the gym, quietly after every postseason heartbreak, getting better and ignoring the condescending chuckles from people who believe he’ll never come through when it matters most.

Gradually, Harden has lifted himself to a level that absolutely no one who saw him when he was balling at Arizona State could have imagined.

Much like Steph in 2016, he’s now reached an offensive summit that very few players have ever seen. Like Steph, he’s found a way to extend his range further than anyone else in history. He routinely cashes ludicrous shots, and his game-winner to beat the Warriors on Thursday night is just one example. It was preposterous. But it wasn’t even surprising anymore.

Imagine what James Naismith would say if he could see this dude playing his game like this. Could he ever have conceived the sport evolving in this way?

Could he ever have pictured a man with a full beard so casually sauntering around the court, downing the most difficult shots with subconscious ease?

Sure, Harden used to give minimal effort on defense and was known for flopping and wilting in big games. But that guy is gone. He’s evolved, improved, and become arguably the biggest difference-maker in the NBA, for a team that should give the Warriors everything they can handle once again come playoff time.

Harden has almost single-handedly lifted the Rockets back into contention in the crazy West. Houston has won 10 of 11.

After Thursday night, he may have won some more lifelong fans, as well.

It wasn’t easy to change his game, or his reputation. 

But nothing about James Harden’s game is easy. Except, finally after all of these years, watching it.

Also see (from 2017):

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

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