The Prodigious Beard: A Closer Look at James Harden's Historic Run

A look at the historic numbers for James Harden during a recent stretch which has led to much-needed wins for the Houston Rockets and has inserted Harden atop the MVP conversation.

The Houston Rockets have had a lot of drama this season from punches to the face, to suspensions, to injuries, to future Hall of Famers not fitting in, to contract disputes. To say that this season has been a struggle would be an understatement. Yet despite these many inconsistencies for the Rockets, there has been one constant, and that has been the level of play for the reigning league MVP, James Harden.

When looking at the MVP race this season, players like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry are among the first whom people make a case for as each player has made an impact for their respective teams. These players are among the best in the league and deserve to be candidates for the MVP award. However, in the shadows of a slow start for Houston, James Harden has put up a historic season which has been even better than his MVP campaign a year ago. Harden has been on a tear as he has willed the Rockets back towards relevancy in the Western Conference.

By The Numbers

The 2017-18 season was a season of career highs for James Harden. He averaged 30.4 points per game while having his highest effective field goal percentage as a Rocket at 54.1% and posting a +7.3 for Houston when on the floor, which was the highest of his career. Harden did all this while playing the fewest amount of minutes per game as a member of the Rockets, averaging 35.4 minutes per game.

43 games into the 2018-19 season, Harden is averaging a new career high in points (35.7 points a game) and is currently ahead of his effective field goal percentage from last season (54.5). Harden has also posted career highs on the defensive side of the ball. Outside of his highlight where he played "no-look defense" on Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan, James Harden is averaging two steals per game, which is not only a career high for Harden but is also good for fifth in the entire league. Of course, this stat does not mean that Harden is all of a sudden a lock-down defender, the increase in steals is more of a hustle stat highlighting his level of engagement on the defensive side of the ball, which has been a huge criticism in the past. The Rockets have also been very confident assigning Harden to guard opposing big men, especially since the injury to Clint Capela, as he has demonstrated that he is more than capable of holding his own against them.

As for the complaints about Harden getting to the free throw line too much, he is averaging 11.6 attempts a game, which is only 1.7 more than Joel Embiid who is second in the league in attempts. Most fouls being called in favor of Harden are legitimate. When defenders touch Harden's arm while he is shooting, they are fouls. A defender landing underneath his feet on a shot is a foul (just ask Kawhi why it should be enforced strictly). A defender swiping at the ball and hitting Harden's arm while he drives is a foul! James Harden's game revolves around being able to drive to the basket, and it is why he has found much success with the step-back three because defenders are wary of his ability to get past them. Now, on occasion, Harden does embellish contact, but that is the NBA. Every single player in the league yells and yanks their head back as they drive through the paint; it is not something that is only unique to James Harden.

Houston's Savior

Prior to James Harden's offensive explosion, the Rockets were hovering around .500 the entire season. Houston seemed to be on the verge of complete disaster after blowing an eight-point lead in the final two minutes in a game against the Dallas Mavericks in early December which extended a multi-game losing streak. After the game, the Rockets sat in 14th place in the Western Conference, and their upcoming opponents were against high-quality teams.

However, in that 15 game stretch which included games against the Trailblazers, Lakers, Thunder, Celtics, Warriors, and Nuggets, Harden averaged 39.4 points a game, had multiple triple-doubles, multiple 50 point games, and a buzzer beater against the reigning champions.

Since December 13th, James Harden has scored at least 30 points in every game, and the streak has extended to 20 straight consecutive games which has only ever been done by one other player in NBA/ABA history, Wilt Chamberlain, who did it on three separate occasions. His longest streak was 65 straight games with at least 30 points!

With Chris Paul and Eric Gordon out for the majority of this stretch, Harden has needed to go on this historic run just so that the Rockets can remain in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race. Regardless of being one of the most polarizing players in the NBA today, Harden is an elite player and deserves to have his name recognized as one of the best. Though it is still before the All-Star break, what James Harden has done is incredible and it is difficult to see any other player surpassing him for the award.

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