Why 2018-2019 Might Be James Harden’s Most Impressive Season

Updated: January 18, 2019
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Last season, James Harden captured the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award by leading his Houston Rockets to a 65-win season and nearly knocking off the immortal Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. And while that was an impressive campaign from The Beard, his 2018-2019 season might be even more awe-inspiring, given the challenges he has had to face in order to keep his team near the top of the Western Conference despite losing some of the advantages he had the year before.

At the top of the list of advantages that Harden had during the 2017-2018 season that he no longer enjoys is an elite defense. The Houston Rockets were one of the best defensive teams in the NBA last year, thanks to a perimeter defense that made them difficult to penetrate against. Leading that defense last season was Trevor Ariza, known for being one of the best wing defenders in the sport throughout his career. Ariza is now playing for the turmoil-ridden Washington Wizards, taking one of the real strengths of the Rockets with him.

Without the same ability to defend on the perimeter, the Rockets have had to rely more on rim protection, as players are more easily able to get to the hoop against them. That should also be a source of confidence for the Rockets, as Clint Capela proved to be one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in the league last season. But Capela has not stepped up to that challenge.

Capela’s blocks per game average has stayed the same as it was last season, at 1.9 blocks per game. But he is playing an average of seven more minutes per contest, and getting more chances to block shots with increased penetration into the lane. Normally, those things would mean an increase in blocked shots, but that has not been the case.

Houston had the number one team in the league last season in defensive rating. This year, they are in the bottom five of the league in that department. Of course, it’s well known that Harden isn’t a standout on defense himself, and it doesn’t look like this trend is showing signs of stopping any time soon. That has meant that they haven’t had any real margin for error on offense, where the bulk of the responsibility falls on Harden.

There was also a legitimate team chemistry issue at the beginning of this season that wasn’t there last year, with the Rockets deciding to give Carmelo Anthony a chance to join the squad. As any Knicks fan would tell you, trusting Carmelo Anthony to bring you closer to a championship isn’t a great idea, but the Rockets thought they could make it work. Instead, the experiment lasted for what felt like mere moments, creating instability from the season’s opening tip.

Anthony’s greatest attribute is his ability to score the basketball, which was one of the only justifiable reasons the Rockets had for bringing him in. By casting him off so quickly, the Rockets didn’t have much of a choice but to rely more heavily on Harden, a responsibility that he has delivered on.

The Rockets have also dealt with injuries this season, with the most notable one coming to Chris Paul. Paul has played in just about half of the Rockets’ games this season and hasn’t shown that he can reliably stay on the court after being unable to dress for the final games of last season’s playoff run. As if the Carmelo situation didn’t put more responsibility on Harden, swapping out the team’s other capable ball handler with Austin Rivers heaped even more onto his plate. And despite all of that, Harden is playing at the highest possible level this season.

James Harden isn’t just leading the NBA in scoring this season, he is blowing away the rest of the field. Through Houston’s first 44 games of the season, he is averaging a league-best 35.7 points per game. Second place in the league during that same time is Anthony Davis of the Pelicans at 28.9 points per game. Harden is over seven full points per game better than the next best scorer in the league right now, despite all of the obstacles mentioned above.

Harden’s three-point shooting has been a big reason that he has been so much better than the rest of the league at scoring. He shoots 13 three-pointers per game, makes almost 5 three-pointers per game, and is shooting 37.5% from beyond the arc this season, which is the second best 3 point shooting percentage of his career.  Because of the Houston Rockets emphasis on shooting the three, his three-point shooting marksmanship and shooting percentage could eventually go up if he can keep up his elite scoring pace and hot shooting from behind the arc for the full 82 games.

And it isn’t as if Harden is getting those points by being a ball stopper either, as he is still averaging 8.5 assists per game as well. He averaged 8.5 assists per game last year, with virtually no decline in his distribution of the ball despite the team needing him to score more to remain competitive on a night-to-night basis.

Houston’s offensive rating was a league-best 115.5 last season, and isn’t far off of that this year at a third ranked 113.4. A lot of that has to do with Harden as well, as he has taken a roster that has experienced a ton of change and kept them scoring consistently.

In terms of this year’s MVP race, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Harden winning the award, given how much the Rockets would be struggling without him. And without anyone else putting up incredible numbers to this point in the season, the award could go to Harden without much drama at all.

Given how high the expectations were for the Rockets this season, it would have been easy for them to have fallen apart after their tumultuous start. But thanks to the most impressive year of James Harden’s career, they look like they will have another playoff run in them in 2019. The question now is whether or not Harden can help them get one step further than they did last year.

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