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James Harden Has Great Chemistry With the Blazers

Too bad for Portland. Plus, another visit to Wiggins World.

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best players in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.

King of the Court: James Harden

The one critique of James Harden
Is: He ain’t gonna be guardin’
He stacks points and assists
And cons all the refs
But it’s good that Pat Beverley’s back startin’

Which is sad for Tyler Ennis
Whose ride on the bench recommences
But it’s Harden that’s King
26, 12, and 14
Who cares that he’s never defendin’
Edward Lear

In a young season brimming with more unsustainable stat lines than late-period capitalism, James Harden and Mike D’Antoni have emerged as the most iconic duo since Ben Franklin and Poor Richard Saunders. On Thursday night, Harden dragged Blazers defenders out behind the barn and beat their ass with the entire farm, scoring 26 points and adding 14 assists and 12 rebounds in a 126–109 Houston victory. We think of chemistry as something that occurs in a closed system between teammates and coaches. Harden, D’Antoni, and the Blazers proved that antagonists can have chemistry too.

Harden is a bizarro superstar. He’s a good-not-great shooter; a solid-not-special athlete. His right hand exists to make defenders forget he’s left-handed. He’s great at slowing down instead of speeding up. And he ignores defense with an apathy bordering on German philosophy. Harden’s whole game is two degrees west of familiar and that’s what makes him so effective. In D’Antoni, Harden has the priest willing to absolve him of all guilt.

As the primary ball handler in D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds spread offense, Harden is scoring 1.02 points per possession, per Synergy. That’s really good. He’s leading the league in assist rate (59.2) and his usage rate is just north of 30 percent. Add those two rates together, and the number of plays that James doesn’t impact while on the court shrinks to the theoretical.

The Blazers were uniquely equipped to help Harden get his freak on. Portland is one of the worst teams in the league at defending the ball handler on the pick-and-roll, giving up baskets at a nearly point-per-possession clip, per Synergy. C.J. McCollum and Dame Lillard aren’t stoppers. Evan Turner is shooting 36.6 percent, defends up like he’s swimming against a riptide, and is a cumulative minus-129 (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) on the season. Evan … EVAN … YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE.

You might as well have put a lit cigarette to a gas-soaked pile of newspapers. Against Portland’s slow-to-react defense, Harden drilled 3s, worked his typical free throw line arbitrage, and hit teammates with passes so seductive they were practically bribes (Clint Capela, call your accountant). King James II reigns supreme (for tonight).

Runner-up: Andrew Wiggins

While a KAT has been hogging the pub
Andrew Wiggins’s been splashing the tub
35 and 10
Plus he’s Canadian
If America sinks, he’ll head up

TNT thought Towns vs. Embiid
Would make the Sixers OK for TV
Now my eyes are red
Joel Hans shit the bed
And finished a minus-19

Imagine Kobe, but polite. That’s Andrew Wiggins: the compassionate conservative of the ancient art of ball-hogging. Andrew’s handles, once a detriment, have looked tight enough, and his 3-point shooting, once a question mark, has become a double-exclamation point. Over the Wolves’ rocky first 11 games of the season, Wiggins has scored more than 20 points nine times, and had four or more assists three times. I mentioned unsustainability earlier (shouts to DeMar DeRozan averaging 33 points per game without any semblance of a 3-point shot in the year of our lord 2016). Wiggins’s much-improved deep shooting is pulling in peak Ponzi scheme returns. At this particularly interesting point in world history, everyone’s favorite Canadian NBA player (non-Kardashian edition) is shooting 53.5 percent from 3-point land. You’ll recall Wiggins came into this season as a 30 percent career deep shooter. In other words, this cannot continue. Whatever. He’s averaging 32 points per game over his past five. Keep it rolling.

Against the Philly Process Trusters, roll on it did. Wiggins went to the well, converted 3-of-6 from 3, and poured buckets of wetness on the Sixers. Tough night for Brett Brown’s crew, who got tattooed by a point for every hour in the day and lost 110–86. The Sixers have a lot of problems, all of which are reverberations of The Process — a wackadoo roster heavy on large humans; the worst offense in the league; a net rating five points south of sewer crocodile; a debilitating case of acute Stauskas-itis. Thursday night, the Sixers’ travails were best summarized by the fact that Ersan Ilyasova was their best player on the floor instead of Joel Embiid’s dream-shaking ass.