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The Beard Is More Fearsome

James Harden’s encore to an MVP-worthy season may be even better—and he may hit an even higher level the more he plays with Chris Paul

James Harden and Chris Paul Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After overpowering the Nets on Monday, James Harden was asked how the Rockets have managed to lose only one game in November, with one more to play. “I don’t know,” Harden said. He paused for a moment, gave a quick side-eye, then continued: “Keep doing it.” Interview over.

Let’s translate what Harden was trying to say: We have the second-ranked offense, seventh-ranked defense, Chris Paul runs our second unit, and I’m the MVP.

The Harden Show is the best program on television. The Beard steps back on defenders, drains contested 3s, whips passes for corner 3s, tosses lob dunks, and make it all look so easy. “Last year, I thought he was unbelievable,” D’Antoni said recently. “I don’t know what he is this year. He’s gone up another level.”

Harden’s scoring efficiency is at its highest since he was the third wheel in Oklahoma City. He’s averaging 31.7 points on a 56.3 effective field goal percentage. The only players to average 30 with an eFG that high are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adrian Dantley, Karl Malone, and Stephen Curry. His season is just 20 games old, but Harden has already gone Super Saiyan with profane moves like this:

Harden for sure looks like he’s going to turn the corner and penetrate the paint. The fact he’s able to seamlessly step back and launch a 3 that barely tickles the net is special. The 28-year-old has hit 21 of his 38 step-back 3s so far this season and an equally amazing 13 of 29 pull-ups. Harden said recently that hitting tough, contested jumpers was a focus area for him this summer. The work he put in is apparent with how fluidly he’s moving on the perimeter.

Harden is launching 11.1 3s per game and hitting them at a 40.7 percent clip, but his game is obviously about more than jumpers. He’s one of the NBA’s leaders in dancing into the paint, scoring, and drawing fouls. He lost about 12 pounds this summer and looks even more dynamic attacking the basket.

Here’s Harden unleashing a Shammgod dribble move straight into a Eurostep. He uses his hypnotic handle to get into the lane, and when he does, he’s made sure to spread the ball around. Harden has racked up 9.8 assists per game in D’Antoni’s system, second in the NBA behind only CP3.

On Tuesday, Stephen A. Smith called Harden the “heir apparent” to Kobe Bryant. Which is odd — Kobe didn’t pass the ball, and he didn’t come close to scoring at Harden’s level of efficiency. Harden is his own kind of special, and that’s what makes him the perfect player to fuel Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy team. The Rockets have shot an all-time high rate of 3s, with the league’s second-best record (16–4) and net rating (10.5). And yet it feels like they’re not even playing at their peak. Paul has played only six games. Clint Capela seems to be getting better and better. D’Antoni is still toying with rotations to best integrate newcomers Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker with returnees Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Houston is off to an excellent start, but it can get even better.

Paul has 65 assists and only seven turnovers so far this season, with only eight of the assists going to Harden. That’s because Paul has played only 108 of his 167 minutes alongside Harden. D’Antoni is still figuring out ways to maximize his two stars when they share the floor. When they’re alone, it’s easy: Harden performs an elevated version of what he did last season; then when he’s off, Paul slides into that featured role. D’Antoni has substituted Paul out of the game about midway through the first and third quarters. Then, after about five minutes of Harden Ball, Paul spells Harden until halfway through the second and fourth quarters. Paul takes a quick break before they close each half together. It’s a perfect way to stagger minutes. As a result, a bench defense is forced to stop one of the greatest point guards of the century and contend with a total try-hard on defense. All told, the Rockets are outscoring teams by 41.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul is on the floor without Harden. D’Antoni meant it when he said the Rockets would get 48 minutes of Hall of Fame point guard play.

The goal now is developing chemistry and finding the best plays, and D’Antoni has kept his superstar point guards in games in which the Rockets have big leads to establish more on-court rapport. The red meat of Houston’s offense is the pick-and-roll: 37 percent of their possessions come off PNR, which is the league’s fifth-highest frequency, per Synergy. But we’ve already seen some hints of what they could become when they run different types of sets.

Teams get open shots when both the ball and bodies move. A handoff from Paul to Harden blends straight into a double screen with Capela screening Paul’s man, and Paul screening Harden’s. This puts the defense on its heels, and it results in a totally open 3 for Paul. Better defenses will be prepared to defend plays like this, but having two high-IQ playmakers with the ability to execute so many secondary options that come from this look has to be exciting for D’Antoni and the coaching staff. Even if Paul gets covered, he’s attacking a rotating defense, which can lead to open shots for spot-up shooters or another pass back to Harden.

Houston also runs compelling stuff when Harden isn’t even on the floor. Here’s a look that the Rockets run a bunch, with Anderson or another forward setting a down screen for Harden or Gordon.

Again, there are options here. Harden or Gordon can receive the ball and launch a 3, but they don’t always receive it. This time, Anderson gets the ball, so CP3 sprints to the corner. Paul could take a 3, but since the defense is rotating, he drives. That’s where Houston will destroy you. Gordon drives to the bucket and scores. Harden would be even more lethal in this scenario.

D’Antoni’s offenses don’t have to be so complex, though. Seven Seconds or Less is still effective. Here, Tarik Black sets a screen for Harden even before Paul crosses half court.

The timing is slightly delayed in this next clip, but it flips the roles of Harden and Paul.

Paul misses the 3, but shooting off screens is something that’s still new to him after years of dominating the ball. Over his last four seasons in Los Angeles, Paul hit 45 percent of his 1.2 catch-and-shoot 3s per game (including the playoffs). If CP3 can start draining 3s off screens even close to the level Harden and Gordon can, it makes the offense that much more dynamic. For the time being, it’s been fun watching Paul break out of a lifelong habit of living in the midrange. Over 25 percent of Paul’s shots came from deep midrange in each season of his career, per Cleaning the Glass; this season, that’s dwindled to only 9 percent. He’s taking more 3s than ever now that he’s playing alongside a teammate who can feed him those shots.

Harden will benefit from Paul in the same way. His usage rate dropped from 34.1 percent last season to … oh, wait, no; it actually went up. Harden’s usage has risen to 36 percent, even with Paul in the fold. A big part of that is a result of Paul missing 14 games. But even when Paul is on the court, Harden’s usage is at 32.4, per As impressive as Harden’s season has been, Houston needs to think about toning it down a wee bit more so that he’s able to sustain this heroic play in the big-boy matchups during the regular season and the postseason.

The true tests will come in December, when Houston faces San Antonio and Oklahoma City. In the playoffs last season, Harden was limited when the Spurs and Thunder placed larger, longer defenders on him, went over screens, and baited Harden into a retreating rim protector with help defenders swarming. Now Harden will have some help of his own.

Defenses may switch screens against pick-and-rolls (like Denver does against Paul), forcing the Rockets into isolations. But now the Rockets won’t just lean on Harden. They have Paul. Here, Paul draws Mason Plumlee on a switch. They play a little shake-and-bake until Harden is sprung for an open 3. The Rockets haven’t had to do a lot of this, because their wins have been so lopsided. But that time will come.

Until then, the season is an ongoing process for the Rockets. Challenges will come along the way. The key is to keep building and adding more layers on top of a foundation that Harden’s MVP-level performances have laid.