James Harden made his MVP case in his return to Houston. There was a mix of cheers and boos from the few thousand fans in the arena, as well as the standard tribute video, but the story of Brooklyn’s 132-114 victory was Harden’s play on the court. He controlled the tempo of the game, dissected the defense, and made life easy for his teammates. It’s what he has been doing over the past month without Kevin Durant, who has missed time because of COVID protocols and a strained hamstring.
The Nets are 8-1 in this latest stretch without Durant, with road victories over three of the top four teams (the Lakers, Clippers, and Suns) in the West. Harden has been incredible in Brooklyn, averaging 25.5 points on 49.7 percent shooting, 11.4 assists, and 8.7 rebounds per game. He embraced a role as a pass-first point guard when he came to Brooklyn, but can still rack up as many points as his team needs. Now he’s doing it more efficiently than ever.
What separates Harden from many other stars around the league is how directly his individual greatness drives team success. Harden brings the ball up the court and then creates an easy shot for himself or one of his teammates. And then he does it over and over and over again. There’s not much the defense can do to slow him down, and it’s almost impossible for the opposing offense to be as efficient. That’s why Brooklyn is winning all these games.
It all starts with how easy it is for Harden to score. He is 6-foot-5 but plays more like he’s 6-foot-8 because of his wingspan (6-foot-11) and frame (220 pounds). It’s like he has a force field around him. He’s so big and strong that most perimeter defenders just bounce off him. They are at his mercy. If they play too close to him, he gets around them in one step; if they play too far back, he launches a jumper.
The Rockets defended Harden the same way that many of their opponents did over the previous eight seasons. They sent multiple defenders at him, doubling him on the pick-and-roll and forcing the ball out of his hands. A double-team is supposed to frustrate the ball handler into making bad decisions, but that just never happens with Harden. He makes the right read and his teammates get wide-open shots out of four-on-three opportunities.
Role players become the best version of themselves next to Harden. The Nets emptied their bench to trade for him and have been cycling through players on 10-day contracts to fill out their rotation. They shouldn’t have the depth to sustain playing without one of their Big Three. But it doesn’t matter because Harden turns fringe players into mainstays.
Take Bruce Brown, for example. He’s a 2018 second-round pick who, at 6-foot-4, can’t space the floor and averaged just 6.3 points per game in his first two seasons. Harden attracts so much defensive attention that Brown has been able to find cracks in the defense and make a living at the rim with the Nets. He’s averaging 18.0 points on 67.7 percent shooting over the past six games. Most of those points start with Harden:
Nicolas Claxton was a second-round pick in 2019 who has played only 20 games in his NBA career. Even hardcore NBA fans had probably never heard of him before this week. He has instantly developed chemistry with Harden on the pick-and-roll, scoring 33 points on 14-of-17 shooting over the past two games. Claxton is a skilled and fluid 7-footer who can score off the dribble, which means that doubling Harden at the 3-point line plays right into his hands:
It’s the same story across their rotation. Harden makes life easier for shooters like Joe Harris and Landry Shamet, roll men like DeAndre Jordan, and even fellow stars like Kyrie Irving. Kyrie no longer has to worry about moving the ball and keeping everyone involved in the offense. He can hunt for baskets, take possessions off, and freelance on both ends of the floor.
That’s the benefit of playing with Harden. Like Damian Lillard and Steph Curry, he has spent the past few seasons pushing the limits of the game. All three have weaponized the 3-point line in unprecedented ways. What makes Harden special is that he combines volume 3-point shooting (7.8 attempts per game) with über-efficiency from 2-point range (56.4 percent) and elite passing (11.4 assists).
Each of those skills opens up something for his teammates. A player who shoots as many 3s as Harden creates space in the paint. One who finishes as well inside the arc creates open 3-point shots. And one with his passing ability doesn’t miss teammates when they are open. Put it all together and teams can plug in almost any combination of players next to Harden and still win.
But Harden’s most underrated skill is that he can do all that without wearing down. Harden never gets injured and rarely gets tired despite not exactly looking like Mr. Universe. In his eight full seasons in Houston, he played in 613 of a possible 646 games (94.9 percent), while averaging 37.1 minutes per game with a usage rate of 33.4. He’s a modern-day Iron Man in a league that features so much “load management.”
That might be where Harden is most valuable to his teammates. Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook could take off as much time as they needed in Houston because their costar could handle any workload without breaking a sweat (literally). Durant doesn’t need to rush back from his hamstring strain. Kyrie can take another sabbatical. Harden can pick up the slack.
Brooklyn was 14-10 when Durant sat out on February 6. There were still huge questions about their defense and chemistry. They are now headed into the All-Star break with the fourth-best record in the NBA (24-13) and sit a half-game behind Philadelphia for the no. 1 seed in the East. Harden has given them an identity and allowed everyone else to slide into roles behind him. The Nets have gone from a team that everyone wanted to see to one that no one wants to play.
It will be an uphill battle for Harden to win the MVP given the way that he left Houston. No player has ever won it after switching teams in the middle of the season. But there’s no question who’s driving the engine in Brooklyn. Harden looks like the best player on the best team in the league. They give awards for that kind of stuff.