James Harden is a man of many talents, but oftentimes, his ability gets placed in a box. He scores when he wants, but it doesn't mean that it's the only thing he can do. I'm sure that many know this, but it should be served as a reminder. You've seen the Euro-step and the all the rest, but a known facet of his game that has been consistent over the years is finally getting his due.
At the start of the NBA season, Harden's ability to play the point has been on notice. But if you sit back and think about Harden’s eccentric style of play, he’s been the “Point Beard” long before Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni made it official.
Harden’s trek to running the point guard began before he stepped in an NBA arena. His duties of playing the role date back to his days at Arizona State. Then, a beardless dynamo dissected Pac 12 defenses with his collection of offensive talent. His scoring stole the spotlight, but most of all he's a natural playmaker.
At ASU, Harden was a shooting guard, but he was clearly the team’s best distributor.
As he entered the NBA after two years in Tempe, it was tough to place him among the elite scoring shooting guards in NBA. There weren’t many quirky, herky-jerky, ball dominant guards that made the unselfish play.
Some compared him to Michael Redd but being a scoring machine, left-handed, and black made it somewhat of a lazy assessment. He game was also likened to Manu Ginobili’s. The similarities between Harden and Manu were close, but it was still off. Even then, Harden was a man who couldn’t draw an exact evaluation of his abilities. What separated him from past talented scoring guards is that he had a mind of a point guard.
Harden’s ability to dish the ball is what made his transition to Oklahoma City so smooth. Although he was held rather captive in OKC, he was far and away the team’s best playmaker. Some may argue that he sacrificed his game and for the sake of the team, but he was blossoming in a role that he was born to play.
Harden was the security blanket that kept his teammates and coaches happy while Russell Westbrook was learning the nuances of the position. In Harden’s role as the de facto point guard, he thrived.
His selfless play opened up the offense, and his decision making was first-rate. He exhibited the flair and substance of a natural. His instincts were second to none, and he set up teammates delivering accurate passes as seen in the video below.
The same attributes that allowed him to succeed in OKC translated as the go-to guy in Houston. Even before D’Antoni’s arrival, Harden never had a season where he averaged fewer than six assists per game.
What people fail to acknowledge is that Harden averaged the most assists per game in his career last season with 7.5. He accomplished that feat playing with Dwight Howard, whose post moves are mediocre, and a host of teammates who can’t generate offense on their own. In a sense, Harden was already the point guard when landed in H-Town, but now it’s a marker that’s merited.
Going from last season’s numbers, Harden averaged more assists than Steph Curry, Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Elfrid Payton, Reggie Jackson, and Deron Williams. He even averaged more assists than the two most versatile players in the NBA in Draymond Green and LeBron James.
Harden’s past success at running the show should pinpoint to why he’s having such a successful year at his “new” position. While it has brewed for almost a decade, Harden at point came into fruition under his new coach. In the Seven Seconds or Less offense, Harden is able to maximize his passing ability by feeding an array of shooters. With spacing, three-point shooting, and the use of the pick and roll, Harden is right at home in his new offense, the same offense where Steve Nash won the NBA MVP twice.
The relationship with Harden and D’Antoni could generate a professional bliss, which is something Harden must crave for due to rough relationships with earlier coaches. The two are an ideal pairing. Blending two basketball savants with notable facial hair seems like a match made in heaven. Right?
Coming to Houston was an easy choice for D’Antoni. He knew he could unleash Harden in his point guard friendly offense. Many pundits had concerns about the move not working. With Harden being one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA, it came into question how he would handle the full-time responsibilities of the position.
The duties of running the offense on a full-time basis are akin to being the conductor of a renowned symphony. It entails placing teammates in the positions of their ability and as the instrumentalist of the offense, he's obligated to getting his teammates on the right note when slip-ups occur.
Thus far, Harden is passing the point guard test with flying colors.
Through the early stages of the NBA season, Harden is continuously proving that he’s that guy and more. The left-handed, Euro-stepping crusader cooks opponents as if he’s on an episode of Chopped, but his playmaking isn’t far behind. Averaging a league-leading 12.6 assists per game is insane for anyone, but especially for someone who is averaging a shade under 30 points per game.
He operates the pick and roll in like no other. With the threat of scoring anytime he gets the ball, makes defenders pick their poison, and they are often stuck in neutral. Outside of John Stockton, Chris Paul, Mark Price and Steve Nash, the bearded marvel is next in line as the orchestrator of the old school play that is subtle but damn near impossible to stop.
As the season progresses, Harden will only get better as he gets more comfortable in his new offense. At the rate he is going, an MVP trophy may not be far behind. And if it happens, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
2016 taught us a lot. We’ve learned that anyone can become the President of the United States. And we've learned that a position change can alter one's thinking. While "new" version of Harden is impressing the masses, not much has changed for him. He's still allergic to defense, his beard is still a trademark, his crossover still trumps defenders, and he's still an MVP-caliber player.
Many struggled to see Harden as anything other than a scorer despite being one of the best passers in the league. Now that Harden has the keys to D'Antoni's offense, he'll have more opportunities to showcase his passing ability and change public opinion about his game.
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