If James Harden's performance last season entered him into the discussion for "best shooting guard" in the league, he's validated the discussion even further this season. The second-year Houston Rocket on the first year of a maximum contract extension has been a giant in "Clutch City" once again, and this time around the team is looking closer to a contender than the eighth seed it was last year.
The bearded one has slightly less responsibility with Dwight Howard now playing alongside him, but his impact is just as tangible. Harden is scoring 23.9 points on 44.6 percent shooting and dishing out 5.3 assists per night, and his unique herky-jerky style gets him to the line 8.8 times a game and puts the opposition in foul trouble in many cases. He's as difficult a player as there is in the league to defend one-on-one, but he makes it nearly impossible to defend the rest of the Rockets' three-point happy team when he's on the floor as well.
Houston averages a blistering 109.6 points per 100 possessions and holds opponents to just 101.6 points at the same rate when he's on the floor, which isn't half bad considering the Rockets are often unfairly criticized for demonstrating some porous defense. Harden has shown a tendency to demonstrate pretty severe brainfarts on occasion, but it hasn't exactly been a pandemic.
And Harden is a killer when the game is on the line. When the game's margin is five points heading into the final five minutes, otherwise known as clutch time, he's shooting 44 percent from three; and what's even more devastating for the opposition, Harden is getting to the line 32.2 times per 48 minutes of clutch time. For comparison, Kevin Durant, the league's leading free-throw shooter, gets to the line 20 times per 48 minutes of clutch time.
The shooting guard is an interesting figure in the league. His wild beard is one hell of a marketing tool and his style of play is both praised and criticized among fans of the NBA. Not shockingly, it often depends on who you're speaking with: fans of the team, or fans or the team's opposition.
From one perspective, Harden is a joy to watch. His awkward motions and stocky build belie his smooth movements and elite ball-handling skills, not to mention his sometimes shockingly explosive athleticism when climbing the ladder for loud dunks. He can score a ton of points, get hot from the three-point line and frustrate teams to no end as he leads parades to the charity stripe.
On the other hand, many view his actions as gimmicky. You'll hear the word "flop" more often with Harden than most other players in the league, and there's a little bit of something to it. He can sell a call, and it's almost as if his beard highlights his already demonstrative head motions when he's hacked. His critics also point out that he can be one of the league's worst ball-stoppers, preventing the necessary flow within an offensive system. He frustrates players and fans alike, but there's no questioning his skills as one of the premier scorers in the NBA.
There were major expectations for the Rockets this season, and while they've been a bit up and down at times, they're one of the most dangerous teams in the Western Conference. They attack the rim and bomb away from three, two areas in which Harden excels. He's a handful, and the Rockets are currently on a seven-game winning streak as we move in toward the All-Star break.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more difficult and impactful perimeter player to defend in the NBA, and because of that, Harden is an easy coaches' selection for All-Star weekend in New Orleans. And with Kobe Bryant still sidelined, he might even get the start.