The Rocket’s season opener was last night, a road game against the conference rival Blazers. Houston suffered through a tumultuous offseason during which they signed an up and coming coach in Stephen Silas, traded their star point guard Russell Westbrook and took a major gamble on a pair of former Kentucky teammates (John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) coming off injuries.
More important than all of this though was James Harden, the most beloved Rocket since Hakeem Olajuwon, demanding out. The franchise looked to be coming apart at the seams, and Houston’s star was at the center of it all. When in the midst of all the trade rumors and speculation about locker room tension it was announced that the Rockets would be reduced to nine men against Portland due to COVID protocols, no one could be blamed for thinking that Houston was about to get run over. James Harden, however, had other plans.
In an absolutely herculean effort, Harden carried the undermanned Rockets into overtime against Portland, where they narrowly fell 128-126. CJ McCollum was the hero for the Blazers, dropping 44 points, eight assists and without a single turnover to his name. To cap off the night, he hit the dagger with six seconds remaining to seal the win. His final game score (an advanced metric used by Basketball Reference to quantify a player’s total contributions over the course of a game) was 36.5, the second-highest total of his career. By all accounts, McCollum had a career night, one to be remembered for the rest of his life.
Harden matched McCollum point for point and with better efficiency to go along with 17 assists. His final game score, 42.7, a total which would be McCollum’s career-high by a wide margin. For Harden, it was only the 17th best game of his career. If Harden had accrued McCollum’s game score of 36.5, it wouldn’t have even cracked his top 50. A career night by most players is just another game for Harden, and a career night by Harden is simply an unimaginable stat line for almost anyone else. The Beard, however, just makes that kind of stuff seem normal.
Harden has time and time again made the spectacular seem routine. His 36 points per game in 2017-2018 was the highest mark of the past 33 years, a higher scoring average than the career highs of Dennis Rodman, Wes Unseld and John Stockton, all NBA hall of famers. At the age of 30, Harden is already one of just seven players to have won three scoring titles in the shot clock era, and one of four to have won three consecutively. It just goes to show that dropping 44 points is little more than just another night at the office for him.
All this to say, James Harden is one of the few assets in the league that can be reasonably defined as practically untradable. While teams such as the Nets, Sixers, and Heat may scrounge together packages made up of lesser players and a host of draft picks, it will never be conceivably enough unless another superstar is included. As he proved last night, Harden can take even the most rag-tag group of players off the end of the bench and compete with any team, something that can be said of only a select handful of the sports finest players. In recent months Harden has caught deserving flak for his off-the-court actions, but those actions should not cloud his monumental achievements on the basketball court. What should have been clear to the Rockets front office this offseason should be abundantly so now, James Harden belongs in Houston, no matter what.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com
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