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2016-2017 Player Preview: James Harden can win MVP

Feb 25, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts to hitting a shot during the fourth quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Harden scored 46 points as the Rockets won the game 119-105. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 25, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts to hitting a shot during the fourth quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Harden scored 46 points as the Rockets won the game 119-105. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
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Feb 25, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts to hitting a shot during the fourth quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Harden scored 46 points as the Rockets won the game 119-105. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Space City Scoop continues its Player Preview series with James Harden. Will the Beard be able to bring the Rockets back to relevance?

In the fall of 2012, James Harden, along with three D-League caliber players, came to the Houston Rockets in what turned out to be one of the most infamous trades in recent memory. The Oklahoma City Thunder, in turn, received Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin, who both fizzled out in OKC, and three future draft picks. Of those picks, the only player who has turned out to be productive is big man Steven Adams.

As soon as he arrived in Houston, James Harden began turning the franchise aro

Apr 24, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dunks against the Golden State Warriors in the second quarter in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

und. The Rockets had not made the playoffs in three straight years before the Harden era, and now have played postseason basketball in four consecutive seasons. Throughout his time so far in Houston, Harden has improved every year in almost every aspect of his game.

The same cannot be said of his team. Last season was by far the most disappointing one for Red Nation since the Beard’s arrival. One year removed from a trip to the Conference Finals, the Rockets struggled to find consistency all season long. The rift between Harden and Dwight Howard had previously been contained beneath the surface, but ended up coming to the forefront when GM Daryl Morey openly shopped D12 around to other teams before the trade deadline in February.

In addition to his struggles to get along with Howard, Harden fell off defensively last season. After posting the best defensive stats of his career in 2014-2015, the Beard showed little effort on that end of the floor, finishing the year with a -0.4 Defensive Box Plus/Minus (basically, he made his team worse on defense when he was on the court).

After an eventful summer, Harden is ready and willing to put the past behind him and once again head up a relevant Rockets team. Lots has changed in Houston since this time last year, but it could be all for the best.

Next: Accomplishments

Apr 18, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after the Rockets made a three point basket against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter in game two of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The list of James Harden’s 2015-2016 accomplishments should be much longer than it is.

The Beard posted a ridiculous stat line in 2015-2016 despite the Rockets struggling all season. In fact, the only other players ever to average as many points, rebounds, and assists as Harden did last year are LeBron James and Oscar Robertson.

Feb 25, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket on Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Harden scored 46 points as the Rockets won the game 119-105. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Considering his video game-like numbers, one would expect Harden to have gotten more recognition from pundits. However, he was mysteriously snubbed from making any of the All-NBA teams. Experts point to his defense (or lack thereof) as the reason for being left out. That, in my opinion, is not a very good argument to begin with, but is made even less plausible by the fact that he was beaten out by Damian Lillard. While Harden posted better offensive stats than any person on the All-NBA teams, even his defense was statistically better than Lillard’s.

Houston fans were unhappy about Harden’s omission and Kevin Durant lent legitimacy to their complaints by publicly stating that it was a “sin to even think about not putting a guy like that on the All-NBA team.”

Harden still accomplished much last season, though. Below are listed out, in no particular order, the accolades that the Beard has racked up in the past year or so.

2015-2016 Accomplishments

*29.0 Points (career high)

*6.1 Rebounds (career high)

*7.5 Assists (career high)

2376 total points (career high and led NBA)

2016 All-Star game selection

2016 Three-Point Contest participant

Western Conference Player of the Week – November 9, 2015

Began $200 million Adidas shoe contract – October 2015

Signed four-year, $118 million contract extension – July 2016

*all per game totals

Next: Strengths

Oct 4, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after a play during the second quarter against the New York Knicks at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden is the best offensive player in the league.

His defense is another story, but there isn’t a player in the NBA who can shut James Harden down. When it comes to his strengths, there are too many to list when it comes to scoring the basketball. I’ll discuss the three that seem most prevalent, but there really isn’t much of a limit to Harden’s offensive arsenal.

Drawing contact/free throw shooting

While some criticize the strategy of seeking contact to get to the line, there’s no denying that Harden’s game is effective. He led the league in free throw attempts by a wide margin, and made over 85% of those shots. Of his league-best 2376 points scored last season, 720 of them came from the charity stripe. Beard haters like to claim that he gets to the line simply due to excessive flopping, the truth is that Harden has never been fined for flopping since the NBA made that a possibility in 2012. He’s just crafty and has a knack for tricking defenders into fouling him over and over.

Play Making

There aren’t many shooting guards who can create for others like Harden can. He’ll be playing point guard this year, but the Beard did more than his fair share of creating for teammates last season at the 2 position. His 7.5 assists per game last season was sixth best in the league and best for his position. It’s also worth mentioning that he led the league in dimes during the preseason this year. Those games don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, but it looks like Harden will have no trouble adjusting to playing point guard for Mike D’Antoni. Don’t be surprised if he averages a double-double in points and assists.

Durability

For a player so well versed, durability may not seem like that important of a trait. However, it cannot be ignored that Harden has not missed more than nine games since coming to Houston. He’s led the league in minutes for the past two years and has carried a heavier load than anyone else in the process. The Rockets can count on Harden for heavy minutes on a nightly basis, and his consistency is one of the many reasons he’s so valuable to the team.

Next: Needs Improvement

Mar 2, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) drives against Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the second half at Toyota Center. The Rockets won 100-95. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden, for all his strengths, is far from a perfect player.

The chances of James Harden winning MVP are realistic if not likely in my opinion. However, it will end up depending on how successful he is at masking his few weaknesses. Having more options on offense and new motivation on defense should help, but it’ll take work on the Bearded end as well.

Defense

It’s not that that Harden is incapable of defending on a high level; it’s that he won’t at times. His tendency to take plays off on defense made him one of the most ridiculed players in the league last year. It went as far as getting him named Shaqtin’ a Fool MVP. With defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik on the coaching staff and with the myriad of insulting videos fresh on his mind, Harden has all he needs to turn the ship around for himself and his team on that end of the floor.

Turnovers

James Harden has now led the league in turnovers per game for the second straight year, setting an NBA record for most in a single season in the most recent campaign. Obviously, this is an issue that needs to be addressed, but it’s almost forgivable. The Beard led the league in minutes played, tied for first in games played, and was third in usage percentage. With all of that considered, it’s hard to harp too much on the number of cough-ups. He did, however, have a bad habit of holding onto the ball for too long which led to too many forced passes and shots. This year, D’Antoni plans on changing all that. His Seven Seconds or Less offense, when executed well, should be efficient and low on turnovers. For the Rockets’ sake, let’s hope Harden runs it to its full potential.

Next: 2016-2017 Outlook

Oct 15, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) cheers for this team as the take on the Memphis Grizzlies during the second half at the Toyota Center. The Grizzlies defeat the Rockets 134-125. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: James Harden will be one of the leading candidates for MVP in 2016-2017.

For the first time since becoming a Rocket, James Harden has all the pieces necessary to maximize his potential. After a dramatic offseason, the Rockets boast a roster full of three point sharpshooters, pick-and-roll style big men, and a coach who was seemingly built for Harden’s unique play style. If things go as they should, the Beard could have the best season of his career. He could even realistically have one of the best individual seasons in the history of the game.

More from Space City Scoop

Success isn’t just dependent on personal accolades though. For Harden to get the recognition that he deserves, Houston will have to return to relevance. Ryan Anderson and company will get more open shots than they’re used to, but they’ll have to capitalize. Clint Capela, Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley will have to carry their load and more on defense.

If those things happen, Houston will be a very good basketball team and James Harden will once again be one of the most feared and revered players in the sport. It’s all set to go well, but the Beard must set the tone.

I have what may be too much confidence, but I predict the Rockets to win 50+ games and for James Harden to be the MVP. I don’t know if a winning a title is within the realm of possibility this year, but the future is bright in Houston with the Beard at the helm.

Next: 2016-2017 Player Preview: Nene Hilario

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The NBA season is underway, so keep up with Space City Scoop for constant updates as the Rockets try to go back to being one of the Western Conference’s top teams.

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