No MVP hangover

James Harden cannot be stopped

James Harden is carrying the Rockets. Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Monday night the Houston Rockets defeated the Utah Jazz in a fantastic battle, 102-97. It was their fourth straight victory, and Houston pulled themselves above the .500 waterline for just the second time this season.

The Rockets 2018-2019 campaign to date hasn't exactly lived up to it's preseason contender status billing. At times they have looked like world beaters, and at times they've looked lottery-bound. They have been injured, and they have had to deal with what looks like one of the biggest whiffs of an off-season general manager Daryl Morey has ever assembled.

Chris Paul looks aged. Eric Gordon has yet to find his shot nearly 30 games in. The Carmelo Anthony experiment failed in what felt like a little over a week, and the Rockets as a whole have become the 7th worst 3-point shooting team in the league. Yet in spite of all of the turmoil this season one constant remains.

James Harden is still really, really good.

In Monday's victory over the Jazz, Harden was good for 47 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals. It was his sixth game this season scoring 40+ points. That's good for the most 40-point games this season in the league to date.

It doesn't stop there. Last week Harden notched his second and third triple-doubles of the season, scoring 50 points and 32 in each on his way to being named the Western Conference Player of the week. In last year's MVP campaign Harden had four triple-doubles total.

With most of Harden's assist options rendered unreliable, The Beard has been forced to carry the team on his back. And while no one will ever mistake his game as pretty, he has cinched up the straps and dominated the game the way superstars in the NBA are expected to.

As of this writing James Harden is:

  • 1st in points per game (31.5)
  • 3rd in points scored (819)
  • 1st in 3-pointers made (106)
  • 2nd in free throws made (223)
  • 7th in assists (213)
  • 3rd in steals (213)
  • 1st in usage (37.4%)
  • 3rd in player efficiency rating (28.0)

The last two are the most telling. What that basically says is that the Rockets use Harden more than any team uses any other player, and in spite of that he remains one of the most efficient and effective players in the game.

See, the difference between basketball and other sports is that - because the team size is so small, and the skill set required to be great is so extensive and rare - if you have a superstar on your team, you can and should contend. There are only a handful in the league at any given time, and Houston is currently in possession of one of the best.

The Rockets head into tonight's game against the Washington Wizards seeking their fifth straight win on their quest to reclaim legitimacy within the Western Conference. While the current run is inspiring, Houston remains quite distanced from their goal of Conference Finals rematch. It will take a consistent effort like that which is currently being presented to close the gap, and Harden looks poised, ready, and willing to do just that. Hopefully the rest of the team can follow suit.

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The clock is ticking. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If he is indeed to become an ex-Astro George Springer can officially sign with his new team starting at four PM Houston time this Sunday. Michael Brantley the same. All free agents can sign contracts starting Sunday afternoon. If the die isn't cast that Springer is leaving, it certainly feels like his renewing vows with the Astros would be an upset.

The Astros will make Springer a 18.9 million dollar qualifying offer for 2021. He will of course reject that because contract offers of at least five years and over 100 million dollars likely await. Should Springer move on the Astros would then get a compensatory draft pick. Brantley won't get anything in close range of Springer's haul-to-be but still should at least get multiyear offers. The Astros should make the qualifying offer to Brantley (if they don't they forfeit any compensation for his departure). If they don't out of fear that he'd accept the one-year deal, the Astros would look lame. I don't think it comes to that. Losing Springer would be a huge blow on multiple levels, but if somehow they were to keep Brantley while getting back Yordan Alvarez at even 80 percent of his rookie performance level the Astros' lineup would look to be in decent shape.

With MLB's economic outlook shaky for 2021, it's unreasonable to say Jim Crane and his partners should give Springer whatever he wants. A six or seven year megadollar contract for a 31-year-old player with some durability questions on his resume is an iffy proposition. At the same time, the Astros have been quite profitable in recent years (before 2020), and Crane said over the summer the Astros were positioned to be "aggressive, whatever the market looks like." 13 million Josh Reddick dollars are off the books for 2021, 10 mil of Roberto Osuna is gone. After next year more than 57 mil of Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke clear.

MLB's postseason awards will be doled out over the next couple weeks but for the first time in years the Astros don't have a credible candidate for any of the big ones (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year). The Astros do have three American League Gold Glove finalists. I think Carlos Correa wins the shortstop honor. Correa had a weak regular season at the plate but his defense was stellar, plus the two guys who divvied up the last four AL SS Gold Gloves (Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons) had down seasons and aren't finalists. Quick: name the teams of fellow finalists J.P. Crawford and Niko Goodrum. Hard to see either winning over Correa. Yuli Gurriel and Kyle Tucker were also named top three at their positions. For the first time the finalist selections were driven entirely by stats and analytics.

Big week for the Rockets

With the Rockets settling on Stephen Silas as their new Head Coach, that hire coupled with the in house promotion of Rafael Stone to General Manager makes it appear as though owner Tilman Fertitta is doing more things on the cheap. The NBA economic environment is challenging and huge portions of the rest of Fertitta's portfolio are submerged in a COVID-driven bloodbath. Silas has paid his dues for a good while and most recently worked under the outstanding Rick Carlisle in Dallas. He has earned a lead chair opportunity. But with no prior head coaching experience and no bidding war for his services, Silas signs on at a much lower rate than, say, Jeff Van Gundy would have commanded. Former head coaches (and former Rockets' player rivals of the 90s) Jeff Hornacek and Nate McMillan would make for two strong Silas assistants. From their playing days if you combined Hornacek's offense and McMillan's defense into one player you'd have one of the top 20 or so greatest guards in NBA history.

Silas and Stone take the reins at a challenging time for the Rockets with their messy salary cap sheet, reduced draft capital, and one of the oldest core player groups in the league. Polite public statements aside, it's part of why Daryl Morey left. Maybe Mike D'Antoni too though that seemed more about feeling disrespected by the lack of a contract extension before this past season. D'Antoni may have overplayed his hand since he did not get fill any of the coaching vacancies elsewhere in the NBA. Only Oklahoma City remains open, and D'Antoni has gotten no run there.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. It seems sadly appropriate that the first meaningful positive in the Texans' 2020 season came in form of a COVID test result.

2. If we all commit to getting through it together, I think we can get by without a Texans' game this weekend. Remember, it's their open week, not a bye!

3. One hit wonder goodbye songs: Bronze-Terry Jacks "Seasons in the Sun" Silver-Norman Greenbaum "Spirit In The Sky" Gold-Steam "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"

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