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.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

NBA wheeling and dealing dominated the first half of July, now it's baseball's turn with the one and now only trade deadline looming the 31st.

I've steadfastly been saying the Astros are extreeeemely likely to win the American League West and that their real race is for homefield advantage in the playoffs, with the Twins and Yankees in the American League and maybe the Dodgers for World Series homefield edge. Catching the Dodgers looks unlikely. The Astros have a better team than the Twins, and an easier remaining schedule in trying to catch the Yankees.

For at least a few days though take the Oakland A's seriously. If a team scores about as many runs as yours does, and allows about as many as yours does, that team is basically about as good as yours is. Looking at the rosters I'm not sure how it's the case but that basically is Oakland this season. Since a 19-25 start, the A's have ripped off a 36-17 stretch to enter the weekend within five and a half games of the Astros. They've kept rolling since a month ago losing their best starting pitcher (Frankie Montas) to an 80 game performance enhancing drug suspension. The Astros and A's have 11 head-to-head games left, the first three coming at Minute Maid Park Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

The Astros can win the World Series with the club they have now, especially once Carlos Correa rejoins the lineup. They could also get bounced in the Division Series. The addition of a starting pitcher has clearly grown in need. Who is selling and what prices are the questions. The Jays' Marcus Stroman? The Tigers' Matthew Boyd? The Marlins' Caleb Smith? The Mets are on the fringe of the Wild Card picture, would they auction Noah Syndergaard? The Giants have surged into the mass of mediocrity that is the NL Wild Card pic, that would seem to make them trading Madison Bumgarner less likely. It's not as if the Astros would be the lone bidder on any of these guys.

A big move

I was off last week when news surfaced of the Russell Westbrook to the Rockets/Chris Paul and draft picks to the Thunder blockbuster trade. With it becoming official this week, some thoughts. Of course the Rockets wanted to move the three years, 124 million dollars left on Paul's contract. Of course there was concern over lingering problems between Harden and Paul. Maybe they'd have worked through it, maybe not. Of course taking on an additional year and 47 million more guaranteed dollars entails risk. But right now Westbrook is clearly the better and more durable player. It will be fascinating to see how well (or not well) Westbrook and James Harden mesh. What they did together seven years ago (with Kevin Durant too!) when Harden was a 22 year old sixth man isn't particularly relevant now. As he did with Harden and Paul, Mike D'Antoni will stagger their minutes to have at least one on the floor at nearly all times. Yeah, well, how are things handled down the stretch of close games? Harden is the man, Westbrook is a lousy spot up shooter. So is the ball in Westbrook's hands with Harden spotting up? Hard to see a steady diet of that. When off the ball both guys generally play as statues. That needs to change.

Westbrook may be the most explosive inch for inch player we've ever seen. Absolutely Jordanesque-not as a player, but for sheer stunning athleticism Westbrook has been amazing to watch. He brings a one man transition game ability the Rockets haven't had in ages. The consistent force with which he plays is captivating, even when he lapses into out of control Russell mode. There has to be concern that slippage in his game began last season during which Westbrook turned 30. However it was a season in which he was still third team All-NBA.

While averaging a triple-double for a third consecutive season, Westbrook's shooting numbers were poor. His free throw shooting tumbled to an awful 66 percent. His mid-range make percentage was not good. Westbrook is literally one of the worst three point shooters in the 40 season NBA history of the shot. His 30.8% career number is woeful, and in four of the last five seasons Westbrook hasn't hit 30%. The only player to take within a 1000 3s of the 2995 Westbrook has jacked up, and make a feebler percentage of them: Charles Barkley. Westbrook has played 11 NBA seasons and not hit the league average percentage from three in any of them. The notion that he's suddenly going to become a marksman for the Rockets is silly. The idea that Westbrook will get better look threes? Come on. Defenses have loved Westbrook shooting threes for years.

In the end, I like the trade for the NOW of it. The Rockets have a title contending upside, and an it could crater downside. They could wind up forfeiting lottery picks (top four protected) in 2024 when Harden is ready to turn 34 and Westbrook approaching 36, and again in 2026. While Daryl Morey has probably gotten too loose with discarding first round picks (they haven't made one since 2015), are you really going to be hung up on the risks of five and seven years from now?

Buzzer beaters

1. Kyle Tucker should not be untouchable for a pitcher the Astros would control beyond this season. 2. By the advanced WAR (win above replacement) metric the Rangers have the two best AL pitchers this season. The Astros face Mike Minor Friday night and Lance Lynn Sunday. Justin Verlander ranks third as he starts opposite Minor 3. Best sports Halls of Fame to visit: Bronze-hockey, Toronto Silver-pro football, Canton Gold-baseball, Cooperstown

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