Relative to every other All-NBA-level superstar entering the 2017-18 season, James Harden is best positioned to dethrone the Golden State Warriors.
One year after he roasted the league's 29 other teams with MVP-caliber numbers (29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game, with a league-high 15.0 Win Shares), on a squad that finished third in wins and net rating—with the NBA's second-best offense—Harden's Houston Rockets are now more talented, balanced, deep, and versatile.
"No," Harden shakes off my question about whether this year's roster is thin in any one area. "I think our front office has done a great job. Daryl Morey, Tad Brown, our coaching staff have done a great job filling every position and making sure that we have backups for backups at each and every position."
On paper, this Houston team is unlike anything the seemingly unbeatable Warriors faced on their way to winning the title last season. They're explosive on offense and flexible on defense, with a skilled frontcourt and endless lineup combinations that should have success on both sides of the ball. Throw in the fact that LeBron James will be 33 next spring, and the questions surrounding how his Cleveland Cavaliers will replace Kyrie Irving's dazzling blitzkrieg, and a path is open for Harden's brilliance to emerge as the most extensive minefield Golden State must cross to earn its third Finals win in four years.
Harden's ascendance—which coincided with the largest contract extension in NBA history, the release of a signature shoe, and placement on the cover of EA Sports' NBA Live 18—is no recent phenomenon. The 28-year-old has been cooking for the past three seasons. Houston's concrete franchise pillar is just about peerless when you consider his dependability, efficiency, and ability to make those around him better. Since 2015, nobody has topped his success as a one-man offensive machine; only LeBron comes close.
Harden's most accomplished teammate during this time had been Dwight Howard, whose streak of eight straight All-Star Games ended that year and who left for Atlanta last season after battling a number of injuries. Harden never had a Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, or Steph Curry. No LaMarcus Aldridge or Gregg Popovich. No Russell Westbrook or Paul George. No Blake Griffin or Chris Paul. No Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. For Houston, Harden has been not only the straw that stirs the drink but also the ice cubes, the glass, and the juice.
Harden missed two regular-season games in the last three years, and in that time led the entire NBA in total points, minutes, free-throw attempts, and makes. Across that span, he logged 1,057 more minutes than LeBron, 1,102 more minutes than Curry, and 1,199 more minutes than Westbrook (who was the only player in basketball with a higher usage rate), all while lifting a lesser supporting cast with a True Shooting percentage above 60.0.
In short, this was one of the most impressive solo acts in basketball history, and it's a small crime that he emerged from it without a single Most Valuable Player award. "I've just started," Harden told VICE Sports. "I don't have time to look back. I'm not retiring, so I'm not looking back yet."
Now he has Paul—the premier point guard of his generation, coming off the most impressive scoring season of his Hall of Fame career—as a teammate. At 32, Paul will not be the best or most integral piece on his own team for maybe the first time in his entire life, but his presence will singlehandedly open up more avenues for Harden to have a positive impact on the game. It's been said before, but with less pressure to do everything all the time, Harden will be more effective. His efficiency will rise, his turnovers will evaporate, and his fatigue will lessen.
"I think Chris is gonna help me out," Harden said. "I can do more off the ball and be more effective that way: defensively, cutting, catch-and-shoots."
The Rockets should mow teams down during the regular season. Already a brick of dynamite, they rounded out a few weaknesses from last year's team by signing P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Tarik Black; bringing back Nene; and holding on to Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two identity-stabilizing role players who were born to thrive in Mike D'Antoni's system. All are suited to complement the Rockets' star power or improve their adaptability on the defensive end—or both.
Far more critical than Houston's 82-game tuneup will be how the team performs in the playoffs, particularly in a necessary showdown against the defending champions. "They won two out of three and they've been in the Finals three years in a row, so I think every team looks forward to that matchup and wanting to beat them," Harden said.
In four games against the Warriors last year, Harden made only 14.7 percent of his threes, his lowest mark from deep against any one opponent. His scoring average plummeted to 21.8 points per game, too.
This is mostly thanks to a small sample size and Golden State's barbed-wire defense—all those long-armed, highly intelligent roadblocks who can neutralize Houston's high pick-and-roll attack and contest just about every off-the-bounce shot Harden hoists at the rim. The poor outside shooting can also be explained by how Golden State's offense pressures opponents into feeling like grand slams are the only option on every possession.
Harden forced difficult pull-up threes in transition and launched more step backs than he normally would. He felt the need to attack early and often, sniffing out ostensible holes in the Warriors' armor with shots that were rushed and forced.
This season, surrounded by more competent defenders and someone like Paul, who can create his own shot and dictate offense as cleverly as anybody ever has, Harden will be able to unleash his most dangerous self when it matters most. He'll pick and choose how he wants to attack, with more spot-up attempts, (relatively) open looks, and opportunities to slice by close-out defenders.
With space, time, and complementary personnel who can take advantage of the attention he draws, Harden is in the best situation of his career—similar to what Curry has enjoyed with Golden State since his meteoric rise. Even though they have yet to take the floor, in our interview he referred to this year's team as "by far" the Rockets' best since his arrival in Houston five years ago. He was even willing to compare it to his Oklahoma City Thunder squad that made the Finals back in 2012.
"Both teams are similar as far as talent and versatility, a mixture of vets and young guys. Both are very, very, very talented," Harden said. "Now, obviously, the difference is we were younger back then, but both are good."
On this roster, he can narrow his attack from a samurai sword down to a paring knife without watching his Rockets fall behind by double digits. It's a type of freedom he's yet to experience, less predictable and more effective. It's also one of the scariest developments heading into the 2017-18 season and, for Golden State, quite possibly what slows down their dynastic run.