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Sekou Smith

James Harden's fast start to the season has him among the MVP contenders.

Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: Rockets' Harden enters, but challenges lie ahead


Posted Nov 9, 2012 11:47 AM

Superstars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant have been dealing with it for years: two and three defenders closing in on them when they have the ball in their hands and the basket in their sights.

Well, welcome to the party, James Harden. Aside from dealing with the above scenario, Harden also makes his debut in our initial MVP rankings at No. 2 behind the reigning champ and award-winner, James.

The Houston Rockets' new star is getting baptized into the superstar-scorer fraternity just two weeks into his tenure as the face of a franchise. The Denver Nuggets were the first team to successfully employ the multi-player defensive strategy against Harden, who leads the league in scoring at 30.3 points per game.

Basically overnight, Harden went from being the third man listed on opposing scouting reports in Oklahoma City to being The Man in Houston. He caught the league off guard in the process, cashing in with a 37-point and a career-high 45-point effort in his first two outings of the season, both road wins for the Rockets.

But defenses designed to curtail his fun have been effective since then. He scored 24 points in a loss to Portland and 15 points in a loss to Denver, making just 13 of his 39 shots in those two games. Harden, the Kia Sixth Man of the Year winner last season, has now faced defensive pressure he hasn't seen in his career.

Making things even tougher in those two games was Harden's 1-for-11 performance from 3-point range. The dribble-drive component of his game is what made him so dangerous in OKC -- Harden could come off the bench and beat teams off the dribble if his outside shots weren't falling. He had Durant and Russell Westbrook to lean on as well.

Now if he's not making shots from deep, he doesn't have All-Star talent around him to lean on -- no offense to Jeremy Lin.

"He was making everything [against us]," Hawks forward Josh Smith said after Harden smoked the Hawks for that 45-point night. "So it didn't really matter what some of those other guys were doing. We couldn't stop him the way we needed to. But we'll know better the next time we see him."

And therein lies the greatest challenge for Harden. Teams will get a good look at how he operates with the Rockets after these first two or three weeks. They'll come with game plans designed to not only stop him, but force the Rockets into the most uncomfortable positions possible. That will undoubtedly involve making Harden decide his own team's fate with his actions, good or bad.

Harden will have to find ways to facilitate for others if he wants to free himself from the clutches of the sort of defense he saw from the Nuggets. Denver opted to assign both an elite perimeter defender (Andre Iguodala) and an agile power forward/safety-valve player (Kenneth Faried) to slow Harden's roll.

Rockets coach Kevin McHale has been stressing the need for Harden to rely on the other guys around him and be a playmaker as much as a scorer.

"The key is the easy plays," McHale said. "You make the easy plays and don't let the defense frustrate you and he'll be fine. But he's going to have to be careful. I've seen it for years with young guys and they just have to manage the situation. You don't generally play at your ceiling or your floor, you usually live somewhere in the middle. It's silly to assume you're going to play at your ceiling for more than a few weeks at a time when you're getting adjusted to being the No. 1 guy."

Harden's without a doubt the No. 1 guy in Houston now. And it's a role he has no time to ease into.

"I don't really think about it," Harden told the Houston Chronicle. "I don't want to put too much stress on myself about making plays and trying to score the basketball. It comes naturally. It's just how I play."

MVP Ladder -- Week 1
Rank Player Stats The Buzz
1. LeBron James 22.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.0 bpg Even in the absence of mind-boggling statistics, it's clear that James is operating on a level all his own . Even scarier for the poor souls assigned to defend James is his improved stroke from beyond the 3-point line (57 percent). The real challenge for James this year is going to be findings ways to motivate himself during the regular season when he knows that his season will be defined by what comes after that.
2. James Harden 30.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.5 spg Harden's statistical improvement will be significant. Doubling his scoring average for the season, however, would be a remarkable accomplishment for a player who averaged 16.8 ppg as the league's top Sixth Man. And that's exactly where he's headed, provided he finds ways to balance his scoring and playmaking responsibilities for a Rockets team short on elite-level scorers.
3. Carmelo Anthony 26.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.0 spg Who needs Jeremy Lin and Amar'e Stoudemire? Not Carmelo. Not the Knicks. All kidding aside, Anthony is doing a masterful job at reinventing his image as a defender in his 10th NBA season. No, he won't be contending for Defensive Player of the Year honors. But he is showing that he is a capable and willing defender in the Knicks' revamped approach. He's doing all that while still maintaining his place among the league's elite scorers.
4. Chris Paul 17.5 ppg, 10.7 apg, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 spg If this was strictly a ranking of the league's best leaders, Paul would have a place in the first two or maybe three spots locked up. In an era of the scoring point guard, Paul defies the conventional wisdom that he has to score at a rapid clip to be effective. His stats aren't pedestrian by any stretch. But his value to the Clippers is greater than his numbers suggest. Under his stewardship, the Clippers have a chance to legitimately challenge for the top spot in the West.
5. Kevin Durant 21.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 4.8 apg, 2.0 spg The ultimate closer, as he proved again last night in that road win against the Chicago Bulls on TNT, Durant finishes games like no other. Durant's continuing development has seen him become a better rebounder and facilitator at the expense of the one skill he lords over the rest of the league. Durant's 21.4 ppg is a throwback to his rookie season in Seattle, where he averaged 20.3 ppg. The Thunder need him to get back to his mormal, unstoppable self , and soon, if they want to do the same.
6. Tony Parker 14.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 8.0 apg, 0.4 spg Parker and his Spurs were on a steady roll before running into Chris Paul and the Clippers Wednesday night. Parker managed just four points, six assists and four turnovers in that loss, the Spurs' first of the season. His performance this season has been bolstered by the rejuvenation of Tim Duncan, whose spry legs have led to him playing like he's five years younger. But the Spurs' fortunes this season, just like last, are tied to the performance of their catalyst, Parker.
7. Zach Randolph 16.0 ppg, 15.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.0 spg If you thought leading the league in rebounding was the exclusive domain of a dominant big man like Dwight Howard or a technician like Kevin Love, you'll be disappointed to find out who sits atop that heap right now. That's right, Z-Bo has been the league's most dominant force on the glass this season. Randolph is literally a walking double-double these days for the Grizzlies, who have a chance to make serious noise.
8. Luol Deng 18.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 0.8 bpg In the absence of a healthy Derrick Rose, the Bulls were in need of a leader. Deng has stepped into that void and done an admirable job serving as the Bulls' driving force. He scored a season-high 27 points in last night's loss to Kevin Durant and the Thunder. But he went head-to-head with Durant, trading blows with the three-time scoring champ until the final seconds of a game that was in the balance until then. The big question for Deng and the Bulls is can he keep this up all season?
9. Kobe Bryant 27.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.4 spg Everyone is pointing fingers in Los Angeles and Kobe is usually an easy target. But the Lakers' struggles right now are not on his head. He's been one of the only consistent bright spots in an otherwise disastrous start for the offseason champs. Steve Nash is hurt and Dwight Howard doesn't look like he's completely healed from the back surgery that sidelined him all summer. Bryant is nursing a sore foot of his own and still ranks second (27.2) to James Harden on the scoring leaders chart.
10. Rajon Rondo 16.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 12.5 apg, 2.0 spg Rondo is conveniently left out of the conversation of the top point guards in the league far too often. The league leader in assists (12.5) and the Celtics' undisputed floor leader, Rondo is the key to their fortunes this year. He posts a double-double every time he hits the floor and has complete mastery of the position without being a great shooter. He posted a season-high 14 assists to go with his 18 points in Wednesday's win over Washington.

The next five: O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks; Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks; Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers; Al Horford, Hawks; Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers

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