James Harden and the Houston Rockets agreed to the biggest extension in NBA history, and he’s deserving of every dollar.

On Saturday, the Rockets announced that they’re giving All-Star James Harden a lot of money — and I mean a lot of money. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst reported the details of the four-year extension, which guarantees the 27-year-old $228 million through the 2022-23 season. That’s the largest lump sum given to someone in NBA history, and it’s about $27 million more than what the Golden State Warriors re-signed Stephen Curry for.

Believe it or not, I saw some people say that Harden isn’t worth the extension. And that’s just wrong. Ever since joining the Rockets in 2012, Harden has become one of the NBA’s best players, and that evolution took a dynamic turn this past season. Over his first seven campaigns, Basketball Reference estimated that Harden spent 98 percent of his minutes at either shooting guard or small forward. His offense has always been versatile, and the Oklahoma City Thunder trusted him to handle the ball coming off the bench. That ability made him an even deadlier scorer, and it improved when the Rockets gave him full control of their offense.

Harden’s time shot up immediately in Houston. Oklahoma City had him on the floor for 26.7 minutes a night, and, including this year, the Rockets have the Beard at 37.5. Harden’s led the league in minutes played twice (2015 and 2016) and minutes per game once (2016), and he’s been remarkably durable over the last three seasons. He’s missed just two games total, and that’s incredible given his usage percentage of 32.7.

Dec 31, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) waves to the crowd after a made three-poing basket against the New York Knicks during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) waves to the crowd after a made three-point basket against the New York Knicks during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

This season, however, was entirely different. Mike D’Antoni came in, and he and Harden are a match made in basketball heaven. Daryl Morey and D’Antoni are fully behind the pace-and-space system and have been big on analytics. The premise is simple: threes and layups are the two highest percentage shots for most players. If your team gets as many of those looks as possible, you have the best chance at winning because the objective of basketball is to outscore your opponent. D’Antoni popularized this style of play with the Seven Seconds or Less Suns that were led by Steve Nash, but having Harden as the quarterback has fireworks written all over it.

After spending his entire career as a wing, D’Antoni trusted Harden enough to have him play point guard. The results were incredible. Harden had the best regular season of his career, posting 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds a night with a true shooting percentage of 61.3 percent. Those numbers were good enough for a spot on the All-NBA First Team, but not good enough to take home the MVP, which got awarded to Russell Westbrook who also had an outstanding season. Harden was the runner-up and received 22 first-place votes. (I picked Harden as my MVP because he took the Rockets to success that no one imagined. Oklahoma City performed as we expected. You can read my full argument here.)

Harden was sensational. But he was also historically spectacular:

Those numbers scream transcendent. It’s painstakingly obvious that we’ve never seen a player like Harden before. Even on a nightly basis, it just felt like he was always on. Harden had an NBA-best 64 double-doubles — remember that he’s a guard — and put up 22 triple-doubles, which only trailed Westbrook’s 42. Additionally, Harden, Westbrook and LeBron James were the only players to have a game with 30 points and 10 dimes in a triple-double. And all of them did it on multiple occasions. (Westbrook was at the top with 23; Harden had 11 and James had three.)

Wait, I’m not done yet. Harden had two 50-point triple-doubles this year, and one of them was an all-time great performance against the New York Knicks. On New Year’s Eve, when most people his age were throwing back shots of who knows what, Harden massacred the Knicks defense to the tune of 53 points, 17 assists and 16 rebounds. According to Basketball Reference’s database, there’s been just one game with that stat line since 1984.

Everyone knows about Harden’s knack for scoring. He’s a big body, 6-5, and about 220 pounds, but his ballerina footwork and controlled recklessness make him nearly unguardable in any setting. Moreover, he’s got a lethal handle and is a magnet for contact. He’ll throw you in the blender, get the step on you and then force you to foul him while he’s taking an easy shot. Harden’s led the NBA in free throw makes and attempts each of the last three seasons, and it’s easy to see why.

Maybe one of the reasons some don’t think Harden should’ve gotten paid was because he’s a volume shooter who’s only relatively efficient. That’s a valid point on the surface. Yes, Harden shot 44 percent from the field overall this year. That includes 34.7 percent from three. The unrelenting attack from downtown murdered Harden’s field goal percentage, but, even being a mediocre shooter, defenders respected him from out there because they’d fall eventually. On any given night, Harden’s launching 9.3 triples. If the defense doesn’t contest them, that’s a problem. Even if they do, he’s going to make at least three.

However, his two-point clip was the second-best he’s ever posted at 53.0 percent. The Rockets built their offense around Harden. That means giving him an army of shooters who space the floor. When Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are all on the perimeter, the court’s going to open up, and Harden’s more than capable of slicing through defenders and getting to the rim. If someone’s gutsy enough to take him one-on-one, it’s almost a guaranteed bucket or foul.

But what took Harden to the next level was his passing. I touched on it earlier. Harden has some of the best vision in the NBA, and it was on full display this campaign. Once the defense collapsed, Harden kicked it out to whomever he saw fit. Plays like that aren’t why I consider him a point guard. A lot of players can drive-and-kick with no issue, but Harden manipulated defenses on a full-time basis this year. His decision-making was terrific, but Harden forced the defense to react to him instead of reacting to the defense. Furthermore, he got the “pick-and-roll maestro” badge if he didn’t already.

Because Harden is such a threat off the bounce, multiple defenders attack him. Once that comes, he reads the roll man and makes whatever play he sees fit — a pocket pass or a lob being the most typical. If the big isn’t open, Harden goes with a cross-court skip pass to the corner, delivering it with LeBron James levels of accuracy. Contrary to his 6-8 counterpart, Harden’s look more erratic but still find the shooter’s pocket; James whips line drives over defenders with F1 car speed, whereas Harden puts more arc on it. To each his own.

James Harden an offensive juggernaut. If you’ve stuck around this long, you’ll get to read about me addressing the elephant in the room.

It’s not his defense, but that’s an issue. However, when a team tasks a player with shouldering a grand load on offense, their defense is going to suffer. Harden isn’t a bad defender, and he posted the best defensive box plus/minus of his career at plus-1.5. Statistically, he’s a bit above average. If anything, it stems from the effort. He’s just focusing all of his energy where it needs to go. (Also remember that Mike D’Antoni isn’t a defense-first coach. He’s not going to preach those habits. He wants to go out and run his opponents off the court.)

If I had to guess, I believe anyone who opposes this superextension bases it on Harden’s lack of success in the playoffs this past season. Houston got out of the first round, but the Beard was noticeably worse and wasn’t producing at the same level he did for 81 regular season games. Therein lies the problem. He was burnt out. Guys like Westbrook and Harden burned out after doing what they did.

May 11, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) talks with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (R) after game six of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
May 11, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) talks with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (R) after game six of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In the 11 playoff games, Harden averaged 28.5 points, 8.5 dimes and 5.5 boards. He also shot a piddling 27.8 percent from three. It was a poor showing that was tough to watch.

The Rockets’ front office saw the same things we did. They gave Harden his extension to lock him up for the near future. Now, they’re adding pieces to make sure he doesn’t get burned out consistently. Chris Paul was the most headline-stealing acquisition, but P.J. Tucker also got added, and there have been rumors that the Rockets may be interested in trading for Carmelo Anthony.

His numbers may suffer from the other pieces that Houston has added, but that doesn’t take away from him earning this contract. Each year, Harden has gone out and played like an MVP. Furthermore, he’s transformed from a sixth man to one of the NBA’s five best players, and he’s only now beginning to hit his prime.

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