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MVP Ladder: Harden enters, but challenges lie ahead

NBA.com
MVP Ladder: Harden enters, but challenges lie ahead
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MVP Ladder: Harden enters, but challenges lie ahead

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 beingThe Manin 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 theHouston 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."

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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