The buzz about training camp on Day 1 seemed to be mostly focused around the new addition to the core of the team in James Harden and there are lots of quotes to talk about with him. He was initiated to the NBA rather rudely by being poked in the eye during the morning session, but obviously nothing serious as he came back and played in the night session. There are obviously other new guys on the squad and the two rookies would include Serge Ibaka and BJ Mullens, and while I expect Ibaka if they keep him with the big club to play some role, maybe 10-12 min a game where he can use his speed and athleticism to run the floor, finish in transition, block some shots and grab a few boards (almost an early Tyrus Thomas role). I am expecting BJ to be sent to the D-League and use this as a learning year, but that is what camp is for and with any luck he might surprise us all. In their own ways both Ibaka and Mullens will add to this team what I will delve into further in speaking about Harden and that is versatility. Both of these big men show and ability to run the floor and play the quick game if the club choosing to go that way and both at least down the road should have the ability to play multiple positions based on the skills they possess. With that said let's focus on the one who will play the biggest role in James Harden.
Leading up to the draft, I was of the belief that the second best player in the draft was the man we took at number 3 in James Harden. Arguments could be made based on need that Thabeet would be more pressing, or based on potential that Rubio had more upside to his game. In living in NY i saw a lot of Thabeet and saw how he for the most part is pretty soft for a man of his size and I do see the upside to his game and while the talent of Rubio is intriguing as we have seen from the chaos that ensued the headaches make that talent less appealing. Also, for me the calls for Rubio were also a jab at the belief that Russ will ever develop into a true point guard. I dont know that he will based on what used to be the definition of that term, but I would also argue that there are very few players in the league that would fit that definition. What I have seen is that the way the nba is set up these days the thing that is most valuable to a franchise in its players is versatility. To show that point we have to look no further than the two teams that were in the NBA finals a season ago. With Orlando you had Hedo and Rashard who are both hybrids that create serious matchup problems for their opponents and gave a great deal of flexibility to their coach in terms of potential lineups. With LA you had Lamar Odom and Paul Gasol, but especially Odom in how he was able to play whatever role was necessary on a given night to produce a W. To me that is what in his own way James Harden gives to the Thunder in his game and compliments the multi-faceted players we already have in KD, Uncle Jeff and RW0.
Quotes and further analysis after the jump.
"He’s going to do very well. He’s a guy that already has an NBA body. Very mature for his age. (He) can do just about everything — penetrate, shoot and pass. He’s going to help us in different areas. He can play the 1 through 3. He causes match-up problems for smaller guards, can post them up and he’s also a knock-down shooter. That’s what we need."- Kevin Durant
"(Harden) is a young guy who is mature on the basketball court for his age. He’s only 20 years old. He’s a good shooter, a lefty who can put it on the floor and find guys (with passes). He’s a big, solid player who is strong and can play on both ends. He’s going to be a good addition for us." - Jeff Green
"The kid is experienced beyond his age. He has a point guard’s feel for the game in a two-guard’s body. He can score, play defense, get you a big stop, get you a rebound. And he can really pass the ball. I think he’s going to bring a lot to this team." - Shaun Livingston
It is in these quotes that I hear what I thought I saw in Harden leading up to the draft and that he demonstrated mainly in the Orlando camp in that he can play off the bounce, create for his teammates, knock down open shots and create matchup headaches because he is too strong for the quick guards, but too quick for the bigger ones. In speaking to what Kevin said I envision there will be times where he plays almost a Hedo type role not as Hedo does cause he isnt 6 10, but in that he can take over the point duties and allow Russ to play off the ball or play the point when RW0 is getting a blow on the bench. The things I like most in what I hear is the maturity of his body and his understanding of the game especially when we consider he is still only 20. We have been spoiled because of the great ability and results that have been put up by all of our big 3 at such a young age and I expect a similar impression to be left by Harden this season.
Based on things said by Presti earlier in the off-season I would expect that the plan, at least heading into training camp, is to have Harden start the season on the bench behind Thabo and maybe later in the year ala RW0 take over the starting role. There are advantages to having Harden start off the bench and play a Manu type role where he can be the main offensive weapon on the "second unit." That said even if he comes off the bench I dont envision with him or any of the other 3 that we will have many if any situations where we do not have at least 2 of Durant, Green, RW0 and Harden on the floor at the same time. Having him on the bench also allows a more defensive player in Thabo to sort of help to balance the starting unit. That is not to say Harden is a slouch defensively as I expect him to be average-good on that end this season, but is a testament to the quality of Thabo's D. I would have no problem maintaining this lineup most of the year if Thabo has truly improved his jumper so that he can be a threat to keep defenses honest and the same goes for Russ' consistency with the jumper. The main reason to start Harden and I think it will happen around January is that he has the ability to make life for his teammates easier by his court vision, passing skill and simply his ability to be a knock down shooter that will help space the floor.
My expectations for Harden in terms of numbers this season would follow along the lines of Eric Gordon for the Clips last year with probably a little less pure scoring but more in terms of assists and rebounds. Maybe 14.5 pts 4 reb 4 assists a game. Otherwise known as slightly less than RW0 last season. The talk today from Shaun Livingston was about how Harden has a chance at the ROY.
"He has the type of ability he could run away with Rookie of the Year, depending on what that guy in LA does," Livingston said. "That shows how much confidence I have in him, how much I believe in him."
It is that attitude which is pervasive on this team at least in all their public comments and I believe that is because when the best player on your team and your leader has that attitude it is contagious throughout the team and the organization. This is why Harden was the best fit for this team because he adds the versatility and flexibility, along with the talent necessary to make a team successful in the NBA today.
So in these 3 new players we have different dimensions added to this team. Ibaka provides and athletic above the rim big who can block or alter shots; Mullens provides a huge body with surprising athleticism for someone his size (both will need to add much strength); Harden gives the team a pure shooter they desperately missed outside KD, and another versatile guard who can play multiple positions and create for his teammates and himself.