James Harden is our man of the day as we look back on what was a roller coaster season for the bearded one. As this season has gone along, no other player outside of Russell Westbrook has caused so many Thunder analysts, fans, and critics to question whether GM Sam Presti was either a genius or if he had wasted his draft pick on the low-key Harden.
James Harden is a California native, and he played high school basketball at Artesia High School in Lakewood. During his junior and senior seasons he led his team to the state championship. As a result, Harden was named a McDonalds All-American following his senior season.
Harden signed with the Arizona State Sun Devils, and made an immediate impact on the team's league standing. He followed up a freshman year where he led the team to the NIT tournament with an impressive sophomore run, earning national attention and recognition on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was named to the 2009 All-PAC 10 Tournament Team at the end of the conference season. In the NCAA tournament, the Sun Devils fell short, losing in the second round, but Harden was named a consensus All-American. He opted to leave school early and enter the 2009 NBA draft.
Harden was the 3rd overall pick in the 2009 draft, selected by the Thunder. His selection made Harden the first true player to be drafted by the OKC Thunder franchise.
Harden entered the 2010-2011 season as a promising player who had some key moments in the previous season's playoff push, but was not yet ready to assume the heavy minutes of a starter or key bench player. He began the year playing behind starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha and along side backup point guard Eric Maynor, and Harden was expected to play an integral role in the 2nd unit.
Regular Season Grade: B-
Harden had an uneven regular season where he struggled to fit into the right mix. I think it is best to look at his season before and after the All-Star break, because both he and Serge Ibaka enjoyed the benefit of the structural overhaul after the Kendrick Perkins trade was made.
Over the first half of the season, if I had to use one word to describe Harden's play, it would be "uncertain." Harden was firmly entrenched on the second unit, but played behind offensive hubs Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Jeff Green in the pecking order. Those were the guys that would end up taking most of the shots and get most of the crunch time minutes. So given that rotation, it was doubtful that Harden was going to see quality minutes in the 4th quarter. However, Harden was expected to contribute more in those middle quarters, and to this task he had a difficult time figuring out what his role was supposed to be. If he was on the court with Westbrook and Durant, then he was undoubtedly going to be the 3rd option and would not handle the ball. If he was on the court with Westbrook and Green, it was the same problem. Harden was deferential to a fault.
The only time when Harden looked comfortable at all was when Jeff Green joined the second unit and played as the offensive focal point along side Harden and Eric Maynor. Under that scenario, Harden knew that he was the 2nd option on offense, and so if Green did not have a good shot, he knew that it was his turn to go to work. Unfortunately, that seemed to be the only time Harden looked comfortable. The rest of the time, he was overly deferential to Durant, Westbrook, and Green. If Harden was going to get a shot, it would undoubtedly come out of a set play where he was a spot-up 3-point shooter. Unfortunately for Harden, the 3-point shot is the weakest part of his game.
Because of Harden's uncertainty in his role, he never looked confident. His shooting mechanics looked off, he was hesitant off the dribble, and far too often when he took the ball to the rim he did it hoping for a foul rather than looking to finish strong. What was most jarring and disconcerting was the fact that Harden looked vastly inferior to Stephen Curry, who was morphing into an offensive savant in Golden State. In particular, the December 5th game against the Warriors provided the biggest contrast. In that game, which the Thunder won, Harden scored 12 points on 50% shooting off the bench. Those are solid bench contribution numbers. However, on the other side of the court, Curry scored 39 on 14-20 shooting and 4-7 from 3-point range. It was in games like this that the Thunder fans worried most that Harden was a wasted pick, and it validated to a certain degree the red flags raised by Bill Simmons and others. It even prompted me to write my very first post here at Loud City.
The biggest element that the Perkins trade altered for the Thunder offense was that it essentially removed Jeff Green as the 3rd scoring option. Green had previously thrived the best in his own offense playing on the second unit. Once Green left, there was a huge offensive hole that OKC had to fill, and the only guy who could fill it was Harden. Nick Collison could score in spots, and Daequan Cook's game was rounding into form, but nobody else on the 2nd unit really had the ability to create his own shot other than Harden. In essence, GM Sam Presti and coach Scott Brooks were taking a gamble on their #3 draft pick. The gamble was that Harden, when forced to do so, would become the offensive threat they envisioned him to be. He just had to realize that his offense was now needed instead of hoped for.
James Harden responded well to the call. Almost immediately, we began to see a different Harden on the court. No longer was he passive on offense, deferring to other players and weakly attacking the basket. His game began to morph into what we saw in the post-season - attacking the defense, probing for holes, deftly running the pick-and-roll, and shooting without hesitation. Harden's demeanor was so drastic that even his shooting mechanics changed for the better. In the month of March, when OKC made its big playoff push, Harden's scoring average jumped from 13 to 16.8 per game and his shooting percentage was almost 50%. On top of those numbers, it was easy to see that Harden was developing real chemistry with his teammates. Whether it was he and Collison, Cook, or even his hometown buddy Westbrook, there was a certain rhythm that Harden was establishing that made the offense thrilling to watch. Harden was making everyone better whenever he was on the court.
By the end of the season, it was clear that James Harden was the clear leader of the second unit. His role would be critical heading into the playoffs, because the Thunder bench was their secret weapon that they would deploy in the first two rounds that carried them to the Conference Finals.
Post-Season Grade: A-
If the second half of the season was the appetizer, the playoffs were the main course for Harden's transformation. In these playoffs, he went from being a young bench leader, to a critical player that the Thunder had to have on the court in the ends of games. Looking back at the man Harden essentially replaced in the offensive rotation - Jeff Green - it is easier to see how much better Harden was in the role. While Green could give team offensive spurts that did not extrapolate over his heavy minutes, Harden was just the opposite - the more minutes he got, the higher his production grew.
The greatest attribute that Harden displayed in the playoffs was a remarkable sense of offensive discretion. He rarely forced shots that were not there. He never attempted more than 11 shots per game, despite routinely earning over 30 minutes of game time. Instead, Harden continued to get most of his points at the free throw line, where he shot over 80% for the post-season. He knew exactly how to generate offense without wasting possessions.
Perhaps the greatest tribute to Harden's emergence in the playoffs is not what he did, but what he did not do. In Game Four of the Conference Finals against Dallas, Harden fouled out with four and a half minutes to play and the team leading by 13. It wasn't even as if Harden had contributed much in shooting the ball up to that point - he had only seven points off of five shots. However, I think the entirety of Thunder nation suddenly started to feel panic set in, because it quickly became apparent that Harden was the only man on the court who felt comfortable dealing with the stress of those final minutes of play. He was the only one who seemed to know how to continue to attack the Mavericks defense, as he had helped the Thunder score 18 points over the first 7.5 minutes of the 4th quarter. When Harden fouled out, the offense ground to a halt. Players stood still, the passing stopped, and their offensive flow was choked away. The team scored two points in the remaining time on the clock and the team suffered a staggering blow from which it would not recover. It was then that Thunder fans knew - Harden had to be on the court in the end of games. When the rest of the team looked lost, he knew the way.
Which leads us to the next section.
Most Memorable Game:
I think that Harden's most memorable game was Game Five against the Mavericks, a game which the Thunder unfortunately lost. However, in this game the fans finally saw what Harden was fully capable of - acting as a sometime-point guard, setting up teammates, taking the shot when it was available, and for the most part acting as a wonderful facilitator. Scott Brooks played him at the point position for long stretches and moved Westbrook off the ball, and we immediately saw the chemistry between the two blossom again. Westbrook led the charge in trying to stave off elimination, scoring 31 points and grabbing four offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, Harden looked like he was barely breaking a sweat in scoring 23 points off of 7-11 shooting along with five rebounds and six assists. The two young men had figured out a combination for which Dallas did not have an answer. It was a remarkable game, despite the loss.
Even bigger than the one game, this combination of Harden at the point and Westbrook playing off the ball showed fans a new lethal look that should be a harbinger for things to come. It prompted Bill Simmons to completely reverse course on Harden. James Harden had made a believer out of some of the biggest skeptics on the biggest stage available, and those signs should have us all excited for next season.
Most Memorable Single Moment:
Harden had a number of big moments in the playoffs, none more-so than his game-tying 3-pointer in the second overtime of Game Four against the Grizzlies that enabled the Thunder to make it to a 3rd OT and win. However, I think the single most iconic moment of Harden's season would have to be this play:
The play was big because like many iconic dunks, it served the dual purpose of being a great play AND elevating a player to a higher level of performance. The first few months of the season were rough on Harden. His play was spotty, his influence was marginal, and many people questioned whether he was going to finally "get" the NBA game. I even wrote about this moment on my old site.
I think what this one play did for Harden was tell the world (and maybe himself) that he could dominate an opponent physically. If you watch the entire sequence, you can see that Harden went coast to coast, and made up his mind what he was going to do right around the time he crossed half-court. He was going to throw it down, and it did not matter if anybody was in the way.
I believe that other than Russell Westbrook, Harden is going to have the biggest question mark on him heading into next season. Going into 2010, Harden could simply be the guy behind the guys, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He was expected to grow, but not expected to become a key component in their championship push. However, with a playoff run that Harden just had, it all changes. Going forward, Harden is going to play an integral role in the evolution of the Thunder offense.
I would love it if Harden could continue coming off the bench, because he could then continue to be the offensive focus for the 2nd unit and really create match-up problems. However, I think we can all read the cards - he is destined to replace Thabo Sefolosha as the starting shooting guard. Once that change takes place, I think we're going to see an offense that looks completely different from the talented but uneven one we saw this past season. It should be more dynamic, more efficient, and better maximize the athletic talents of everyone involved.
James Harden looks like a #3 pick after all.
A: Far exceeded expectations
B: Exceeded expectations
C: Met expectations
D: Did not meet expectations
F: Fell far short of expectations