2012-13 OKC Thunder player previews: James Harden

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James Harden is the name that is on everybody's mind. With his contract situation still up in the air, how is he going to perform with the added pressure?

James Harden is the man of the hour this season, but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of talking about how Harden will follow up a remarkable 2011-12 season where he was named 6th Man of the Year, we are discussing ad nauseum his contract situation and whether OKC can actually keep a player that they took great risk to draft. Welcome to the current edition of the NBA.

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Player JAMES HARDEN
Position Shooting Guard
Year in NBA 4
Nicknames "Jimbo Slice," "The Beard," "Big Game James"
2011-12 Stats 16.8 PPG, 4.1 RPB, 3.7 APG, 0.2 BL, 1.0 ST, 2.2 TO
Past Accolades NBA 6th Man of the Year (2012), 2012 Olympian, All-Rookie 2nd Team
2011-12 Season 2011-12 Season End Review
Injury History Few concerns, missed 4 games in 2011-12 season
Contract Status Is in the 4th year of his rookie contract, set to become restricted free agent if OKC does not sign him to an extension by Oct. 31, 2012.


Zeb's Take:

In a season with little change, James Harden seems to be the main questionmark surrounding this Thunder team. Yeah, his contract extension is a factor, but we've discussed that to death. As a player, we know James Harden is pretty darn good. But there's nothing overly unique about his game, other than his keen passing ability. Sure, his offense is well above average, but nobody would argue that he's on a Westbrook or Durant level in terms of natural ability to score on a night to night basis.

So what he needs to do in order to solidfy the Thunder as a legitimate contender and himself as a legitimate star is to perform when it counts. In other words, he needs to become Manu Ginobili. He needs to learn to use his basketball IQ and sense of where other players are to supplement the offense when things sputter. More than that, he needs to make himself a consistent threat when opposing teams have their defenses draped all over Durant and Westbrook.

In other words, most of the improving James Harden needs to do is mental, rather than physical. And, like it or not, the image of James Harden that will stick in most fans minds heading into this season is his poor performance during the NBA Finals. Mentally, he might still be stuck in that funk, like Russell Westbrook was last season after his poor performance in the Western Conference Finals. And while Oklahoma fans are the forgiving type, it will take a while for him to climb out of that mental hole, at least in the minds of fans.

That's why I'm giving James Harden an A+ expectation rating. Unless the Thunder win the championship or he comes through in several clutch situations, I think most people will view his season as a bit of a disappointment. I just don't see his stats significantly climbing unless there's an injury to our big two, and that will serve to remind everybody that he's only the third best player on the team. However, if he is resigned, I believe that his expectations will level out over the next couple of years.

Grade:

Grade_aplus_medium

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Sherman's Take:

I honestly am concerned about how this added contract pressure is going to effect Harden over the course of the season. He is a young player who is about to come off of his rookie contract, where he is being paid a fraction of what he was worth on the court, and there are big dollar signs in his future. The contract situation has been covered in every way possible, so there is no need to rehash it here. I think that we can rest assured that if Harden is to stay, it will be because he is willing to take a pay cut of some form (delayed extension or a reduced contract). Now his reputation is on the line - he has talked the talk about how how playing in OKC is worth more than just money, so now we'll see if this is actually the case.

From a performance standpoint however, we know that unresolved contract situations can undermine how players play. It can make some players press to buoy their own statistics, and it can make others play with uncertainty, as we saw with Russell Westbrook last season in the months leading up to his own contract extension.

We know that Harden came off of an uneven playoffs last year, playing a forgettable Finals that helped seal his team's fate as the runners-up. How is he going to respond mentally to: a) a desire to make amends, b) the expectation of being the most important man off the bench, c) for a team that has championship aspirations, while d) having everyone wondering if he is planning on playing elsewhere next season?

There is an argument to be made that for OKC to manage their money best, they should allow Harden to play this year out on his current contract and then sign him to the max after he becomes an RFA. However, doing so might very well undermine the team's chances of playing top-level ball and getting back to the Finals. Is it worth the risk?

James Harden lies at the center of it all.

Grade:

Grade_bminus_medium

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A Player has exceedingly high expectations attainable only if they play to their fullest ability.
B Player has reasonably high expectations that are attainable.
C
Player has moderate expectations which should be met with little trouble.
D
Player has moderate expectations but will struggle to meet them.
F
Player should not be on the Thunder roster.
X
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