OKC Thunder 2011-2012 Final Player Grades and Season-End Profile: James Harden

Feb 22, 2012; Oklahoma City OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden (13) shoots the ball against Boston Celtics small forward Mickael Pietrus (28) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

Name: James Harden

Nickname: "Jimbo Slice," "The Beard"

Player History:

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 responded by improving each successive season, which culminated in his winning the NBA 6th Man of the Year Award.

Pre-Season Expectations:

After a post-season run in 2011 where Harden got better as the games went on, OKC fans had high expectations for the bearded one. In fact, in the midst of the playoffs fans and critics alike began to wonder why in the world Harden was still coming off the bench when he was clearly a superior offensive player to starter Thabo Sefolosha.

The discussion continued during the lengthy lockout off-season, where the debate raged on. What reason was there for Harden to continue coming off the bench? He was the team's 3rd best player, he provided a great blend of passing, shooting, and offensive savvy, and most importantly, he helped the Thunder solve their 4th quarter struggles. Would Scott Brooks make the change? Would Harden join his heralded All-Star teammates in the starting line-up?

The question was answered in two parts: a) the lockout prevented any sort of tinkering that Brooks might have been inclined to do; and b) it turns out that Brooks was probably right anyway. Harden entered the season as the leading player for the league's 6th Man of the Year award, and expectations ran sky-high as for how Harden would help the Thunder reach the next level of the championship mountain.

Regular Season Grade: A

Harden, and by proxy Brooks, proved that the decision was right to keep Harden in his 6th man role. From day 1 Harden was handed the reins to the 2nd unit of the Thunder offense. Once Harden had to stop worrying about deferring scoring opportunities to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, his own offensive game took off. All of the 2nd unit's offense ran through him and as a result he increased his stats across the board. His scoring, shooting, rebounding, free throw attempts, and assists all jumped up by a substantial amount. Not only did Harden improve, but he morphed into arguably the best 2-guard in the entire NBA.

Brooks' tactic proved to be legit. The 1st OKC unit did not need Harden's uber-efficient scoring; Durant & Westbrook could handle that load themselves. By shifting Harden to the 2nd unit, Brooks' bench gained a competitive advantage against just about every other team's best 6th man (with the possible exception of Manu Ginobili). Brooks created a comparative advantage in pairing off his 6th man against inferior talent, allowing the Thunder as a team to play better for a longer period of time. The result was the Thunder achieved the 2nd best record in the NBA and Harden won the 6th Man of the Year award in a landslide.

The only reason why I don't bump Harden up to 'A+' grade status is that, mystifying to all of us, he barely took a shot in the closing moments of 4th quarters all entire season. Perhaps this reality was by (flawed) design, but the result was that the team's most efficient scorer never had the opportunity to score at the end of games, which resulted in continued struggles during crunch time. The stat was troubling, but fortunately for us all OKC straightened it out in the playoffs.

Post-Season Grade: B

James Harden got a big dose of what it feels like to be a necessary component during a team's playoff run in 2012.

Round 1 vs Mavericks: A

Harden was solid if unspectacular through the 1st three games of this series. To the team's credit, they had far more offensive weapons than the Mavericks did and used those weapons well in racing out to a 3-0 series lead. Harden made the necessary plays when he had to, and as long as the defense was focused everything was cool.

During Game 4 however, the Mavericks finally showed the spirit of defending champs. They played their best game of the season and took a 13 point lead into the 4th quarter, set to take the series back to OKC. We all seemed resigned to this reality until the Thunder decided to do something that they had never done before. They put the ball in Harden's hands in the 4th quarter and simply said, "the game is in your hands." (See below for more detail).

Round 2 vs Lakers: B-

Harden followed up a scintillating 1st round with an uneven Round 2. I think that it was this round that Harden began to feel the pressure of being a key cog in a team's endeavors, rather than just being another bench guy. Even though the Lakers bench was shallow and they had nobody who could reasonably cover Harden, he still struggled in his offensive focus. A number of times Harden just seemed to be a step slow in his shot selection and reads, not recognizing the opportunities until a second too late.

Harden did not play poorly per se, but his performance was definitely a notch below the previous round. Fortunately for the Thunder, the Lakers' flaws were easily exposed and they dispatched Kobe and his band of purple and gold in 5 games.

Round 3 vs Spurs: B+

The Western Conference Finals against the Spurs was a great test of how far Harden (and his team) had come since a season ago. After falling behind the Spurs and their offensive wizardry 2-0, the Thunder had to, on the fly, come up with a better way to compete. Harden responded by elevating the Thunder's 2nd unit so that they could compete with the Spurs. San Antonio's bench play embarrassed the Thunder in Games 1 & 2, but Harden's leadership with the 2nd unit manifested itself by reversing this trend over the next 4 games. Most impressive, they did it both with offense AND defense and in the process completely marginalized key Spurs players like Matt Bonner and Gary Neal.

Harden punctuated the turnaround with a Game 5 dagger (see below) and helped bring his team to the Finals with a strong showing in Game 6.

Finals vs Heat: D

James Harden will likely want to forget his first Finals experience. After showing growth in the 1st three rounds, Harden fell apart on the grandest stage. The reasons are readily available - the heightened pressure, the mental fatigue, the task of trying to guard LeBron James, etc., but at the end of the day, Harden simply did not get the job done. Just like in the Lakers series, Harden consistently looked uncertain and unprepared to exploit the Heat defense. Miami is top-heavy just like OKC is, but despite Miami not having any legitimate defender who could stop Harden, Harden never made the Heat defense pay in their defense against Durant. This was a series in which Harden could have tipped the scales; alas, he wasn't quite ready for the challenge and had to taste the bitterness of defeat while handing LeBron his first ring.

Most Memorable Game:

James Harden had a number of outstanding performances over the course of the season. I'm not sure what was more impressive - the level of consistency he reached, or the fact that when called upon, he was able to increase his scoring as needed. For certain, his two consecutive games against the Suns, first on March 7th and then on April 18th, fully showcased Harden's offensive efficiency. In the first game Harden scored 30 points off of only 12 shots. In the 2nd game, he upped the ante by scoring a career-high 40 off of only 17 shots.

Harden's biggest moment though came in the playoffs during Game 4 of the first round against the Mavericks. OKC was playing on Dallas' home court, up in the series 3-0, and they were looking to close out the defending champs. Dallas would not go quietly into the good night however, and seized a seemingly commanding 13 point lead heading into the 4th. Dallas might lose the series, but they for sure weren't going to lose it on their home court.

Dallas' sentiment would have and should have been resolute, but then James Harden went to work.

Most Memorable Single Moment:

The moment occurred in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder were in the middle of a remarkable turnaround in the series. After falling behind 0-2, OKC battled back to even things up and then headed back to San Antonio for the pivotal Game 5. Clinging to a 2 point lead as the Spurs attempted to surge to a come-from-behind win, Harden stepped up and drilled the quintessential dagger 3-pointer.


Future Expectations:

James Harden will continue to be one of the best shooting guards in the NBA and next season he will either be named 6th Man of the Year again, or he will be named to his first All-Star game as a reserve. Harden is a key cog in the Thunder's championship hopes and he will play like it in 2012-13.

There is next season, but then there is next off-season. The biggest question on everyone's minds is not whether Harden will play great next year, but whether he will play great for the Thunder in the long term. The Thunder will have to decide what they can afford to pay Harden, and Harden will have to decide how much money he is willing to forgo to remain a part of a perennial contender. The two ends will have to meet if we are to see Harden wearing OKC colors beyond next season.

Sam Presti, work your magic once more.

***

Player Grades:

A: Far exceeded expectations
B: Exceeded expectations
C: Met expectations
D: Did not meet expectations
F: Fell far short of expectations

Other Player Grades:

X
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