Let’s not get it confused. I am not going to argue that James Harden is a bad basketball player. In what follows, I am going to consider a couple points about James Harden’s game that I feel have been neglected by sports media and talk about why that is, namely his trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As we all know by now, the majority of GM’s in the NBA have ranked James Harden as the number one shooting guard in the league. This is significant because it means for the first time in the history of the poll that Kobe has not been the best shooting guard in the league. The day had to come at some point, unless delusional GM’s voted Kobe as the best shooting guard after his inevitable retirement because of a Jordan-esque desire to keep playing. It isn’t unfair to rank Harden above Kobe, and I say that as a Lakers fan, because Kobe tore his Achilles tendon after all. But how good is Harden really? Sure he is an all-star basketball player, and that should not be downplayed, but is a replacement for Kobe, the replacement for Michael, or is he just the best shooting guard in a league that is not that strong at the shooting guard position? This is the real question. The other big name at the shooting guard position is Wade, whose body is constantly hurting, and after him there is sort of a mish-mash of players who contribute but don’t shine. Guys like Bradley Beal, OJ Mayo, JJ Redick, and Eric Gordon. We are back in an era of the small forward.
So lets take a look at Harden. In 2012-2013, Harden put up 26/4.5/5 with 2.3 combined steals and blocks per game. Those are numbers anyone would and should be happy with. However, Harden achieved this numbers on 43.8% shooting which is pretty abysmal for the best shooting guard in the league. He also jacked up over 6 threes a game and turned the ball over almost 4 times per game. Where Harden was most redeeming is in his ability to get to the charity stripe, where he shot 85% from. Consequently, his “true shooting” percentage was 60% which is quite high but it is in large part a product of playing in an uptempo aggressive environment allows him to push the ball in the open court. All of this is quite confusing then when it comes to evaluating his performance as player. His team was the 8th seed in the playoffs and were taken out in the first round by an OKC team robbed of Russell Westbrook after a bush league move by Patrick Beverly. It is also important to point out that in 33 contests Harden shot worse than 40% from the field in mostly losing efforts, an atrocious mark for anyone let alone the best shooting guard in the league.
The 12 Angry Men in my mind are a hung jury on James Harden. At times he is a phenomenal player but he also very frequently is a clunker on the court bombing shot after shot. The interesting thing is that there has not been a lot of coverage about Harden in the regard. He is almost ubiquitously discussed in a positive light. But how could this be in a day an age when fans are eager to make arguments and declarations against anyone and everyone in the league? I think it is because of his trade from the Thunder and the general sentiment that Sam Presti threw out a perennial championship contender over $4,000,000. Let me qualify that, he threw out a loveable championship contender. The Thunder were, and still are, the darling of the NBA. No one hates the players, particularly when Harden played for them (the move some Seattle rustled more than a few feathers). They have fostered and raised a really talented team that has by and large stuck together and were beacon of light against the oligarchical Heat. But it has been a year since then and as a population, we are not terribly critical or really understand Harden’s game. That has to change because now that he is the best shooting guard in the league, he needs the mountains of pressure that come with title. Somewhere right now, Blake Griffin is happy that another young player is getting criticism which may or may not be deserved.