James Harden was the third overall pick. He was an All-American at Arizona State, all Pac-10 both years there and won Pac-10 Player of the Year as a sophomore. He averaged over 20 points a game, was one of the best one-on-one scorers in the country and at the time, appeared to be the perfect pick for the Thunder at No. 3.
I’m not saying he isn’t or won’t be. But right now, Oklahoma City isn’t getting the kind of production it had in mind from Harden. He’s averaging more minutes than last year (25.3), but fewer points (8.2), assists (1.4) and his field goal percentage is way down (36.4). His PER is an anemic 10.5.
Look at what he did late last season, in summer league and in the preseason. He appeared ready to breakout. But he’s struggled some early, much like the rest of the team. So, what’s up?
DT contributor and commenter Joe put this idea in the comments and I thought it was completely on point:
I think Harden’s biggest and maybe only problem is that he doesn’t take what the defense gives him, he tries to do what he wants even if the door is closed.
He gets the ball often near the three point line. If he’s open he sometimes shoots the three, I’m fine with that. Other times he mostly begins trying to drive to the hole with the dribble drive. Fine. But in the NBA, when the help defense comes there needs to be a counter move. He can’t just force up another left handed prayer and hope to get an AND 1. If it was working for him we wouldn’t be talking about him being a bust. He’s only hitting 38% of his shots at the rim.
He needs to take what the defense gives him. When he begins his drive he needs to be of the mindset that the drive is to either find the open space for pull up jumper and take it, to drive and pull up and use the floater (like Maynor does so well) or to look to dish. But he should only be going all the way to the hole if he’s got a clear lane and can beat the help and then he needs to dunk the damn ball and not do a stupid little lefty finger roll. That worked in college, it doesn’t work against Tyson Chandler. It might work tonight against Brad Miller, but less likely against a quality center.
To me that’s the jist of it. He’s shown decent touch on the short jumper and he’s proven he can hit the three, but he needs an in-between game. He needs to use all the tools in the tool belt.
On top of that, Harden is in such an awkward position for a guy that was taken third and has always been the star scorer for his team at every stop. He’s having to play a role. And that’s not something that’s easy to figure out. The position Harden is in is kind of awkward. Thabo Sefolosha is extremely valuable because of his defense. With Russell Westbrook’s development as a point guard and second reliable scorer, plus Kevin Durant, plus Jeff Green, Harden is kind of getting squeezed.
How do you fit in to that offense? How do you know when to look for your own, when to create and when to shoot? Even more than Harden developing a reliable 3-point shot or his defense, figuring out simply how to fit in is really the hardest, and most important thing for him. It’s really a skill that takes a special player to develop. John Havlicek is the gold standard, with guys currently playing it well like Jamal Crawford, Manu Ginobili, Jason Terry and Lamar Odom.
Being a quality sixth man doesn’t mean you’re handcuffed by your starters. It means you provide a spark, fill in the blanks when you need to and give your team a second unit that can keep your team in it. It’s not like Harden hasn’t played meaningful minutes. He’s on the floor most times in crunch time and in important late-game situations. But when you’re out there with Durant, Westbrook and Green, where do you find your own? It’s really kind of hard to blame Harden, because he’s in a tough spot.
Look at what he did when he got the opportunity to start and play his old familiar role as a go-to guy. Against the Celtics where Durant and Green missed, Harden had 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. Then against Milwaukee, he went for a season-high 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists, plus 6-8 from 3. (Oh, and on the season, he’s shooting nearly 42 percent from 3. That’s good.) So there are positives here with Harden. It’s not like he’s not a good basketball player.
It’s way, way, WAY too early to call him anything of a bust or a bad pick. Take anyone and put him in this situation and you don’t know how he’d respond. Reality is, Harden has never complained, never pouted and never not done what he was asked. He understands his part and his job on the team. He just needs to start doing it a little better.