If you missed it, James Harden was named the 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year. Ahem, excuse me — the Kia 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year.
Harden received 584 of a possible 595 points, including 115 of 119 first place votes (the other four went to Lou Williams and Taj Gibson). It was pretty much as no-brainer an NBA award as there will be this season. Harden was splendid off the Thunder bench, anchoring one of the best second units in basketball while also establishing himself as one of the best shooting guards in the game.
His role has never really been something he was worried about, though Scott Brooks did say he met with Harden following the season last year and asked him if he wanted to start.
“We sat down for lunch and I wanted to get his thoughts going into the summer because I thought that was going to be a very important summer for him and our team’s growth taking the next step,” Brooks said. “I just asked him ‘What are your goals going into the summer?’ thinking he would tell me he wanted to start. All he said was, ‘Coach I want to do whatever it takes for the team to get better.’ And right then and there I knew he had bought in to the job that we need him to do.”
Harden had an interesting comment though in that he felt like he really didn’t “get it” early on in his career.
“Being drafted the third overall pick, most guys would come in and think they’re going to be a starter on any team,” Harden said. “But this team is definitely something special, especially with all the talent that was already here. And Scotty did a great job of making me become that sixth man off bench. Helping me figure my role out. At first as a rookie, I didn’t get it. I just thought I was going to go in there and score and do all the things that every other players thought. But learning, three years it took me to embrace that role, come in and not just score the ball, but change the game.”
By getting it, I think Harden means the total package, on a consistent basis. Because he was productive the last half of his rookie season. He was really good most of his second season, albeit a bit erratic. But what changed? What made him totally understand what he needed to do? The Jeff Green trade, he said.
“I think the middle of last year is when I really got it,” he said. “That trade deadline happened and my role became bigger on this team. I had to make sure every single game I was focused on doing my role at its best. Coming in and changing the game.”
You could say he did that. On a night to night basis, it wasn’t always entirely evident who the best player on the floor was for OKC. Game 4 in Dallas was a perfect illustration of that. Harden did what he said — changed the game. He flips the Thunder’s style, distributes, creates and scores. He’s a wonderful middleman to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, provided a perfect release.
This season, Harden was one of the league’s most efficient players, averaging an outrageous 1.66 points per shot. That was second in the league only behind Tyson Chandler (1.97). Consider this little nugget as well via HoopsHype: “To put Harden’s feat of 1.66 PPS as a guard into even more perspective, neither Michael Jordan nor Steve Nash nor Ray Allen ever broke the 1.5 PPS mark.”
And he’s just 22. He stepped into a challenging role coming out of college as a terrific scorer, an All-American, Pac-10 Player of the Year, a guy that could probably go to a team and lead it as its first option. But instead, he’s settled into a job with the Thunder, becoming as important a piece to the team’s success as Durant or Westbrook.
“We also feel it’s important to note that James is the second youngest player to win this award,” said Sam Presti. “This is only important to us because I think it’s speaks to the fact that not many young players at this stage of their career would be able to understand and respect the role itself and the meaning it has to the team. His approach to this role has really helped define our team and all that we’re about.
“James is a young person, but he has a very mature outlook,” Presti continued. “And that has nothing to do with the stellar facial hair that you see before him right there that’s on display that makes all of us jealous.”
Oh right, the beard. Harden was asked if it deserved a little credit. “Of course,” he said. “It’s very noticeable. It’s who I am. It’s gotten me to where I am. And all credit to it.”
Could this be the first of many Sixth Man awards for Harden? Or could he finally move over to the starting five?
“We’ll see what he says this summer,” said Brooks.