It wasn’t long ago that James Harden was a key member of an up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder team. He, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook formed one of the most dynamic offensive trios in the league. While Harden was used primarily in a sixth man role, he was already beginning to develop into a terrific scorer. It was in his second season, during the 2011 playoffs when we first started to see glimpses of the player Harden would become. During the Thunder’s playoff run that year, he was second on the team in assists per game (3.6) and third in scoring (13). He was being asked to take on a bigger role and was thriving.
“My second year I got more comfortable with the ball, had the ball a lot in the playoffs.” Harden said. “That’s when that gave me that confidence to go out there and really handle it, take control of the game. My third year in OKC, I was handling the ball a lot, especially in the playoffs – the Western Conference Finals and the Finals.”
The confidence he gained from his strong postseason play was evident in his third year, which would turn out to be his final season with the Thunder. While still coming off the bench, Harden was playing over 30 minutes a game while averaging 16.8 points and shooting 49.1 percent from the field. He was making tremendous strides as player, playing well enough to win the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2011-12.
Following the 2011-12 season, Harden had one year remaining on his contract before becoming a restricted free agent. Although the Thunder were very serious about re-signing Harden to a new deal, they were limited in what they could offer him after already locking up Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to long-term deals. Harden also wanted an increased role, asking to be a starter rather than coming off of the bench. The two sides were unable to come to an agreement, leaving the Thunder in a precarious position. General manager Sam Presti decided the best course of action was to trade Harden.
“We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved,” Presti said in a statement per ESPN.com. “Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers.”
On October 28, 2012, Harden would be traded to the Houston Rockets in a move that would significantly change the landscape of the Western Conference and drastically change his career. For his first time as a pro, Harden was the go-to guy. No longer would he have Durant to bail him out on the wing or Westbrook by his side in the backcourt. It didn’t take long for Harden to prove he was ready for the spotlight. In his first game with the Rockets, Harden went off for 37 points, 12 assists and six rebounds. He followed that performance with a 45-point effort on just 19 shots in his second game. It was immediately clear that Harden absolutely had the chops to play a lead role.
Now in his third year with the Rockets, at just 25 years old, Harden has grown into one of the top players in the league. He has become the heart and soul of the team and his production echos that. Harden is not only averaging a league-best 27.4 points per game, he also leads the Rockets in assists at 6.8 – averaging more than double than the next highest Rocket Patrick Beverley. Scoring isn’t the only category where Harden finds himself as a league leader, as his win share total of 11.1 is a full 1.1 points higher than the two players tied for second place, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry. Of course, offense has never been the issue with Harden. He has often been criticized for his uninspired play on the defensive end. While he won’t be confused with Tony Allen anytime soon, he has really worked hard to improve that aspect of his game, putting up a career best defensive rating of 102 this season. Harden is truly having a career-year and his numbers have improved significantly, so it’s no surprise to see Harden garnering serious consideration for the MVP award. However, that’s not his focus.
“You know what, I don’t really worry about stuff like that.” Harden said of the MVP race. “I worry about trying to win games and trying to get my team prepared for the playoffs because that’s what it’s about, putting ourselves in a position to make a run and do something big in these playoffs.”
Behind the play Harden and the team’s surprisingly stingy defense, the Rockets are sitting 36-17 and in fourth place in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. They have continued to win even in the absence of star big man Dwight Howard, and a lot of credit for that goes to Harden. When asked how the team has managed to stay afloat with their second-best player, Harden says it’s because of “the will.”
“Dwight brings so much to our team, we’re going to miss him and hopefully he gets back soon, but I just tell guys like Joey Dorsey and Josh Smith, all the bigs, that you guys are going to have a lot of opportunities,” Harden said. “There are a lot of opportunities to play a lot of minutes and we’re going to need you, so you prepare mentally and physically to go out there and contribute. And they’ve done a great job.”
While Dorsey, Smith and Donatas Motiejunas have all stepped up, it’s been head coach Kevin Mchale who has helped keep the team from getting too high or too low throughout the long NBA season.
“He’s won championships, he’s played in the league, so he knows the ins and outs and he knows the grind.” Harden said of McHale. “For me, we have that relationship where we can talk and he helps me all the time, making sure I take care of my body, and on the court making sure that I see a play that I haven’t seen or something.”
Harden will get a bit of a break from the grind this weekend as he makes his third straight All-Star appearance. It’s a chance for Harden to spend some time with his former Thunder teammates, particularly Durant, whom he remains close with and credits with helping him grow into the player he is today.
“That’s my right hand man,” Harden said of Durant. “I’ve learned so much from him, he’s going through a tough time right now, battling all these injuries, but he’s a strong-minded person; he’s going to battle through it, fight through it. I just try to send him text messages here and there to give him motivation and courage, so when he gets back on the court he’ll be 100 percent. Obviously [then] he gets back on the court and scores 40 points and only misses five shots – that’s really unheard of.”
The All-Star break has given Harden the chance to take a step back and reflect on just how far he has come as a player since being chosen third overall by the Thunder in 2009. Even after he developed into an elite sixth man, it would have been hard to predict his meteoric rise with the Rockets. Though when you here Harden talk, the belief he has in himself, combined with his work ethic, it’s not hard to why to see why has become a star since landing in Houston. While his demeanor may rub some the wrong way, Harden isn’t afraid to proclaim himself as the best player in the league. And with the way he has played this year, he may not be wrong.
“It’s not even being cocky, it’s about having confidence in myself,” Harden said. “I said it two years ago or last year, I can’t remember; they were talking about, ‘Oh he’s crazy.’ But I got confidence in myself. I go out there and put the work in every single day. It is what it is.”
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