Jacob Eisenberg explains why James Harden’s early dominance in his new role as the star of the Houston Rockets is anything but beginner’s luck.
James Harden’s dominant arrival in Houston should not come as a surprise to anyone.
Dispel all notions that Harden has not yet proved himself as a star in the NBA. Ignore the theory suggesting that his choke in last year’s NBA Finals indicates that he is conclusively “unclutch.” End all ideas that Harden was not deserving of a max-contract.
Continue to underestimate the 23-year-old and he will only shine brighter on his way toward rejuvenating a seemingly dormant Houston organization. With Harden at the helm, the Rockets seem primed for their first playoff launch since 2009.
Harden’s success in the NBA was not immediate. It is easy to forget about his rookie season in which it appeared he was overhyped coming out of college. As the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Harden’s posted a disappointing stat line in his first year. Throw in the successes of Harden’s rookie peers Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry, and Tyreke Evans, who had all exploded onto the NBA scene, and it is easy to understand why Thunder fans were already questioning the Harden selection.
In Bill Simmons’ season wrap-up from April of 2010, The Sports Guy firmly believed Oklahoma City made the wrong choice in choosing Harden:
“Could (Oklahoma City) find another Harden-like talent through the draft or free agency? Yes. Could it find another (Stephen) Curry-like talent? No. He’s an original prototype.”
Fast-forward just over two years later and it is abundantly clear: James Harden is not just another talent who comes around every draft or free agent season. Harden, in his own right, could be perhaps the league’s most original prototype based on his unique playing style on the court and maturity beyond his years off of it.
How many college superstars with immensely high NBA expectations are mature enough at only 20-years-old to concede individual recognition for team success? Better yet, how many Olympic Gold Medalists with All-Star talent are selfless enough to still willingly come off the bench for the betterment of his team three years later?
Had Oklahoma City recognized Harden’s sacrifices in the box scores over his three years with the Thunder, they would have seen a top-15 NBA player whose only request was to be rewarded with fair contract compensation. Despite having the skills to star on any team in the league, Harden was willing to embrace any role Oklahoma City needed him to fill had they merely treated him with the same respect in contract negotiations that they gave to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
For anyone who wants to claim that Harden was selfish for demanding a maximum contract, consider these facts: The Oklahoma City Thunder made over $30 Million in profit last season and had a myriad of options to retain a core of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden for the remainder of their careers without exceeding the luxury tax. Moreover, at 6’5”, Harden is one of the last remaining true shooting guards in the league with enough size and speed to excel at the position for years to come. At only 23-years old, he certainly will.
The Rockets were cognizant of Harden’s value and jumped at the opportunity to land a capable franchise centerpiece.
Now, only a week into the James Harden era in Houston, it has already become abundantly clear that Harden is everything the Rockets could have hoped for.
Harden’s transition to Houston has been successful for a number of reasons. Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale cites Harden’s intelligence as his biggest asset in getting acclimated to Houston’s playing style. “He is very bright and has a great basketball IQ,” McHale said. “He picks up things on the side very well so he has learned a lot over the course of just a few days.”
Beyond his intelligence, Harden’s leadership has also been integral in adjusting to a Rockets team without many veterans. Despite coming from Oklahoma City, where he was assumed to defer leadership responsibilities to Durant and Westbrook, Harden has been quick to instill his leading presence in Houston’s locker room. Rockets Small Forward Chandler Parsons noted, ”James is very, very vocal. When he comes into practice, he puts us in the right spots on the court. He’s always talking. You can tell he did that in Oklahoma City also. He’s a very good leader.”
Rookie point guard Scott Machado agreed, “I’ve seen a lot from James as a leader. He brings a lot of energy to the practices and shootarounds. He keeps our guys focused with that energy.”
For Harden, playing with both a successful Thunder team and a USA Gold team have helped him expand upon his confident persona as a leader. “My leadership has always been there,” Harden shared. “It improved with the Thunder and I learned a couple of things from USA Basketball but my leadership and my effectiveness are just parts of who I am.”
Players around the league do not find Harden’s meteoric rise in Houston surprising. Atlanta Hawks Forward Josh Smith, who watched Harden explode for 45 points in his second game as a Rocket, noted, “When you get Sixth Man of the Year and win a Gold Medal in the summer time, I think it does wonders for your confidence. There are not a lot of players who can do what he does.”
Hawks’ Head Coach Larry Drew expects Houston’s playing style to enhance Harden’s skill set and statistics, “Houston plays a style that opens the floor and allows him to be at his best,” said Drew. “He is a good player. He can beat you inside and he can beat you outside. He’s a powerful driver and he is very clever. Defending him is not just one man’s responsibility — it’s a team responsibility.”
Harden’s new featured-role in the offense has already seemed to help raise his scoring numbers. On November 2nd, just six days after being traded, Harden became only the third player in NBA history to score 82 points or more in his first two games of the season. (The other two players? Some dudes named Michael and Wilt…) On November 5th, Harden’s quick start was recognized by the NBA as he was named the Western Conference Player of the Week in the season’s opening week.
Despite his seamless transition, Harden, himself, admits to still be learning his new role on the fly, “Having the offense run basically through you, it’s a lot different, but that’s my job now so I’ve got to get used to it.”
Harden also expects the team’s continuity to improve once he grows more familiar with his new teammates, “It’s still early. We have a little bit to go with chemistry but we have a good group of guys who work hard to get better every single day.”
As long as Harden keeps performing at his torrid pace, the team’s chemistry will not be an issue; nothing brings a team closer together than winning. As Harden’s backcourt-mate Jeremy Lin said with a grin on his face, “He knows what he’s doing. We’re thankful that he showed up.”
Originally published on The Fan Manifesto for the week of November 8th, 2012