Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Magic Basketball previews the 2011-2012 NBA season with a look at the players we’re most excited to watch this year.
My love for LeBron James has not gone undocumented. You can argue with me, hate me, judge me, or even discredit me. I stand firmly on my convictions that he is the best player in the game. But that’s not why I am writing today, nor is it the sole reason I live and breath NBA basketball.
The very same way that LeBron James represents my passion for the NBA, and really the game of basketball, James Harden represents all that there is to look forward to in the future of the league.
Whoa, that is a huge jump. Sit tight. I’ll explain what I mean.
There are basically a handful of super stars in the league that we are forced, either because of regional convictions or otherwise, to pick from and stand behind. Kobe guys are convinced that he’s the most clutch and greatest player to play. Dwight fans think that no one understands (like they do) the importance of defense, blocked shots, and presence. LeBron guys, while usually afraid to admit their love, are still convinced that he’s going to win five to seven championships pretty soon. I fall in that camp, by the way. Durant scores a lot, big time fantasy guy, we get it. But what goes unmentioned a lot of times are the rising stars that still grip us and represent the part of us that roots for the underdog (by that I mean undersized, underskilled, and under-everything). And really forget rooting for the underdog. How about rooting for a situation where we get to experience the growth, development, and arrival of a star.
I experienced something awesome last June. Most of the people I see every day here in Chattanooga know very little about the NBA (but goodness they will talk SEC football like it’s their job). They ask me a lot of dated questions about LeBron’s decision, and cite tired arguments about Kobe or LeBron being better — but their knowledge doesn’t go much farther than that.
Side note: I told a few guys at work this week that Chris Paul got traded to the Lakers and received more than three blank stares followed by a confused, “who?”
But something happened when the playoffs started. For many reasons, but primarily the story line revolving around LeBron and the Heat, people started giving the game a closer look. What I mean is the NBA is slightly less a wretched league infested by selfish, gutless prima donnas who want to “go one-on-one with anyone.” Yes, that is how most southern boys view the NBA. My geographic position in Chattanooga has typically left me sheepishly asking the bartender to change the channel from an SEC baseball game to an NBA game.
But last year during the playoffs, bars came alive with (perhaps) bandwagon Grizzlies fans rooting their hearts out for the likes of Marc Gasol, O.J. Mayo, and Zach Randolph. What? It was such a weird sight, but I realized that the draw for most of these guys was a.) the fact that Memphis was an underdog, b.) the guys on the team who were getting national attention for their unprecedented performances (Randolph, specifically), and c.) how identifiable Memphis was for these guys. It’s a regional thing.
It’s a good thing to access the game through superstars, but the game becomes addictive when you realize that guys like Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol (and James Harden — yes, I’m getting to him) can hang in a 48-minute game with, well, anyone.
The point here is that superstars doing superstar things have given new interest in the league that didn’t exist years ago, they get you to turn on your TV, or in my case, to revitalize your interest in the game of basketball. But it’s the rising stars that keep you coming back. They give you that hope that you’re witnessing something that will be talked about in years to come.
All that said, James Harden is by far and away the most exciting non-superstar to watch this year, and here’s why.
Age and progression
At 22 years old, Harden created a niche for himself within a rising program in OKC. Certainly it helps coming off the bench with a team boasting scoring juggernauts like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but Harden holds his own around these guys.
No, seriously, how many non-superstars have you seen display such consciousness and poise in the playoffs as a role player?
Every year since his arrival in the league, Harden has progressed in nearly every statistic, namely PER, which he has peaked at 16.75. Not great, but places him in the top 90 players in the league.
At this point it is almost impossible to imagine Harden plateauing. In fact, with his usage rate almost guaranteed to go up, I have Harden pegged as a future starter for OKC, and perhaps one of the most important pieces of this team given their penchant for lack of structured offense.
The dude works hard. People talk all the time about a “spark off the bench” — something akin to Nate Robinson, J.R. Smith, or an early David Lee (that’s a plug for my man Lee, by the way). Harden is the epitome of spark plug. His effort on both ends of the floor can literally change the ambiance of a game.
If I’m a team playing against OKC, I can’t think of a player I dread coming in more than James Harden. It usually means you have to shift up to the next gear, or just get run over.
Style of play
Let’s be honest, thrashers who thrive on working through the offense and get to the foul line at will are impact players. We heard about Derrick Rose and his struggles to get to the line all the time until last season. It’s not a problem for Harden. His size and athleticism give him a confidence that guys just don’t have at his position. On top of all that, he can bury the jump shot, so you have to guard the heck out of him to keep him out of the game.
The scariest part of his game is this — if you decide to stop him, that is, put a guy on him that will shut him down, he’s going to find ways to get his teammates involved. John Hollinger talked in his player profiles about how Kevin Durant looks silly trying to create for himself. That’s true, but Kevin Durant has James Harden who is smart enough to create shots for others. Isn’t that what basketball is all about?
Too many guys in the league are specialists and have not been trained (or blessed with the natural ability) to do multiple things on the floor. Harden is already a quasi-jack-of-all-trades, and with further development, he’ll be a triple threat.
He already knows how to isolate and work through a pick and roll offense to get to the bucket and/or get fouled. He plays aggressive defense, and as a starter will be less prone to aggressively overplay and foul. And finally, he’s got a really silky and underrated jump shot. As he matures and learns how to pick his spots to use each of these gifts, he’s going to be big time dangerous.
Whatever, his beard is pretty sweet, and he’s embraced it (as have all of his fans). “Fear the Beard” worked well as a campaign, and probably upped Harden’s resale value when it comes to being an exciting player on the cusp of taking things to the next level. I, for one, hope he never shaves it.
Harden went to college and played for an incredibly good coach. He no doubt learned team values and methods of winning that some players who enter the league do not. I cannot stress this enough. Harden has already developed in ways that so many guys in the league haven’t. Smart players understand their role and play within it. They do not try to do more than what they are capable of or what they are asked. Last year’s playoffs were proof that James Harden understands his role, and is willing to maximize his role to create an even better role for himself. This is invaluable.
Hollinger pointed out that sometimes it looks like Harden is the only guy who knows how to run an offense. Do you have any idea how hard it would be to stay grounded and focused on a run-and-gun team like OKC? Somehow, Harden does it, and it’s the reason you’re going to see his minutes, role, and numbers start to climb starting on Christmas Day.
I’ve tried to imagine a situation in the NBA today where a team would not love, and I mean love, having Harden on their squad. That’s really an understatement. I had a hard time thinking of a team where he wouldn’t make the starting five. Harden is a starter, and he’s one strong season away from making himself the apple of every team’s eye. He’ll be desirable, and in ways that many players are not. Take each of the aforementioned categories and bundle them up into one compounded by a year or so of development and you might have one of the most sought after guys in the league — and for good reason.