Confidence can be an athlete's best friend. Given the often razor-thin margins separating the athleticism and skills of players at the NBA level, a healthy self-regard can be the difference between a just-missed chance and a roster spot, between a flubbed audition for bigger minutes and a rotation place seized, between being viewed as steady enough and perceived as an emerging star. And when things look grim, the shot clock's winding down and the roosters are crowing and the cows are spinning circles in the pasture, believing you'll make the shot can be nearly as important as keeping your elbow in and following through.
James Harden, like many other top-level NBA superstars, clearly does not lack for confidence.
The Houston Rockets All-Star joined several fellow NBA luminaries — Team USA teammates Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis, and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Kevin Durant — on Tuesday for an event promoting "NBA 2K15," the forthcoming new installment of the successful annual basketball video game. As part of the event, Harden and his pals sat down to answer questions about a variety of topics — favorite songs, gaming habits, prospective NBA rule changes, how their electronic avatars compare to their flesh-and-blood selves, etc. In answering one question, Harden offered not only an evaluation of the talents of his All-Star pals, but also a very generous estimation of his own:
"I'm the best all-around basketball player in the NBA," Harden said. "Steph Curry would probably be the best shooter, pure shooter, in the NBA. KD would probably be the best scorer in the NBA, and Anthony Davis would probably be the best shot-blocker in the NBA."
Harden struck a similar note during a recent interview with ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson:
Scoop: Bottom line, you are on this [U.S. national] team and a lot of players aren't, but in your mind, who is the best basketball player alive right now?
Scoop: That's what I was about to say, "including you." You made that sound like it was an easy answer.
Harden: It is. Myself.
There are plenty of ways to poke holes in this, if you're so inclined — starting, of course, with those not-so-nice mixtapes of Harden playing lackadaisical defense. There are two sides to the court, after all, and if you're going to call yourself the best all-around player in the NBA and the best basketball player alive, you've got to play both of them.
At this stage in his development, Harden just doesn't D up frequently enough, or at a high-enough level when he is committed to the task, to merit serious consideration alongside the likes of more consistently elite two-way performers like LeBron James, Paul George and Chris Paul, or Durant, who isn't necessarily a stopper himself, but whose unparalleled offensive gifts and metronomic production vault him to a different level, into the sort of rarefied air where you win MVP awards. Harden's not there right now. (For what it's worth, Harden did offer a hedge in his conversation with Jackson, saying that he's "still trying to catch guys like LeBron, KD and Kobe [Bryant] ... That's something I get to look forward to every single day to motivate me.")
Here's where we focus on the phrases "at this stage in his development" and "right now" and where we take a deep breath to remember that James Harden is A) six days shy of his 25th birthday and B) just two years removed from coming off the bench in Oklahoma City. He's not a finished product yet, because of course he isn't.
Two years back, the hirsute lefty responded to his first crack at starting by averaging 25.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game, making his first All-Star team and leading the Rockets to their first playoff berth since 2009. Last year, he responded to the ramped-up expectations that came with the addition of Dwight Howard by improving his field-goal and free-throw percentages, bumping up his assist rate while averaging fewer turnovers per minute, turning in a higher Player Efficiency Rating than any other two-guard in the league and rising from the All-NBA Third Team to the No. 1 squad. Maybe we shouldn't give short shrift to the suggestion that he'll respond to rampant criticism of his shortcomings by improving upon them and reaching another level, as Durant, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love did after strong turns for the U.S. in the most recent edition of this tournament, then called the FIBA World Championship, back in 2010.
Harden's combination of handle, playmaking, footwork, marksmanship and athleticism make him the game's premier shooting guard at the moment, as well as a rare bird in a historical sense. Only Harden, James, Rose, Dwyane Wade, Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing and Charlie Scott have averaged 25 points, six assists and four rebounds per game for a full season before their 25th birthday, as Harden did last year. That's two Hall of Famers, two sure-fire future Hall of Famers, the youngest MVP in league history and Scott, who made five All-Star teams in the ABA and NBA and put up 25 points, 11 rebounds, five steals and three assists in a championship-clinching victory for the Boston Celtics over the Phoenix Suns in the 1976 NBA Finals. Not bad company.
To date, however, Harden's offensive prowess as The Man in Houston has resulted in only individual accolades and a pair of first-round postseason exits. That includes a six-game defeat at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers this spring in which fellow All-Star Damian Lillard hit the series-clinching shot on a possession where Harden appeared to call for a defensive switch that moved bulldog point guard Patrick Beverley off Lillard in favor of small forward Chandler Parsons. Why exactly that switch happened remains unclear — “We had a certain defensive scheme," Harden said after the game — but what's unmistakable is that for a Rockets team that seems to have struck out this summer to take the next step in a brutal Western Conference, it's going to need its signature stars to turn their weaknesses into strengths. For Harden, that means dialing it up on the defensive end and taking on more responsibility for Houston's fate both on and off the floor.
The good news for Rockets fans is that, to hear Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski tell it, Harden's doing precisely that in his role as one of the core performers on the U.S. squad that's preparing to compete in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain later this month. Coach K recently praised Harden's "terrific" maturity and called the former Arizona State standout and 2012 Olympic gold medalist "as good a leader as we've had for this team," especially in the aftermath of losing George to a gruesome injury and Durant to accumulated fatigue.
"He is an upbeat guy, smart, and he’s obviously very, very talented," Krzyzewski told media members during Team USA's workouts in New York. "With this group, especially after Kevin left, he has asserted himself even more as an older guy.
"I don’t how maturity develops when I’m not around it all the time. I just know that he’s one of the best players in the NBA, and having this responsibility here will only make him better," Krzyzewski added. "These guys get better after playing [with Team USA], because they go to places that they don’t necessarily go to on their own teams, whether it be in a subordinate role at times, a leadership role, the key player, the good talker, or whatever. James checks every box."
Harden, for his part, is trying to take advantage of the opportunity to lead the national team, and to develop his own voice as the sort of established elite performer to whom younger, more inexperienced players can look.
"Obviously, I’m still learning and have a long way to go, but the first couple of steps is already there," he said. "So trying to be more vocal is part of my leadership role, especially on this team — guys have the talent, but guys are kind of shy and might not want to talk. Coach K had plenty of talks with me, [telling me to] make sure you’re vocal, make sure guys hear you. So that’s what I tried to do."
After making no bones about where he sees himself among the ranks of the NBA's best, the whole world definitely hears Harden now. What he says next — with his play in Spain, with his comportment on both ends for the Rockets, and as the tip of Houston's spear come the 2014-15 postseason — ought to tell us an awful lot about whether "best all-around player in the NBA" was mere acting-as-if or simply an ahead-of-schedule pronouncement of the next stop in the rising star's upward trajectory.
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