When James Harden began the 2012-13 season with a 10-megaton explosion — 37 points and 12 assists on opening night, followed by a career-high 45 two nights later — you kind of had to applaud Daryl Morey for his foresight.
Sure, plenty of hoop lovers had come to admire the never-in-a-hurry playmaking gifts of the hirsute Oklahoma City Thunder guard since he entered the league in 2009. But when OKC brass bristled at giving Harden a maximum-salaried contract — reportedly owing to concerns about what such a deal would mean for their salary structure, with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka already in the fold and the 2011 collective bargaining agreement making luxury tax payments more punitive than ever — it was the Houston Rockets’ general manager who was at Sam Presti’s doorstep with a deal.
Where the world saw a sixth man — the best one in the league, to be fair, but still — Morey saw a main man, the force of nature who’d finish second in MVP voting in 2015 and who may well be the front-runner for that honor in 2017. And now, with the Rockets running roughshod over the competition behind Harden’s heroics a the controls of Coach of the Year favorite Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense, we think, “Surely, this is exactly how Morey saw it all playing out four Octobers ago.”
Weeeeell … maybe not exactly, as Morey colorfully recounts in a new feature on Harden and the red-hot Rockets by Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:
“People always ask, ‘You traded for him; did you know he was this good?'” Morey says. “I’m like, ‘F–k no!’ I mean, we thought he was extremely good and better than other teams probably did.”
But not top-five good or, say, top-three, which Morey would make the case for today. […]
What the Rockets saw, and what the spreadsheets illuminated, was that Harden was already elite in his ability to attack the basket and create high-efficiency shots, whether for himself or an open teammate.
“He was always flashing off the charts on that,” Morey says. “The question was more: Can he do that when he’s playing all front-line defenders?” […] “Even we thought it would come back to Earth,” Morey says. “It hasn’t.”
No. No, it hasn’t.
James Harden has scored or assisted on 50% of the Rockets points THIS ENTIRE SEASON. pic.twitter.com/DQFReYmiNm
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 19, 2017
Harden entered Wednesday third in the NBA in scoring, averaging 28.7 points per game, just a tick under last year’s career-high 29 points per contest. He’s doing so while taking a quantum leap forward as a table-setter, leading the league with 11.7 assists per game — topping last year’s mark by more than four dimes a game — and creating a league-best 28.5 points a night off his helpers, nearly five more than the second-place facilitator in that category, John Wall of the Washington Wizards.
He ranks fifth in the NBA in points scored off drives to the basket, collapsing defenses every time he knifes into the paint. He’s also fifth among high-volume players in points produced per possession used as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, leaving opponents chasing their tails as he works around high screens from the likes of Clint Capela, Nene and Montrezl Harrell, forcing them to either swarm him and give up an open shot to one of Houston’s cadre of knockdown shooters, or stay at home on the perimeter and let Harden go one-on-one with a retreating rim protector.
Pick the former, and you’re at the mercy of the NBA’s most willing (and sixth most accurate) 3-point bombers. Choose the latter, and you’re either allowing a deep paint touch to a between-the-tackles running back who converts nearly two-thirds of his attempts within five feet of the basket or, more likely, given his remarkable proclivity for courting contact, fouling him. Harden shoots a league-leading 10.5 freebies a night, hitting them at an 85 percent clip.
While the approach might not always be beautiful, it is exacting and effective, brutalizing and brilliant. This is Harden’s game, the one that has led the Rockets to a 33-12 record and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference … and, to hear Harden’s former Thunder teammate Durant tell it, it always was his game. From a lengthy chat with Anthony Slater of the Bay Area News Group:
Harden was the crafty assassin with the natural feel for the angles and quirks of the game, a foul magnet that would invite and initiate contact. Play through it, he’d tell them, even at 20.
“He was mature at that age,” Durant said. “Definitely a worker. That’s what all three of us had in common and it trickled down to the rest of the group.” […]
Harden took a leap from Year 1 to 2. He dominated summer league and arrived more prepared, mentally and physically, for a bigger role. At 21, he was already one of the league’s most productive bench players. It rounded out the team. The Thunder won 55 games and went to the West Finals for the first time, losing to the eventual champion [Dallas] Mavericks.
“He had that command of the second unit,” Durant said. “He knew that was his group. I would sit down on the bench and play 21 minutes sometimes because they’d take the game over and we’d win by 20 or 30. It was just a joy to see. Then he had 40 coming off the bench one night and I was like, yeah, this guy’s different.”
But while he saw up close and personal how “different” Harden was from other backups around the league, it seems possible that Durant — who, as you might have heard, has also left Oklahoma City, cementing a talent dispersals that has the one-time teammates now putting in MVP-caliber work in three different ZIP codes — still might be underselling just how different.
I say that because, apparently, he still thinks the Beard might’ve been cool with continuing to come off the pine for a while if Presti hadn’t elected to pull the trigger. More from Durant’s sitdown with Slater:
In their early 20s, could all three have been willing to absorb all the potential sacrifices, from the endorsements to the shots to the money? Could Westbrook and Harden, who are 1-2 in the NBA in time of possession per game — 9.0 minutes for Harden, 8.7 for Westbrook — have shared the load? Could Durant, one of the most gifted scorers in history, still have gotten his deserved chunk of the pie? Could a 27-year-old James Harden still be satisfied in a Sixth Man role? Could all that have really worked?
“I think he’d have stayed in that role. I think so,” Durant said. “He’d have still been a really great player. You look at it, a lot of people wouldn’t have looked at him as a Sixth Man. He’d have been better. I think he’d have been better. Obviously I’m sure he loves what he’s doing now, but if we would’ve won a championship, I think the perception of him would’ve just been as a great player. ‘He’s the heart, he’s what makes us go.’ That’s what his label would’ve been, instead of just Sixth Man. He would’ve probably been the best Sixth Man that ever was.”
While it’s true that several special players have built Hall of Fame careers out of their work off the bench — Celtics legends Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek spring to mind, as does the San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginobili — such players are more the exception than the rule. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported at the time of the trade that, after spending the summer of 2012 winning a gold medal at the London Olympics with Team USA, “less money and a sixth-man role […] was an impossible sell on Harden,” a 23-year-old teeming with talent and confidence who sought the opportunity “to prove [himself] worthy of the salary that will come with stardom.”
Ultimately, you can’t hide the sun under a bushel. At some point, Harden had to shine … even if neither his fellow rising-star teammate nor the executive who wagered three first-round picks and a veteran scorer on the bearded bowling ball saw just how bleepin’ radiant he’d one day become.
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