Year In Review: James Harden

by Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Writer/Reporter

Reflecting upon James Harden's past, present and future following the 2013-14 campaign

SEASON SUMMARY

A small sampling of James Harden’s statistical exploits from the 2013-14 season:

- The two-time All-Star finished fifth in the NBA in scoring, second in free throws made, and in the top-20 in both assists and steals per game

- He was one of only two players – LeBron James being the other – to average more than 25 points and six assists and four rebounds per game

- He finished second in the NBA – behind only Kevin Durant – in fourth quarter scoring average (7.0 points per game)

- During the last three months of the season, Harden’s per game averages increased to 27.4 points, 6.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 9.6 free throws per contest, all while shooting better than 41 percent from beyond the arc

Little wonder, then, that the fifth-year guard finished top-5 in the league’s MVP voting and was just named first-team all-NBA. The man had himself a heck of a year.

Some might wish to retroactively discount Harden’s accomplishments in the wake of the first round playoff defeat that saw him and his Rockets team fall short of the standard they had set for themselves during the regular season. And by his own admission, Harden’s performance was not his efficient best due in large part to the fact that his 3-point shot was off and Portland did a masterful job diminishing the damage he typically unleashes via pick-and-rolls (during the regular season, Harden averaged .996 points per possession when using pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy Sports, while that number dipped all the way down to .716 in the playoffs). Still, a proper dose of perspective is required: Harden delivered nearly 27 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals per contest in the postseason. We should all be fortunate enough to experience slip-ups such as those.

SEASON HIGHLIGHT

Harden topped the 30-point plateau 24 times, hit a bevy of big shots in the clutch throughout the year, recorded his second career triple-double, and came close to reaching that same statistical benchmark on multiple occasions. But as a general rule, anytime your performance summons the spirit of Michael Jordan, it’s a safe bet that showing will trump pretty much everything else.

That’s exactly what transpired the night of March 9 when Harden exploded for 41 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six steals – cumulative numbers only MJ has matched since the 1985-86 season – during Houston’s heart-stopping 118-113 overtime win over the Blazers. Harden scored 17 of his points in the final frame, enabling the Rockets to rally all the way back from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit, with none bigger than the three he delivered at the eight-second mark via a ridiculously high degree of difficulty shot from the corner that came with Wes Matthews draped all over him.

THE NEXT STEP

The vast majority of NBA superstars initially acquire that prestigious label as a result of their prolific offensive production. As the years progress and their games mature, an increase in defensive awareness and effort typically follows. To wit: LeBron was not always an all-world defender, and only in recent years has Durant begun to truly tap into his immense potential on that end of the floor. Such progression from young stars is not unusual – it is, in fact, the norm far more often than not.

And so it must be for Harden in his journey to further solidify himself as one of the best players in the world. To be sure, his offensive game – as robust as it already is – still has plenty of room for growth as well, which surely must be a rather terrifying prospect for the rest of the league. With additional experience and refinement, he’ll diversify his attacking portfolio by becoming a better decision maker, improving off the ball, and making more of an impact in the low-post where he has the ability to bully opponents as a scoring/passing double threat. But the 24-year old made no secret in his exit interviews with the media that his best path for personal betterment begins with a significant step forward on the defensive end.

“I have to emerge,” he acknowledged. “I have to grow and take another step. It’s a matter of will and focusing on that end as well. Focus is a major part of the game. Talent-wise, I’m there, but just focusing on the majority of the game (needs to improve).”

For any player who aspires to the loftiest of heights, that process begins with a commitment toward getting into the best shape of one’s life. Harden plays heavy minutes – he was fifth in the NBA in minutes per game this season and in each of the last two campaigns he’s logged at least 38 minutes of playing time – and clearly carries a heavy load offensively. In an ideal world, both burdens would be at least somewhat lightened going forward. But in the meantime, the best way to become a consistent tone-setter on both ends of the court requires impeccable physical conditioning.

The mental part can’t be discounted, either, of course. As Harden said, focus is imperative. When he locks in, he can be a genuine menace. That should come as no surprise because he has the tools necessary to hold his own. His strong base and elite length make him especially effective defending post-ups, with Synergy having placed him in the league’s 97th percentile in that category this season after he conceded a scant .523 points per possession in such situations (though that number did increase to .87 when viewed only through the small sample size prism known as the playoffs). But the metrics also make it clear there’s work to be done with regard to Harden’s effectiveness when navigating his way around screens while tracking his man and holding up better at the point of attack as an iso defender.

So, yes, room for improvement remains. But it’s also worth remembering another part of the superstar progression: after the initial ascension comes the inevitable obsession and castigation over flaws both real and imagined. It comes with the territory. The best way to respond: keep working hard, keep improving, and keep serving seasonal reminders as to how you reached this prime spot in the pecking order in the first place.

And lest you forget, Harden’s spot resides among the very best players on the planet. That’s been hammered home by his Team USA selections, his All-Star honors, and his prolific production that resulted in his top-5 MVP placement and today’s first team all-NBA news. Oh, and he doesn’t turn 25 until late August. Given how good he already is and how much room for growth exists, there’s an excellent chance that his best basketball still lies before him. Hard work helped him reach this point. It will require nothing less for him and his team to take the next step that awaits them.

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