James Harden came into the NBA with the base strengths you see in his game today: Fearlessness, first-step quickness, an incredible handle and a super sweet shooting stroke. But it would take a couple of years for Harden to figure out how to manipulate the game and bend it to his will.
As part of a Draft class that featured players such as Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan, Harden has amassed more points and assists than anyone in the group, despite spending the first three years of his career as a bench player at Oklahoma City.
Harden was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-12, averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists in helping the Thunder reach their only NBA Finals.
He said at the time that if he could learn to play a musical instrument it would be the piano because of its versatility.
In many ways, Harden’s game mirrors the instrument.
In the 20th game of his first season, Harden -- the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft -- clashed with No. 7 pick Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, pouring in a then career-high 26 points in Oklahoma City’s 104-88 victory.
Teammate Kevin Durant predicted what was to come immediately.
“That’s what Sixth Men of the Year do: Come off the bench and give us a spark like he did,” Durant said. “If that’s going to be his role for us this year, then that’s what he needs to do every game.”
Up to that point, Harden had already put together 24- and 25-point nights. In this particular game, Harden shot 6 of 13 from the floor and 13 of 14 from the free-throw line. In Harden’s first 11 minutes on the floor, he hit 10 for 10 at the line after never attempting more than six free throws in the first 19 games of his rookie season.
You could see Harden’s confidence growing with each game, and he even admitted to undergoing an adjustment period in learning the best moments to flex aggression.
“Sometimes, he’s a little too passive when he has opportunities to drive or score,” Durant said that night.
That would soon change.
Still the sixth man on a Thunder squad featuring fellow 75th Anniversary team members Durant and Russell Westbrook, Harden was coming off a Western Conference finals appearance going into in Year 3 poised to take his game to yet another level.
Knowing that he would likely be a starter on any other team in the league, Harden embraced his role off the bench and used the offseason to fine-tune his game, doing his part to lift the Thunder to the next level.
Harden would win Sixth Man of the Year that season as the Thunder fell in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat in five games. The success stoked an unquenchable fire within Harden for continued improvement, as the world was starting to take notice of the guard’s incredible prowess as a scorer.
Off the court, Harden’s signature bushy beard – which he had been growing since before his rookie season – was starting to garner as much attention as his play. “Fear the Beard” became a rallying cry for many Thunder fans in the arena wearing fake beards.
“This past year and a half, I just let it grow wild,” Harden said. “My mom, she doesn’t like it at all. But my fans love it. That’s who I am now.”
Now, we’re starting to see more of the trademark step-back jumper and Eurostep combined with the killer crossover from the lethal scoring lefty, who by this time in his career is starting to draw comparisons to San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili, another super sub who was lethal off the bench.
Finishing the regular season 47-19 to secure the second seed in the West, Oklahoma City entered the 2012 playoffs confident despite some of the heavy hitters it was about to face. The Thunder swept Dallas 4-0 in the opening round, with Harden averaging 18.3 points in the series. He closed out Game 4 with a 29-point effort. Then, the Thunder made quick work of Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, capturing that series 4-1.
San Antonio would put up more resistance in the Western Conference finals, but OKC rolled to a 4-2 series win.
Harden entered the 2012 NBA Finals averaging 17.6 points in the postseason on 45.2% shooting from the floor.
But after a Game 1 Oklahoma City victory in The Finals, Miami would make Harden its top priority defensively, attempting to shut him down by blowing up ball screens and clogging the paint.
Miami limited Harden to single digits in scoring in three games on the way to taking the series 4-1. Harden averaged 12.4 points in the championship series, but finished the postseason averaging 16.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 20 games.
At 22 years old in just his third NBA season, Harden stood on the doorstep of greatness. His postseason performance, captured in this video, shows exactly why.
Former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey saw the potential in Harden way before Harden produced one of the NBA’s greatest single-game stat lines in this classic performance on New Year’s Eve against the New York Knicks.
That’s why Morey pulled off a 2012 trade with Oklahoma City to land the superstar guard. Harden had started just seven games in his career before joining the Rockets, but his impact as a full-time starter was immediate.
By the time Harden dropped this 53-point triple-double, which included 16 rebounds and 17 assists, he had already been selected to play in four consecutive NBA All-Star Games. In fact, since becoming a full-time starter in 2012-13, Harden has been selected as an All-Star every season.
In this 129-122 win over the Knicks, Harden became the first player in NBA history to produce at least 50 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a single game, and tied Wilt Chamberlain for the most points in a triple-double. In addition, Harden set career marks for points and 3-pointers (9), while tying his career-high for assists.
Remarkably, just the night before, Harden dropped a 30-point triple-double in a Houston win over the LA Clippers.
But Harden proved the performance wasn’t a fluke just 27 days later, when he racked up 51 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in a Rockets win over Philadelphia to become the first player in NBA history to produce more than one 50-point triple-double in a season.
When you watch these top 10 plays from Harden’s 2017-18 season, please take note of how many times the superstar hits defenders with moves that leave them on the ground, helpless before he sinks a big shot. We counted four, but surely there were more from such a special season that netted Harden his only MVP award.
That’s right, from NBA Sixth Man of the Year to MVP, Harden trekked quite the journey to beat out LeBron James and Anthony Davis convincingly for the award.
Averaging 30.4 points, 8.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds, Harden led Houston to the NBA’s best regular-season record (65-17) and a berth in the Western Conference Finals, before the Rockets fell to eventual champion Golden State.
The season prior, former Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook narrowly edged out Harden for the MVP award.
“The last four years, I’ve been knocking on the door, and now the moment is finally here,” Harden said.
How hard is it to guard James Harden? We could go on and on, but let’s just listen to those who have tried.
What makes Harden so different? You’ve seen the eye-popping, unconventional moves, and the mindboggling ways he scores. But he’s proven to be a gamechanger not just on the court, but off too.
For a while, a part of Houston’s pre-game routine during Harden’s tenure there involved the club adding a red carpet with a DJ spinning tunes, as the players made fashionable entrances on their way to the Rockets’ locker room. Harden certainly spent plenty of time posing on that red carpet, and once quipped Houston might “have the best-dressed team in the history of the sport.”
One of the game’s most skilled and innovative players, Harden continues to prove almost nightly that he knows how to dominate the game.