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James Harden: Breaking Down His Importance to Oklahoma City Thunder Success

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James Harden: Breaking Down His Importance to Oklahoma City Thunder Success
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

All signs point to James Harden re-signing with the Thunder, which is fantastic news for Oklahoma City fans. A bad NBA Finals has tainted Harden in the eyes of some, but cooler heads give more weight to the entire season of work that preceded a mediocre five games.

Also, it's not like Harden had a terrible postseason. This was the same playoffs in which he took over a fourth quarter and emphatically eliminated the defending champions. 

For all the jokes about how Harden lost his max contract status in the Finals, quite a few teams would be willing to pay out for one of the NBA's few star shooting guards. Should Harden return to the Thunder next season, he will be giving his current squad a discount.

More to the point, Oklahoma City needs James Harden. The team is offensively explosive, but short on unselfish playmakers. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both better at calling their own numbers than creating for others.

There is nothing wrong with how Durant and Westbrook play, it just works better when another distributor is present. Despite Westbrook's status as a point guard and Harden's as a shooting guard, the latter finished with a better assist percentage last season. 

Harden's value as a clever passer (and slick handler) aids the Thunder when they want to give Westbrook a breather. Not only can Harden help get the ball to Durant or Westbrook, he can also run an offense when both are on the bench.

In this way, the versatile Harden is a point guard and a shooting guard, depending on what OKC needs in the moment. 

When the Thunder need scoring, Harden provides it with near-greater efficiency than anyone else in the league. Part of this is due to his sweet jumper and excellent lateral mobility on drives. And, to be honest, part of this results from his cynical style of play. 

When heading towards the hoop, Harden leans in and seeks contact. When the contact is drawn, he will often scoop his arm under his defender's in a layup try that is primarily designed to garner whistles.

Harden also has the tendency to whip his massive beard backwards as though the contact is wrenching his face like so much whiplash. He's this generation's Manu Ginobili, and we were even blessed to see the student and master combine for a rare "double flop" last season. 

My description of Harden's flopping is not meant as a criticism. He cleverly deploys these acting skills and the Thunder reap massive benefits. Last season, he claimed an absurd 66.0 true shooting percentage (a field-goal mark that incorporates threes and fouls), good for third in the NBA. 

On a per-minute basis, James Harden provided as much offensive value as Durant did last season (both averaged .230 win shares per 48 minutes).

While it is reasonable to believe that Harden is the third-best Thunder player, he's quietly vital to last season's No. 1-ranked offensive attack. So long as the Thunder need a playmaker, the bearded one is crucial to what they do. 

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