If James Harden hadn’t disappeared in the NBA Finals, the Thunder probably would have ended up becoming the 2012 NBA champions.
It was a similar situation to the 2011 NBA Finals, when people claimed that if LeBron James had just played like average LeBron James, the Heat would have beaten the Mavericks. The 2012 NBA Finals was such a tough, close series that Harden playing like average Harden probably would have swung the series in the opposite direction.
It’s this reason that tells me the Thunder would be foolish not to give him the max contract extension he and his agent are desperately pining for.
Looking back at the NBA Finals, Harden’s FG/3FG/FT percentages of 49.1/39.0/84.6 in the regular season took a dramatic fall in the last five games of what was looking like a magical Thunder run. Against the Heat in the Finals, Harden put up numbers of 37.5/31.8/79.2 and found himself teetering on the edge of the Nick Anderson cliff.
The Beard was absolutely atrocious when the Thunder needed him the most, shooting 29.0 percent in road games during the finals. He couldn’t impose his facial hair and silky jumper onto his opponents like we saw all year. He couldn’t slither into the lane, providing misdirection and hard counters to break free of defenders and find a hungry basket.
The problem with giving James Harden a max contract extension is it puts the Oklahoma City Thunder in bed with the luxury tax over the next four years. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook already have max contracts, not to mention Serge Ibaka’s new $12 million per season deal and Kendrick Perkins earning an average of $9 million per year over the next three.
Harden landing a max contract somewhere is inevitable. He’s one of the most efficient scorers we’ve ever seen, or at least he was last season. The most unique thing about Harden is the feast-or-famine method with which he attacks the opposing defense.
He either gets to the rim, takes a three-point shot or gets to the free-throw line. That’s it.
Of the 629 field-goal attempts he took last season, only 70 shots came from anywhere other than the restricted area or the three-point line. He attempted more free throws per game (6.0) than he did two-point shots (5.4).
This unique affinity for being able to take only the most efficient and rewarding shots in basketball caused him to put up historic numbers. You can look at his 16.8 points in 31.4 minutes per game and not be impressed, but look deeper at his advanced stats and you’ll see the special place he had in history.
Harden's true shooting percentage was 65.96 percent, finishing second in the NBA behind Tyson Chandler. In case you forgot, Chandler is a center and operates primarily out of the low post. He took 96 percent of his shots in the restricted area, making it much easier to finish with a higher percentage than a perimeter player like Harden.
Harden’s true shooting percentage was the 23rd-best single-season mark in NBA history. When you factor in the way he produced, that’s when you really start seeing what a unique season he had.
There are two players in NBA history who have had a true shooting percentage of 65.0 percent or higher, a win shares per 48 minutes of .230 or higher and made at least 100 three-pointers in a single season. John Stockton is one, and James Harden is the other. Nobody else has done something that efficient and diverse on offense.
There just wasn’t a weak point in Harden’s offensive game last season. Check out his Synergy numbers:
He was the seventh-most efficient scorer in isolation, ninth in pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler, 28th in spot-up scoring, the best coming off screens, the best on handoff plays and the third-most efficient scorer cutting to the basket.
It’s really stunning watching him try to get to the basket.
He’s so good at splitting traps and getting through potential double-teams, and since he’s so upright when he drives, he’s able to remain balanced when fighting through contact to finish off plays. If you think you can cut him off or anticipate where he’s going (he’s going left), he’ll hit you with the Eurostep and leave you behind.
If you’re alone on an island with him, he’ll throw a crossover at you, go between his legs and keep the ball so low to the ground that his quick handle is impossible to knock away. Before you know it, you’ve committed a foul, and he’s completed the three-point play.
He’s also very good at moving without the ball. It’s as much a staple of his offensive repertoire as his drives to the basket. You have to almost overplay him on the perimeter because you have to remain conscientious of his three-point shooting ability. When he feels you’re too far on the high side of the action, he’ll spring backdoor on you and finish with a layup or dunk.
But then you have to remain aware of his ability to move toward the basket; overplay that angle of his movement, and he can retreat behind the three-point line to be a sniper against your team. There is no right answer when defending him.
Take away the cut to the basket, and he’ll bury you with threes. But you can’t let him get the ball for a three-point shot, so you have to deny that as he cuts to the basket for an easy bucket. It’s just a never-ending circle. It goes round and round. That’s what makes it never-ending…and a circle.
The scary thing about James Harden is he’s only 23 years old and has never been a featured player on offense. In fact, he’s barely been the second option at times. If he were to leave OKC and become the No. 1 or No. 2 option somewhere else, you could reasonably expect his efficiency to take a dip, but wouldn't it be offset by the volume of points he’d pour in?
Can the Thunder afford to let him go and find out?
James Harden deserves a max extension because that’s what the market says he’s worth. There are probably at least a dozen teams that will be reshuffling to try to find a way to bring him to their offensive system.
Even with the luxury tax and the harsher penalties after next year that will kick in, why wouldn’t the Thunder just give him the max extension and decide to revisit their own reshuffling down the road?
A year or two from now, you can either amnesty Kendrick Perkins or trade away Ibaka or Harden. There’s really no rush to make the decision to get rid of Harden now or wait for him to get his max deal in restricted free agency because there will always be a market for absurdly efficient scorers like him.
If James Harden played in the NBA Finals like he did in the regular season or the majority of the playoffs last season, we’d probably be thinking about whether or not Miami could ever win a title and just how many rings the Thunder are about to take home.
Shouldn’t OKC pony up the money and find out if he can help it win one next year?