Why James Harden Will Transform into Franchise Superstar with Houston Rockets

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Why James Harden Will Transform into Franchise Superstar with Houston Rockets
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The NBA and hip hop culture have long been intertwined with one another. The Showtime Lakers tried to spit rhymes in the 1980s. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant forced others to endure their dueling side careers as rappers. More recently, head cases like Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson have taken to expressing themselves through lyrical verse.

But the relationship between the two worlds goes beyond failed infatuation and miserable mimicry on the mic. The dynamics of stardom have seeped between them as well, even more so with James Harden's move to the Houston Rockets.

Li'l Wayne got his start with the Hot Boyz but didn't become a force in the music world until he struck out on his own. The same could be said of (among others) Cee-Lo Green after the Goodie Mob and (to really roll back the clock) Sisqo, who needed Dru Hill as a launching pad before exploding as a one-hit wonder with "The Thong Song."

Now, it's Harden's turn to "Unleash the Dragon" on his own. He'll no longer be relegated to bench duty with the Oklahoma City Thunder behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The immediate future of his legacy is now his own to control, for better or worse.

But will he be the next Dwayne Carter Jr. on one end of the spectrum, the next Mark Althavean Andrews on the other, or the next Thomas DeCarlo Calloway somewhere in between?

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Without having yet played a single minute in Houston, most signs point to the former. Harden emerged as one of the most efficient scorers in the NBA during his third season in OKC. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year ranked second in the league in true shooting percentage (which accounts for three-pointers and free throws as well as two-pointers), second in effective field-goal percentage (which weighs three-pointers more heavily) and third in offensive rating (i.e. points scored per 100 possessions by a team with a given player on the floor).

All of which is to say, The Bearded One knows how to put the ball in the basket. In fact, according to Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus, nobody other than Charles Barkley has ever shot so well while having the ball in his hands as often as Harden did in 2011-12.

In simpler statistical terms, Harden led all non-starters in scoring at 16.8 points per game while showing off a sumptuous array of skills. He's a superb ball-handler who can create for others (3.7 assists), get to the rim and finish once there (70.4 percent, per Hoopdata).

Harden also happens to thrive in the pick-and-roll, and when his team needs a three-point basket—be it spotting up or off the dribble—he can deliver, as he did last season at a 39-percent clip.

On the whole, the Thunder were 12.5 points better offensively per 48 minutes during the regular season with Harden on the court than they were without him, per NBA.com. Moreover, OKC saw an 18.5-point swing per 48 minutes during the 2011-12 playoffs between when Harden was on the court and when he wasn't.

Numbers never lie, though there are caveats to Harden's. He piled up his impressive stats while spending much of his time operating against the second units of other teams, marked by (perhaps) a second- or third-choice perimeter defender.

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It might also be easy to dismiss The Bearded One's stats on account of the privilege of playing alongside two All-Star scorers in Durant and Westbrook. Yet, all indications are that Harden was better (not worse) when playing without them. According to NBA.com, Harden shot six percentage points better from the field, attempted nearly three times as many free throws, nearly doubled his assists and scored more than twice as many points per 36 minutes without Durant by his side compared to when those two shared the floor. A similar picture emerges when measuring Harden's productivity with and without Westbrook.

In both cases, Harden's plus-minus numbers were better with Durant and/or Westbrook than they were without one (or both) of them. To be fair, though, anyone's plus-minus rating would be better-served with one or two All-NBA performers as teammates.

But why would Harden fare so much better without Westbrook and Durant? 

For one, he'd have the ball in his hands more often and have more freedom to take shots, as the uptick in field-goal attempts in both aforementioned cases indicate. Without those two around, he wouldn't (and doesn't) have to worry about his skills being marginalized on account of their considerable overlap with those of his more heralded teammates.

Instead, Harden would (and will) be able to attack the basket and operate one-on-one more frequently. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Harden ranked fourth in the NBA in points per play in isolation while the Rockets ranked 20th among teams in such situations.

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That should make Harden an excellent fit in Houston, as should his prior experience with playing alongside a scoring point guard. Though Jeremy Lin is nowhere near Westbrook's stratosphere as an overall player, as ESPN's David Thorpe points out, his tendencies are somewhat similar. You won't see Linsanity throwing down monstrous dunks or pulling up as effectively in the midrange in Space Town, but you may see Harden creating easy scoring opportunities for the Rockets' young point guard.

It'll also help Harden's cause that he's so proficient in the pick-and-roll. The Rockets had already shown themselves to be a two-man-game-heavy outfit, in part because of Lin's proclivities, and only figure to expand in that regard with Harden on board.

That being said, there are serious concerns for Harden to iron out, both individually and as a member of Houston's new backcourt, particularly on defense. Harden's never been what one would call an "ace defender", even though he has the athleticism and court awareness to be something more than a sieve in that regard.

 

He tends to "fall asleep" away from the ball, giving up back cuts and moving too slowly into help position in the process. His size (6'5, 220 pounds) renders him somewhat stockier than the average two-guard and a bit too short to handle taller wings.

 

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Not exactly a good sign, especially next to Lin, who was so often torched by top-tier point guards while with the New York Knicks last season and could be even worse as he continues to recover from knee surgery.

On the other hand, Harden is still exceedingly young—he turned 23 in late August—with plenty of room to improve in all facets of the game. Perhaps a starring role on a rebuilding team in a quality-basketball-starved city will motivate him to take his game to the next level.

Or, perhaps he'll get to said level simply by virtue of the upward curve that the careers of young players (particularly shooting guards) tend to follow at his age.  

And even after signing Harden to what will presumably be a max deal, the Rockets will have plenty of financial flexibility with which to lure an expensive free agent—or, along with their other assets, to trade for another All-Star-caliber player—in the near future. 

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In any case, Harden has shown, albeit in spurts, that he can be a Weezy-esque singular talent in The Association, even if he has more affection for the Thunder than Birdman Jr. ever did. The question is, will he be left to carry a one-hit-wonder Rockets squad to the fringe of the playoffs annually? Will he be dragged down by an organization that doesn't have the pieces (or the pull) to accomplish what the Thunder had (and have) on their hands?

Or will he guide the Rockets back into title contention at some point down the line?

Because as many ways as there are to gobble up awards and fill a resume with individual accolades, there's only one tried-and-true avenue to superstardom—winning.  

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