Last year, most basketball fans realized the talent of James Harden even before he won the Sixth Man award. Many even thought he would be a regular NBA All-Star in the future. What we didn't realize, is how instantly he would become one of the best basketball players in the NBA today.
After the 2012 NBA Finals, many questions were thrown around about Harden's mysterious disappearance in the finals. As a player that had been so consistent throughout the season, we were more than shocked to find James Harden simply not perform. He fell apart when the Thunder needed him most.
After the trade, the questions continued to pour in: Is James Harden worth the $80 million contract he wants? Will Harden actually be a dominant player, or will he be the player we saw in the finals? How long will it take for Harden to develop into an All-Star?
Harden answered back in his Rockets debut with 37 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals and a block. He was relentless, always having full control of the game. He was simply outstanding. He continued his scorching game-play in his second game, scoring a career-high 45 points, and snatching up 7 rebounds. Granted, it was just two games, but I think it is safe to say that there will be many more games like this yet to come from Harden.
So the Rockets are definitely happy with such a great player coming to Houston, they haven't had a talent like Harden on their squad since Tracy McGrady walked the floors of the Toyota Center. They definitely feel that they have a player that they can center their team around for years to come, while the Thunder were wincing at what a great player they had traded away. What they don't realize, is that Harden isn't just a great player, but was the cornerstone in how their offense performed.
When you think of the Thunder, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are names that come to mind. But when you dissect the way OKC functions, you will find out that Harden was just as important.
The screen-happy OKC Thunder run an offense that is centered around the pick-and-roll. It is their bread and butter, and they run it constantly. It's what they are known for, and opposing teams always know it's coming. But the Thunder have continued to run it because it works.
The truth is, without a ball-handler like Harden, OKC's pick-and-roll will be loads less effective. In fact, when it comes to the pick-and-roll, Harden is the best ball-handler in the entire NBA. Let me explain.
Off the pick-and-roll, Harden gets to the free-throw line more than most players. His euro-step has the illusive ability to fool defenders into thinking they can get a steal or block. As they bite on the first step, Harden is able to get the contact, and the whistle blows. Additional to his ability to get fouled, Harden is a strong finisher, which results in a high shot percentage, even with contact.
This, combined with his passing ability, makes Harden extremely efficient coming off screens. He leads the NBA in points per possession in the pick-and-roll (1.060 pts/poss), so whether it's a teammate getting the pass from James, or him taking it to the hole himself, there is usually always points scored. Because he handles the ball like a point-guard, but has the strength of a wing player, Harden is the only player in the entire NBA that averages more than one point per possession off of the pick-and-roll.
Can the Thunder top the Lakers in the playoffs without James Harden?
Because James Harden is a great shooter, attacker, and finisher, he also ninth in the NBA in points per game in the pick-and-roll. This, combined with leading the NBA in points per possession in the pick-and-roll, lead to Harden being a monster when coming off screens. He is virtually unstoppable. No matter what happens, whether it is him going to the free throw line, taking it to the hole or dishing it to a teammate, Harden is the real deal in the pick-and-roll. The best in the business.
Giving up Harden will haunt the Thunder for years to come, and make them far less-formidable of an opponent than before. Harden was crucial in their playoff victories in the Western Conference, and with the new-look Lakers now in the west, Oklahoma City has an even more difficult road ahead than they did last week. And just throwing this out there: what if at the end of the season, Harden that tops Durant for the scoring title? Awkward? Again, just a thought.
Meanwhile, Harden looks perfectly comfortable in a Rockets uniform, and we can expect nothing short of greatness from him the rest of his career. Love him or hate him, he is the best pick-and-roll player in the NBA today. Men lie, women lie, numbers don't. It will be interesting to see what more Harden has in store for us.