James Harden may be just 23 years old, but he has officially become a superstar.
The shooting guard signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Houston Rockets after being traded by the Oklahoma City Thunder, and he is showing that he is worth every bit of his new deal with stellar play and high scoring.
The Rockets are just 4-7 on the year, but they have a bona fide superstar on their roster. If the young talent in Houston can continue to develop, they’ll be in good shape moving forward, but for now, success starts and ends with the beard, as his ceiling appears to be as high as ever.
*Stats used are accurate as of Nov. 19, 2012
No Longer In The Shadows
We all knew that Harden was a good player when he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder—a very good player, in fact. Despite playing behind superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, he was making a name for himself season after season, and he was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2012.
But while Harden, Durant and Westbrook made up the West’s version of the Big Three, it’s no longer a question as to whether or not the starters in OKC were keeping the 2-guard from becoming all he can be.
Durant was the 2011-12 scoring champion. He averaged 28 points per game, and he was the clear-cut go-to scorer throughout the season. Westbrook was the second option, although he clearly believed he was No. 1 at times, as he averaged 23.6 points on more than 19 shots per game.
That left just 10 shots per game in 2012—and 8.6 throughout his career—for Harden. Nobody is going to claim that the shooting guard wasn't good in OKC, but his potential wasn't being met behind the superstars.
His current average of 24.2 points per game is nearly double what he’s averaged for his career, and there’s no question as to who is the first scoring option in Houston.
Harden is a top scorer in this league, and he has shown that he can make an impact in the starting lineup for the Rockets throughout the 2012-13 season.
Efficiency Has Become a Luxury
Nobody is going to claim that Harden’s inefficient play up to this point is a good thing. He is shooting a career low from the three-point line, and his field-goal percentage has dipped well below the near-50 percent he posted in 2012.
If he were shooting above 50 percent, it goes without saying that his averages would be higher, and his impact on the floor would be even greater.
But the Rockets’ star no longer needs to be perfect in order to have a great game.
With Durant and Westbrook out of the picture, Harden is No. 1 in Houston. If he misses a few shots early, you know the ball is coming right back to him. In OKC, if he wasn’t rolling from the get-go, the team had two superstars it could rely on without hesitation.
With Durant and Westbrook as the main options, it makes it hard to claim that Harden was a true superstar. His presence on the Thunder roster was important, but he wasn't a go-to guy in most situations.
Harden played well with what he was given in OKC, and he performed well enough to earn himself a max contract. However, now that the pressure is gone and he knows that he’s the man even when his shot isn't falling, he’s able to play a care-free brand of basketball that has ultimately led to success.
In today’s NBA, the term “Hero Ball” has become more of a derogatory term than a term of endearment. Isolation basketball and one-on-one sets are looked at as bad strategy in the eyes of many, but for Harden, it may be what is allowing him to come into his own as a member of the Rockets.
We all know that his production has become less efficient, but this Houston team doesn’t need efficiency in the same way it needs a go-to scorer.
Harden has the ball in his hands more in Houston than ever before. As a result, he is not only scoring more, but he is averaging a career-high 4.7 assists per game, and he is helping take the pressure off of Jeremy Lin—somebody who desperately needed the spotlight off of him heading into the 2012-13 season.
Hero Ball isn’t something that is condoned among most fans, and for the sake of the Rockets moving forward, they need to learn to get everybody involved. They have a plethora of unproven players, and while it may seem like a risk to give them a chance, that's exactly what they have to do when it comes to finding a balanced rotation.
But Harden is finally out of shadows of the superstars in OKC, and what better way to display his talents than by putting the ball in his hands?
Harden is a superstar in this league, and while he may still have room to grow before he hits his prime, he’s already established himself as one of the NBA's best scorers.
That in itself says something about his ceiling, doesn't it?
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