James Harden Won't Be Able to Make Rockets Title Contenders as Team's Top Star

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2012

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 23:  James Harden #13 and Jeremy Lin #7 of the Houston Rockets wait for a play against the New York Knicks at the Toyota Center on November 23, 2012 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, bagainst the Newy downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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A quarter of the way through the 2012-13 NBA season, it seems like the trade between the Thunder and Rockets that sent James Harden to Houston is working out as a rare win-win.

Oklahoma City is still battling for Western Conference supremacy, while the Rockets finally have something they so desperately desired: a star.

However, while the Thunder can still compete for championships with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant leading the charge, it's become apparent Houston will need its own Durant to do the same.

To put it another way, the Rockets won't be title contenders with Harden as the team's only superstar. 

That's not even all that big of a degradation of Harden. LeBron James needed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win his championship, and Kobe Bryant is languishing in mediocrity despite the Lakers acquiring Dwight Howard and (a very injured) Steve Nash.

There are also other mitigating factors, like coaching and luck, that Harden has no control over. 

However, based on the limited sample size we have with Harden as a top dog, we can draw some solid conclusions about who he is as a player. 

The Rockets have been among the league's most thrilling League Pass teams all season, and Harden has been the overarching reason. Buoyed by an opportunity to be the team's top option, Harden is averaging 24.7 points, 5.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game—all of which are career highs.

However, the increased offensive burden has made Harden a far less efficient offensive player. Harden's true shooting (57.9) and effective field-goal percentages (48.8) are both the lowest since his rookie season, which is no doubt spurred by his career-high usage percentage (28.0).

And even though Harden is "more responsible" than ever for his team's win-loss record, his win shares don't back it up. With a rate of .148 per 48 minutes, Harden ranks 34th in the NBA among players with 500 or more minutes played this season.

Harden obviously still has room to grow at just 23 years old. Statistical studies have shown players peak right around age 25, giving Harden around 20 months left in his ascent.

However, if the 19-game sample size is who Harden is as a player, it provides a pretty easy player comparison: A better version of Joe Johnson.

Like Harden, Johnson left a situation in Phoenix where his skills were being underutilized. After taking over top-dog status with Atlanta in 2005-06, some of his shooting splits lowered as the offensive burden rose.

He wound up soaring with that burden a year later for his best career season, but the Hawks finished 30-52. By the time Atlanta brought in enough talent to compete for playoff berths, Johnson was considered a superstar, but he never actually became one, and the Hawks wound up as a mid-tier playoff squad for the duration of his time with the team.

Is it possible that Harden continues developing in a way Johnson never did and becomes that top-five guy Houston needs? Definitely. There is at least one underlying number that supports Harden's case as a potential superstar.

The huge advantage Harden has over Johnson is obviously his ability to get to the line. Harden shoots 9.4 free throws per game, which is a rarefied figure that only the game's biggest superstars attempt.

Still, just because someone shoots free throws at a high rate doesn't automatically turn them into a superstar. Ramon Sessions ranks eighth in the NBA in that category.

So Harden becoming a top-flight player is no guarantee. And are you ever winning a championship with Joe Johnson 2.0 leading the charge? Probably not. The Rockets need a second superstar to counterbalance Harden's defensive inefficiencies and to help shoulder the burden offensively.

Houston general manager Daryl Morey knows Harden can't be the only star on a championship contender. No one can in today's NBA. Not even LeBron, Kobe or Durant. 

That's why many expect the Rockets to be heavily active in free agency this upcoming offseason. The team has just $39.74 million in cap commitments, meaning it will have enough room for a max player with some easy financial wiggling.

With guys like Josh Smith on the market, it's possible that Harden gets his co-leader and the Rockets become a yearly championship contender. 

Just know that without acquiring someone better than Harden or of his ilk, Houston will have trouble being a championship contender. 

(All stats are updated as of Dec. 12 and are courtesy of basketball-reference.com)