James Harden's stardom, superstardom or franchise-player value has been a hot topic of debate over the past year. When he went through a nightmare finals, pundits and fans alike were cackling over all the money he'd lose in a contract year. Perhaps these folks were sacrificing plausibility for comedy, because anyone who surveyed the league's lack of shooting guards knew that Harden was getting paid.
After he was traded to Houston (followed by an immediate max-contract offering), the narrative reversed. Oklahoma City was going to regret not ponying up for Harden. You can't shatter a finals team when you're on the cusp of greatness. (Note: I may have held such an opinion.)
What followed was perhaps Harden's greatest moment as a pro. In the season opener against Detroit, with so many curious eyes fixed on his performance, the newly traded Harden went off for 37 points and 12 assists. In the next game, against Atlanta, Harden piled up 45 points on 19 shots.
A star, nay, a superstar had arrived. What happened next was confounding, though. The Oklahoma City Thunder thrived as Harden's production returned to earth. Then, after a November lull, Harden got on another hot streak in December. Right now, he's averaging 30 points per contest in his past six games.
On the balance, he's been Houston's best player and a fringe All-Star performer. When you dig deeper, his productivity can be a bit confounding. His shot chart for 2012-13 is far from impressive so far (note: above-average performance is green, average is yellow, below average is red):
If you only took a look at this, you would assume that Harden's having an awful year. He's not above average in a single shooting zone.
This would be incorrect, however, because shot charts don't tell you about free-throw attempts. James Harden is a free-throw machine, drawing an incredible 9.9 free-throw attempts per game.
This free-throw dependency has its pros and its cons. On the one hand, Harden gets other teams into foul trouble (and the penalty), all the while piling up easy points. On the other hand, if Harden's not getting his calls, he can be an absolute wreck.
Here's one of many examples against the Lakers. Harden careens into the lane, searching for a foul at the buzzer. While the self-imposed whiplash can often prompt a whistle, it's just as likely to send the shot off in some bizarre direction.
One gets the sense, when watching Harden, that he's only partially playing basketball. He's a good shooter off the catch and has excellent handles. This isn't a knock on his skill but more an observation on how he deploys said skill.
To be blunt, he deploys it cynically. If Durant made famous the "rip-thru" move of swinging your arms under and into a defender's, Harden has mastered the layup-rip-thru. On drives, Harden will turn a scoop layup into a heat-seeking missile, stretching his 6'11" wingspan under and into the arms of frantic defenders. It's a good way to get near 10 free throws a game.
For Harden, it appears that he's a "free-throw first" player—the same way certain guys might be "shoot first" or "pass first." The style has allowed him to compile a respectable 59.1 percent true shooting percentage (shooting when three-pointers and free throws are factored) in a season where he's going only .436 from the field and .341 from beyond the arc. It's also a style that could stand to be a little less dependent on referee credulity.
One of the ways Harden might become a little less dependent on refs is to play off the ball more often, and shoot off the catch more often. James is a silky shooter, but his normally accurate shot has been off this season, in part because he's dominating the ball and shooting contested tries off the dribble.
According to Hoopdata, 49.5 percent of Harden's points last year were assisted. With the ball so often in his hands on the Rockets, that number has dropped down to 29.7 percent. It's ironic, but for Harden to be a true franchise player, he should trust his teammates a bit more.
In the aggregate, Harden is indeed a great player to build around, and his cynical style is pacing the team at an above-20 PER. Harden just needs to involve himself a bit less in the offense and read the situation a bit more. He's 23 years old and second best at his position. The future is bright.
All statistics accurate through games played on Dec. 19, 2012.