However you slice it, the 2012-13 season was a monumental one in the life and career of James Harden. Just a few months after serving as the Sixth Man of the Year for an Oklahoma City Thunder squad that cracked the NBA Finals, Harden found himself starting on and starring for another up-and-coming club: the Houston Rockets.
Albeit as a salary cap casualty of sorts. Harden wanted a few million more than the Thunder wanted to pay, giving OKC general manager Sam Presti cause enough to change his bearded, $2 bill for a handful of coins (i.e. Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and draft picks).
And granting Rockets GM Daryl Morey just enough daylight to squeeze through the franchise-changing trade he'd long sought.
Harden seized the opportunity himself by earning his first trip to the All-Star Game (in Houston, no less), playing his way onto the All-NBA third team and propelling the Rockets from a lottery-bound also-ran into the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, wherein they won two games against Harden's old 'mates.
The future is bright for the Rockets, who head into the summer with oodles of cap space and a war chest that, while not quite as impressive as it once was, still contains enough treasure with which to entice another team into a landscape-shifting deal or two. The same goes for Harden, who, with his 24th birthday slated for late August, already ranks among the league's best dozen-or-so players and only figures to improve in the years to come, along with the roster around him.
2012-13 by the Numbers
Harden's first season as a full-time starter in the NBA was nothing short of a statistical coming-out party. It's all well and good that he finished fifth in the league in scoring at 25.9 points per game and that he piled up those points on an economical 17.1 shots per game.
But the real story of Harden's campaign lies between the lines—or at the line, rather. Harden led the NBA in total free-throw attempts (792) and free-throw attempts per game (10.2), becoming the first guard to do so since Allen Iverson pulled it off in 2005-06. Harden also finished second in makes (674) and 17th in percentage (.851), and made a greater share of his team's free throws (52.9 percent) than did anyone on any team in the league, per NBA.com.
Harden's residency at the stripe is the natural outgrowth of his Manu Ginobili-esque slash-and-shoot game. As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry illustrated in early May, Harden's offensive repertoire with the Rockets this season largely consisted of threes from the top of the arc and the wings as well as drives to the hoop, with shots in between coming along rarely, if ever.
In essence, if Harden shot those threes from the short corners rather than from above the arc, he'd be dribbling through the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in the dreams of every advanced stat lover from here to John Hollinger's office. As it stands, the fact that Harden sticks to layups, dunks, threes and free throws is plenty captivating and renders him the perfect superstar around whom Daryl Morey can fashion his utopia of basketball metrics.
What They're Saying
James Harden was optimistic about the Rockets' prospects for improvement immediately after they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Thunder. When asked by ESPN's Marc Stein about participating in Houston's efforts to bring in free agents this summer, Harden replied:
"Hell, yeah. There's a lot of good options out there."
Harden was even more coy in his brevity when asked about luring Dwight Howard to Space City:
Harden's hardly made the rounds on the interview circuit since, though he's been somewhat active on Twitter. Granted, he hasn't exactly revealed much as far as basketball is concerned. He began with an optimistic tweet about the Rockets' hopes for next season:
James Harden @JHarden13
Thanks to all of the Rockets fans for the support this season! Great year. We will be back even better next year! #RedNation!!!! #Beard5/4/2013, 6:14:00 AM
And later reiterated that he'd be pitching in as a recruiter of sorts for his team:
James Harden @JHarden13
Lol yup! RT @ARankin11: @JHarden13 You been doing some recruiting big dawg?5/22/2013, 8:36:31 PM
He's also been riding ATVs with his buddies in Puerto Rico...not that that has anything to do with hoops.
James Harden @JHarden13
RT @M1AKATMAN: atvn in the Forrest with my bro @JHarden13 @MarathonZO @Rjayrolln @Ghowell11 @JUJUvee12 @Seik0_o #BTE http://t.co/FUGfsLnoDt5/26/2013, 3:13:51 PM
In the span of a year, James Harden has gone from the NBA's top reserve, which is nothing to scoff at, to arguably the best at his position, which is definitely not something to scoff at. That may sound like borderline blasphemy, what with Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade still active.
But there's a strong case to be made in Harden's favor. For one, there's the not-so-small matter of health. Kobe will be 35 at the start of the 2013-14 season and might not be ready to play until January or February on account of a torn Achilles. Even when Bryant returns, he doesn't figure to be quite as effective as he was prior to the injury. Blowing out an Achilles is a big deal in basketball, and only one player (Dominique Wilkins) has ever come back from it with any measure of success.
Oh, and Kobe doesn't play defense anymore, which has to count as a big knock against him because, you know, playing defense takes up half of a guy's time and comprises half of the game itself.
As for Wade, he's shown that he can still dominate on both ends of the floor, but only in fits and spurts. He turned 31 back in January and has battled problems in each knee over the past year. Wade's great when he wants to be and when his body allows him to be, but being the best at a given position usually requires some measure of consistency in performance.
As for Harden, he's yet to suffer a major injury, has never missed more than six games in a season and is still shy of his 24th birthday. He's nowhere near the defender that Wade is and has been, nor even the one that Kobe was once upon a time, but he clearly has the potential to improve on that end if/when the Rockets find someone with whom he can share the team's offensive burden.
To that end, Harden is already one of the premier scorers in the game and has shown himself capable of stuffing the stat sheet with the best of 'em. He tallied his first triple-double as a pro this season and finished as one of three players, along with Kobe and LeBron James, to average at least 25 points, four rebounds and five assists
All of which is to say, James Harden belongs among the elite.
And starting in 2013-14, Harden will start to draw a paycheck to match.
Upon acquiring The Beard from the Thunder, the Rockets inked him to a five-year, $80 million max rookie extension. Per Spotrac, Harden will bring home $13.67 million in 2013-14, followed by raises of just over $1 million in each of the following four seasons.
Harden's earnings all figure to be highly reasonable, so long as he continues to produce and improve at the rate that he has through his first four years in the NBA. With Harden in tow, the Rockets should still have ample financial flexibility with which to add key pieces via free agency and trades in the years to come.
Projected 2013-14 Stat Line
25.4 PPG / 5.3 RPG / 5.4 APG / 1.7 SPG / .461 FG% / .375 3P% / 9.2 FTA
Chances are, the Rockets will add a significant piece to their roster this summer. Whether that piece comes in the form of Dwight Howard, Josh Smith or some other player of note, his arrival should make it that much easier for James Harden to produce and ease the burden on Harden to do so.
As such, a slight drop in Harden's counting stats (i.e. points, rebounds, assists) would seem reasonable. So would an improvement in Harden's shooting percentages. Hypothetically, if Harden gets better shots, doesn't have to work as hard for them and is more comfortable with starting every night, he should be able to convert at a reasonably more efficient rate than he did in 2013-14.
Even if the Rockets don't make a splash this offseason, Harden can still look forward to spending more time alongside Patrick Beverley. The 24-year-old rookie enjoyed a breakout performance during Houston's first-round series (11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists), looking like a bona fide starting guard while filling in for Jeremy Lin during the final five games against OKC. That upgrade, in itself, should be enough to relieve Harden of some of his on-ball duties and, in turn, open up new opportunities as a shooter and scorer.
The Crystal Ball Says...
James Harden does in 2013-14 what he did in 2012-13, but better. So long as he evades the injury bug, Harden should find himself at the 2014 All-Star Game in New Orleans at the midpoint of the season, on an All-NBA team after the season and into the second round (and beyond?) during the postseason.
The more help Harden gets, the better off he'll be and the closer the Rockets will come to contending for their first title since Hakeem Olajuwon lifted Houston to back-to-back championships in the mid-1990s.