Last season, James Harden established himself as one of the best shooting guards in the league and a fearless franchise player. He made his first All-Star team, led Houston to its first playoff appearance in four years and was one of just four players in the league to score more than 2,000 points.
But even after all the wonderful things Harden did—including allowing Houston’s coaching staff to transform the entire offensive philosophy around him and his efficient skill set—there still were quite a few weaknesses.
Understandably so, since A) he was starting NBA games for the first time, playing more minutes than ever before and existing as the center of attention on a nightly basis at the age of 23, and B) he’s human.
But Harden’s flaws were still glaring, enough so to take away from a few of the characteristics that make him so awesome.
Here are two major areas of improvement in which he’ll be looking to develop his talent next season. If he does, Houston should have as good a crack as any Western Conference team at claiming a trip to the NBA Finals.
In the rare instances when Harden sat on the bench last season, Houston’s defense gave up 100.7 points per 100 possessions, the lowest on/off number among all Rockets who played at least 100 minutes.
Granted that’s against opposing bench units in situations that probably don’t hold much significance, but 100.7 points per 100 possessions still ranks as a top-10 defense, and if you watched Harden lazily graze around last year, you'd know this isn't a coincidence.
(To be specific, the Rockets were 3.7 points per 100 possessions better on defense last season whenever Harden sat on the bench.)
If you don’t care for numbers and are looking to judge Harden on some other metric, he failed the eye test in absolute laughable fashion. Take any five-minute sample size from the entire season and you’ll see Houston's best player either rotate incorrectly, not rotate at all or display absolutely grotesque fundamental position on the ball.
Some of his poor play can either be excused by Houston’s up-and-down pace, its strategy in certain situations to pack the paint with unorthodox aggression or his need to save energy for when the ball is in his hands.
However, there were literally hundreds of possessions during the season that were awful simply because Harden either didn’t give effort or didn't do what he was supposed to.
Here are a few examples.
In the three clips above we see Harden make a plethora of unnecessary mistakes: gambling to steal the ball from Thabo Sefolosha (seriously...Thabo Sefolosha) at the top of the floor, leaving his teammates in a five-on-four situation; losing track of Luke Ridnour along the baseline, then recovering in time only to surrender a layup; and getting bullied in an isolation situation by Metta World Peace (the ultimate sign of disrespect) until he admits defeat with a weak slap at the ball.
These mistakes are all correctable, and with Dwight Howard expected to help Harden out on the offensive end next season, his energy and attention level should be much better.
Harden had a ton on his plate last season, tasked with scoring the ball and initiating offense for teammates on just about every single possession he touched the ball. His usage percentage sat at 29 percent, nearly six percentage points up from his career average and ninth in the entire league (ahead of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Brook Lopez and Paul Pierce).
For his troubles, Harden ended up turning the ball over 295 times, more than any other player in the NBA.
Normally a smart player—evident by his deep understanding of offensive pick-and-roll intricacies—far too often Harden would look out of control, whether it be on a fast break or crashing into the paint after receiving a high screen from Omer Asik or Greg Smith.
This should not be seen as too large of a concern because a good chunk of what makes Harden so successful is his willingness and ability to draw contract in the paint. It’s why he led the league in free-throw attempts last season and scored more points than everyone not named LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant.
If he’s able to develop a crafty floater—as a way to avoid offensive fouls—Harden’s offensive game would be that much more unstoppable and less dependent on a referee’s whistle.
But telling Harden to be less aggressive would be like wishing a chopping knife were less sharp. Aggression is a part of his DNA as a scorer, and overall, the good outweighs the bad by a wide margin.
But there's a difference between determination and belligerence. Harden can't afford to go right at the rim when teammates are either trailing in transition or already open behind the three-point line, ready for a kick out.
If Harden can cut away the wild forays to the rim and become more attentive on the defensive end, he'll be even better next season. And the Houston Rockets will be as feared a team as any.