James Harden had a breakout season last year.
Landing with the Houston Rockets in a trade after salary negotiations with the Oklahoma City Thunder went awry, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year showed he could be effective on a much grander scale. He became a bona fide superstar, one of the very best scorers in the game.
The same is true of this season—Harden is averaging 24.7 points per game, good for fourth in the league, on 46 percent shooting. But if the Rockets are to become the next-level contenders their fanbase is expecting, Harden needs to do more.
With the Rockets’ increased attention comes extra scrutiny, too. There is no better proof of this than the recent malignings of Harden’s defensive effort. In recent games against the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, Harden has caught flak for his sometimes half-hearted pursuit of opposing scorers.
Harden has never been known for his defense. And it was essential to the rise in his adoration throughout 2012-13 that he didn’t have to play a whole lot of it. The Rockets instituted a blitzing style, pushing the ball down the floor as aggressively as any team in the NBA. Their goal was to outscore everyone, and lots of defense was sacrificed in that effort.
But the Rockets and their followers won’t be satisfied with another low playoff seeding and first-round exit. And that’s where many think they’ll end up if they don’t develop more half-court team sets, and a more generally complete team game.
Harden, not Dwight Howard, needs to be the motor to this culture change. He was in Houston first and will likely always be considered the leader of this newest franchise regime.
Harden was a terrific general last year, almost single-handedly defining the team’s pressing style. But the bar’s been raised, and he needs to start the job anew and start leading by example.
Translating more of his touted craft to the other end of the court is the most essential part of this transformation. Harden has the skills—he’s averaging 2.1 steals and 0.9 blocks per game—but he lacks consistent focus in coverage. For the Rockets to enter the upper echelon, Harden needs to be as relentless about defending as he is about putting the ball in the hole. He spends too many minutes on the floor—averaging a career-high 39 this season—to have a weak half to his game.
Perhaps most important of all is Harden’s need to be a more vocal presence on his team. Whether he likes it or not, he’s a superstar now, and his teammates all take cues from him.
At times, he seems not to enjoy public speaking much, almost hiding behind his monstrous beard. But with Howard’s well-documented difficulties in getting along with others, the job of team speaker lands on Harden’s shoulders.
Harden can no longer defer such a role to Kevin Durant. The Rockets don’t even possess a true veteran among their core—Howard, at 27, is by far their oldest starter.
Harden’s beard now needs to be more than a shield.
It needs to contain wisdom. It’s too early to judge whether Harden’s up to the task. He destroyed expectations last season and is now looking to fulfill the highest of basketball aspirations. The transition into elite leader is a hurdle that confounds many a rising career. It took LeBron James several seasons to get there—to be more than just an excellent player, but also a culture-maker.
No one's asking Harden to dethrone the king—yet. But he's got to keep rising up the castle.