3 Ways James Harden Must Improve to Become Truly Elite in 2014-15

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2014

Houston Rockets guard James Harden flashes three fingers after scoring a three point shot during the second half of Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland, Ore., Friday, April 25, 2014. Harden scored 37 points as the Rockets won 121-116. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Don Ryan/Associated Press

James Harden of the Houston Rockets is one of the best scorers in the NBA, but he’s still a step below the NBA’s truly elite. If and when he addresses the flaws in his game, he has it in him to be the MVP and lead the Rockets to a title.

Harden’s deficiencies can be summed up in three categories: offense, defense and intangibles. While he needs more improvement in some areas than in others, there is one specific change he could make in each of the three that would vault him into the top tier of the league’s elite.



Let’s begin this by giving credit where it is most definitely due. James Harden is an elite scorer, and that’s not due to volume. Last season, he attempted the sixth-fewest shots of any player in history to average 25 points per game.

Harden either scored from behind the arc or close to the basket. He avoided the dreaded long two consistently. His shot chart from last season demonstrates the wisdom of his selection:

Credit: NBA.com/STATS

Per NBA.com/STATS, 883 of his 1,205 attempts, or 73.3 percent of them, came from within five feet of the rim or three-point land. That lends itself to efficiency. That points to a high understanding of how to play the game.

In addition to that, Harden has a great propensity for drawing the foul. One of the more compelling new stats is free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, tracked by TeamRankings.com. It shows a player’s success at getting to the stripe.

The caveat is some players are successful getting to the line, and some are getting sent there deliberately because they’re poor free-throw shooters. Just looking at the leaders doesn’t tell you who is what. But, if we mash it together with free-throw percentage, we can determine the best at using the charity stripe as an offensive weapon.

There is a very short list of players who took 300 free throws, had a free-throw rate of .450 and made 75 percent of their freebies. Here it is:

Players with a .450 Free-Throw Rate and a 75.0 percent Free-Throw Percentage
James HardenHouston RocketsG0.53486.6
Ramon SessionsMilwaukee BucksG0.52580.7
Jimmy ButlerChicago BullsG0.48176.9
Timofey MozgovDenver NuggetsC0.47775.4
DeMar DeRozanToronto RaptorsG0.46582.4
Kevin DurantOklahoma City ThunderF0.45987.3

Harden is at the top of the free-throw-rate list and second in the free-throw-percentage list. That coupling of talents makes him a prestigious scorer.

In fact, he is one of the most efficient scorers at his age in league history. Last season, he was fifth in true shooting percentage with .618 and had a usage percentage of 27.8. Only two other players have hit those numbers before turning 25: Adrian Dantley and Kevin Durant.

So, there’s not a lot to work on offensively. He will occasionally force up a bad shot when he could pass out to an open player, but he’s a long way from being a ball hog. He averaged 6.1 assists last year.

The one area he could improve, though, is posting up players. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), Harden only got 22 buckets on such plays last season. The eye test shows even most of those were weak.

At 6’5” and 220 pounds, Harden should be a natural at posting up opponents, but he’s not. He shies away from physical play. 

Even when he had the size advantage, his tendency was to go to a step-out move (spin around and step back for a jumper off the space you create) rather than trying a drop step (back your opponent down, spin past him and drive to the rim).

Harden is so consistent with this lone post move, opponents ignore any driving lanes. They’re (rightly) assuming he’s not going to try to take advantage of them.

Here’s a case in point:

Screen Cap from MySynergySports.com

Harden could have tried a drop step, spinning toward the baseline. Wesley Matthews is about the same size and possesses no physical advantage. Still, Harden concedes he’s not going to outmuscle Matthews and doesn’t even try.

And the Portland Trail Blazers defense doesn’t seem all that concerned with it happening either. Harden never tries to roll off his opponent, but rather he attempts a lazy pass that results in a turnover.

We’re picking at nits here, but it’s the biggest flaw in Harden’s offensive game. It’s a bit oxymoronic because of his high foul rate, but Harden seems to avoid physical basketball, except in transition. Most of the fouls he draws are incidental contact.

If he learned to back his man down and take advantage of his size in the post, he would be unstoppable.

Even with that one flaw, his offense is elite, but offense alone can’t win MVPs or titles.



Harden might be outstanding on offense, but he’s normally just out, standing on defense. Literally, entire plays will go by without him moving his feet. There are Rockets fans sitting in their recliners at home who burn more calories by eating potato chips and yelling at Harden than Harden actually burns defending.

I spent about 30 minutes just watching his defense. Eventually, through bleeding eyes, I started to notice something. When Harden shows a modicum of effort, he’s not that bad. But the problem is that “effort” part.

My initial goal here was to identify specific things that Harden could do to improve on defense, but frankly he’s so lackadaisical that it makes more thorough analysis virtually impossible. It’s hard to identify what people are doing wrong if they’re not doing anything.

Put it this way: When someone can post a 12-minute video montage of you not playing defense, you’re not trying hard enough:

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News names his No-Defense team annually. Harden made the team, and Kawakami’s comments were accurate, if not hysterical:

James Harden doesn’t play defense, doesn’t care if you know that, and he’s such an amazing offensive player that… what can anyone do about it?

Harden so habitually refuses to move his feet from the start of any defensive possession and surrenders in open court or just casually forgets to guard his man off the ball, which leads to easy lay-ups… that he has made himself the star of many video-clip horrendous-D montages. All by himself, Harden is popularizing the bad-D video.

Kawakami even names Harden’s bad defensive “moves,” my favorite of which is the “Frozen Man.”

"The Frozen Man: If the ball moves to the other side of the floor and there are rotations necessary, Harden rarely bothers to actually, you know, rotate. He likes to just stand in place and maybe jump around a little. I don’t know why he jumps around."

The good news is that there were still those rare plays where something would spark within Harden and he would engage for a moment, and when that happens, there is hope.

There are two types of bad defenders: those who can’t play defense and those who don’t. Counterintuitively, the former tends to improve more than the latter. For example, Kyle Korver, once a horrendous defender, has elevated his stature to average through hard work. He still lacks the foot speed and athleticism to be an elite defender, but he’s found his ceiling.

In those rare occasions where a more talented player suddenly decides to start trying, it makes a difference. LeBron James was a liability early on in his career. Things can change for Harden.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

He is also playing for Team USA this summer, and one of the assistant coaches is Tom Thibodeau, who will probably end up killing Harden if he shows that same kind of “energy” on defense he did in Houston.

If Thibodeau doesn’t spontaneously combust at some point, it’s possible he’ll convince Harden that defense matters. And if that happens, the Beard can evolve into a complete, two-way player.

And if that also happens, Harden will start getting serious consideration for MVP.  

Still, teams win championships, not awards.



James Harden was in the Philippines when he was interviewed by Joaquin Henson of The Philippine Star.

Asked about the departure of Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons, he answered: "Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets. The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season."

Nothing makes your teammates feel unimportant like telling them they’re role players. Of course, we can argue that Harden is correct. Most of the other players are role players. Parsons is more than that. He got a max deal from the Dallas Mavericks for a reason. But that point is moot.


It is true that there are only two superstars presently on the Rockets, and they are Harden and Howard. That doesn't mean it’s a smart thing to say, though. And it’s not really just a problem because of what he said; the fault is in the thinking behind it.

It belies a lack of confidence and trust in his teammates.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate what I mean. Shortly after we got married, my wife asked me, “You really think you’re more intelligent than me, don’t you?”

Without hesitation, I responded, “Of course I am” (thereby immediately proving I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was).

It is true there are areas where I’m smarter than she is. I’m more intellectual. I’m better able to read, synthesize and explain new information, and that has its value.

But, in 15 years of marriage, I’ve also learned there are many ways she dwarfs me. In terms of three-dimensional thinking, she’ll immediately pick up on things I struggle with. Seriously, no living person matches her ability to intuit how to assemble Ikea furniture.

When I’m getting frustrated with something, I’ll call her into the room and ask her, “What did I do wrong?” She’ll take a passing glance and say, “That’s backward.” It used to embarrass me. Now I welcome the help.

And this is my point, it’s not about what Harden said or should have said. It’s about what he appreciates. Contrast Harden’s answer to what James did when he inked with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He immediately tried to bring on some of his most trusted role players, Mike Miller and Ray Allen, with him.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

In going from the Miami Heat to the Cleveland Cavaliers, James swapped out his superstars but wanted to keep his role players.

That makes an interesting juxtaposition with Harden’s indifference to swapping out his own.

Harden’s thinking was verbalized in the interview, but it showed up last postseason. His effective field-goal percentage in the regular season was 52.9. His assist percentage was 27.3. In the playoffs, those numbers fell to 43.6 and 22.2. Meanwhile his field-goal attempts rose from 16.5 per game to 22.2.

All those numbers together suggest that he was forcing up bad shots when he should have been passing to open teammates. It appears he didn't trust them enough. If he didn't have scorers around him, it might be different, but the Rockets were not short of those.

If Harden wants to think of himself as a cornerstone of the Rockets, he’s going to need to become a leader, and the most important aspect of a leader is to believe in those whom he leads. That thinking doesn't come by comparing what you do well to what they do well; it’s by comparing what you struggle with to what they excel at.

When Harden learns to embrace his “role players,” it will help the Rockets win. He’ll mature into a leader. Then, rings can happen.

Harden’s not an elite player, yet, but he’s not very far away.

He doesn't have much to work on with his offense, but developing a post game would make him unstoppable. Showing effort on defense might not immediately get him named to the All-Defensive team, but it might be enough to vault him to MVP status. Evolving into a leader could turn him into an NBA champion. It’s all dependent on how much he’s willing to grow as a player and as a man.


All stats obtained from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/STATS unless otherwise cited.


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