James Harden is a superstar.
Hem and haw over his status as some might, it's the truth. Perception of where he stands is helped along by playing a position (shooting guard) that's thirsty for young, dominant talent as Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant age, but he's not the beneficiary of loose-cannon interpretation.
Might he be a bit too sure of himself? It certainly seems that way.
When ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson asked him who the best basketball player alive was, Harden didn't think twice before replying: "Myself."
He's kidding, right?
"I'm the best all-around basketball player in the NBA," Harden would later say during a promotional interview for NBA 2K15 (via Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver). "Steph Curry would probably be the best shooter, pure shooter in the NBA. [Durant] would probably be the best scorer in the NBA. Anthony Davis probably would be the best shot-blocker in the NBA."
That last part of his reflection is important. He also recognized Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis for some of what they do, so this wasn't a Harden-loving-Harden party. But yes, he did call himself the NBA's best all-around player.
And of course he did. Professional basketball players aren't typically shy; superstars aren't usually coy personified. It takes confidence to reach this level. LeBron James would probably say the same thing (though it would be true). So, too, might Carmelo Anthony. Derrick Rose said something along similar lines last summer.
Take this, then, not as Harden trying to lord over everyone else, but as a sign that he fancies himself a superstar. Because—like Curry, Davis, James, Anthony and Rose, among others—that's what he is.
Talented scorers and playmakers aren't hard to come by in the NBA, but Harden is one of the absolute best.
Since making the jump from glorified role player with the Oklahoma City Thunder to franchise cornerstone with the Houston Rockets, Harden has averaged 25.7 points and 6.0 assists per game while shooting 44.6 percent from the floor overall, including 36.7 percent from deep.
Only one other player has averaged per-game benchmarks of 25 points and six assists while shooting at least 44 percent from the floor and 36 percent from three since over the past two seasons: LeBron James. Harden, moreover, made history last season by becoming the first player under the age of 25 to average 25 points and six assists per game while shooting at least 45 percent overall and 36 percent from deep.
There is no diminishing his value on the offensive end. His shot selection can be questionable, and he struggles to adequately adjust his scoring approach when teams throw a zone defense at him, but he's an offensive stud.
The Rockets were 7.1 points per 100 possessions better on the offensive end with him on the floor last season, according to NBA.com. Their pace was faster. Their overall field-goal percentage was higher. Few other players bring what he does to the floor.
Over the last two years, only two players have amassed more offensive win shares: Kevin Durant and James. That's it. Harden (20.0) has more than Chris Paul (19.6), Stephen Curry (17.7), Carmelo Anthony (15.7), Blake Griffin (14.9) and many more. Even when accounting for Paul missing 20 games last season, the company Harden rules over is one weighted with legitimate superstars.
Although he may always have his offensive warts—shot selection, for instance—there are but a small handful of players who can call Harden a peer on that end of the court.
That Harden's placement—or even membership—within the NBA's superstar hierarchy is so readily debated speaks to his subtly polarizing on- and off-court personas.
Topping his list of flaws remains defensive awareness. He can be a sieve for long stretches at a time, as well as a hotbed of disinterest, like Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal pointed out after a lengthy film and statistical study:
Believe it or not, Harden's defensive numbers aren't awful, largely because he picks when he wants to record them. He's a fairly decent on-ball defender when he decides he actually wants to exert energy on the less glamorous end of the court. But he's also remarkably prone to falling asleep when defending. And given the amount of time he spends stationary and disengaged, staring only at the ball as though he's hypnotized, I sometimes wonder if I mean that literally.
Harden's 107 defensive rating ranks as the sixth-worst among those whose player efficiency ratings exceeded 20 last season. He also became just the second player in NBA history to log more than 43 minutes a night through at least six playoff games while exiting with a defensive rating above 114.
It's a mixed bag of unsettling. Players who are relied upon that heavily when it matters most aren't supposed to be that much of a liability, even if only on one end of the floor.
But Harden was. He is. And for the duration of Houston's 2014 postseason run, he was a detriment on both ends, defending haphazardly, shooting himself into the basement.
When the Portland Trail Blazers officially showed Houston the door, Harden joined Stephen Marbury as the second player in postseason history to attempt at least 130 shots through six games without shooting better than 40 percent from the floor.
His 2013 playoff campaign wasn't much better, either. He hoisted 115 shots through six games while once again failing to eclipse 40 percent shooting.
All told, his postseason stints haven't been pretty in Houston. He still lacks that trademark performance—the one that, perhaps irrationally, justifies his transition from Oklahoma City's sixth man to Houston's top gun.
Not helping matters are the comments he's made since, the ones that seemingly devalue Chandler Parsons and role players everywhere.
"Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets," Harden told Joaquin Henson of The Philippine Star. "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."
Snap judgments can be made, but Harden's thoughts are rather harmless and, at their core, likely not as dismissive and demeaning as they sound. But they still shine additional light on a Rockets team that doesn't need any more attention. More importantly, they call his leadership qualities—or lack thereof—into question.
And so Harden must find it with himself to improve any way he can—on defense, in the playoffs, as a leader. For all he's done, Harden, like Red94's Rahat Huq details, has left everyone waiting for a better version of himself:
We’ve been focusing on the personnel game for some years now. But player transformation has been the traditional path to success. Hakeem finding inner peace and trust in his teammates. Lebron reinventing his game. Harden can be the second best player in this conference. If he puts in work on the defensive end, he will be.
Making the next jump—that which allows him to leave behind his regularly recited blisters—demands Harden do more. It dictates his game reflect the completeness he himself sees.
Until it does, his place among the league's best will remain fairly high, yet fall markedly short of its ceiling.
Finding His Place
There are qualms to be had with Harden, wars of words to be waged, statistical struggles to highlight.
Like it always has, the great continues to outweigh the bad, the good trumps the questionable, his potential thumps the status quo.
Fromal identified him as a top-14 player while ranking the NBA's top 200 talents, and that's fair. Harden is certainly not James or Durant. He's not Paul or Curry. He's not Kevin Love or Anthony, or Dwight Howard or Anthony Davis. Harden is, however, right there, as a top-15 player, standing on level ground with some of the league's best—and not as someone who is overrated.
Name more players—aside from the aforementioned—who usurp Harden. The list will be small, if it even exists. Maybe Griffin is on it. Maybe Russell Westbrook, too. But it ends there.
Overrated and overhyped talents don't consistently put up the numbers he does. They don't mean as much to their teams as he does. They don't stand in front of DeMarcus Cousins, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki the way he does.
They aren't—far and away—the best player at their position the way he is.
This past season marks the second straight year Harden finished in the top five of total win shares. That he's done so while leaving marginal to negative imprints on the defensive end is impressive. That only James and Durant lay claim to the same feat is vindicating. Validating. Satisfying.
"Yeah. Definitely. I’m enjoying this," Harden told Jackson. "Still trying to catch guys like LeBron, KD and Kobe. You know, just trying to catch those guys. That’s something I get to look forward to every single day to motivate me."
Try as Harden will to catch James and Durant, he's not there. Yet. But he is in the surrounding area, able to see them, able to chase them, able to look in his immediate vicinity and see only top-10 and -15 talents—peers he may soon leave behind.