OKC Thunder: James Harden Must Be Given an Expanded Role with the Thunder

Luke JohnsonContributor IIIDecember 7, 2011

December 9 is looming like a figurative finish line, tick ticking to point of explosion. 

Its signal is a fault line exposing the insecurity running through the American fan's heart. 

And while the NBA experienced a minor form of insecurity and job displacement, the rest of America has been in the same experiential dumpster for three years.

Because of this growing inequality educationally and economically, the moment is all most of us are granted. 

You might refer to this as "the NOW;" the present tense; the act of breathing in and then slowly...breathing out a future as brittle as honey comb. 

But yet NOW, we gladly possess an NBA season that weeks earlier was all but a 365-day corpse in a David Stern-sized casket.

Suddenly fans are swelling in expectation, looking forward to what lies ahead Christmas day—when the league tips off and NBA basketball offers an undercurrent of much needed entertainment.

While a maddened circus of NBA executives two-step shuffle, juggle and dine Chris Paul and Dwight Howard like frenzied genies, others like the Thunder rumble into 2011-2012 confidently.

For Thunder fans, a 55-27 finish and Western Conference Finals appearance last year, leads a list of a very impressive resume.

And while the Mavericks, Spurs and Lakers slowly pass their precipice with a geriatric's muse, the Thunder boast one of the youngest teams in basketball, led of course by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. 

But we can't dismiss the Thunder's coagulation of hardnosed role players individually specializing in their own roles.

In two years and counting the Thunder will battle their own deadline when a time bomb in a glass bottle ruptures into various free agencies. 

Namely, sixth man and expectant starter James Harden, whose speedy 6'5" combo skill set has quickly made him a major player in coach Scott Brooks' rotation.

After a dismal rookie year, Harden elevated his game and avoided the sophomore slump, averaging 12.2 points per game off the bench. That is what makes Harden so special.

Unlike his counterparts, the guard is an all-around talent with a star's pedigree.  

Superior in his on-ball defense and acrobatic abilities around the rim, Harden's improved three-point shooting, rebounding and passing have caught the fancy of many around the league.

His intensity on the defensive side brings an uncanny spark, which is something that leading to turnovers and exciting highlight reel finishes, enriches what can be predictably a bland offensive set pattern centered around Westbrook's erratic dribble drive and Durant's fall-away jumper.

For this reason alone Harden should take on a larger role this season.

Adding the former Sun Devil to the team as a third option offensively opens up the game for Westbrook/Durant. His combo set of skills allows him time both at the guard and point guard position.

This duplicitous nature of his game may ingest a growing embroilment between coach Brooks and the temperamental Westbrook.

By allowing Harden ample time to operate as lead ball handler, the radical Westbrook gets more of a turn as an aggressive gunning two guard. 

This very well could be the key in loosening up Westbrook, who desiring more of an offensive role on the team, seems to currently question his team identity. 

Primarily, Harden's expanded role plays partner insurance for the organization. 

Giving the gifted guard a role admits you're willing to invest in his and your future together.

When 2014 rolls around (if it does without an extension) the "all-star" guard will be more willing to buy in as an integral part in the team long term.

But this won't come without its necessary difficulties.

Unable to keep on four players at $10 million-plus, the Thunder will be forced to choose between Harden and Emeka Okafor the second, Serge Ibaka.

Both are key cogs in the team's chances come 2012 postseason, but are rising stars in their own right.

You can expect them to expect whomever they sign with to make them feel more important than just another role player.

And while Ibaka is without question a top-notch defender, his offensive game feels more interchangeable than Harden's does.

Besides that point, allotting Harden his necessary role and minutes gives the organization the time to judge what exactly their investing in: If Harden does not respond to his increased role, than the organization can move on and go with the consistently predictable Ibaka.

Both are valuable in the long run and serve a greater purpose.

I believe Ibaka is growing into a more formidable four. His future style of play is obvious: rim rattle and block shots. He looks like a 13 and 10 type of forward with an occasional 20-point outburst.

But as for Harden, his dubious upside is mysterious.

Whether or not he exudes a star potential will be telling this season. And if so, you can expect the Thunder in the Finals this year and the next and the next and the next. 


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