5 Big Improvements Oklahoma City Thunder's James Harden Must Make Next Season

Kyle Ramos@Kyle_RamosCorrespondent IAugust 6, 2012

5 Big Improvements Oklahoma City Thunder's James Harden Must Make Next Season

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    Whenever a team falls short of winning a championship, there is always room for improvement.

    Besides the team as a whole, individual improvements can often be the catalyst for a team taking the next step toward winning it all.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder were a few close games away from finishing the season on top, but unfortunately things didn't go their way. Now they must find ways to adapt and get better for next season.

    James Harden, the Thunder's resident facial hair connoisseur and reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year had a great season in OKC. However, it could have been better.

    It's tough to poke holes in a player's game when he's already pretty good, but let's take a look at some key areas that Harden will have to improve next season. 

5. Creating Offense with the Second Unit

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    Harden has proven he can score with a versatile skill set of shooting and driving on offense. That much is definitely true.

    However, it's usually a lot easier for him when he is on the floor with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and even Serge Ibaka. The starting unit provides plenty of offensive threats. When you throw Harden in the mix, scoring could come from anywhere.

    When Harden is the primary offensive player with the second unit though, he finds some more difficulty creating his own offense when he has higher defensive pressure. This is something he should work on to hold the court down while KD and the starters get a breather.

    The better Harden is at creating offense on his own, the more dangerous he is on the court with the starters. 

4. Defense

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    James Harden has proven that he is very capable of improving in this category from year to year.

    As a rookie, he showed that he could get the job done on offense, but his defense looked somewhat questionable.

    His sophomore campaign looked much better, and his last season was even better than that. However, his improvements seemed to diminish completely in the Finals against the Miami Heat.

    This is where the improvement comes in. Sure, Harden can defend guys on the second unit well enough, but when he's getting minutes against the starters and elite guys like LeBron James, it looks like a different story.

    As a small sample of how tough of a time Harden had against LeBron, look at this particular play in the Finals where Harden simply lost focus.

    Seeing Harden improve on defense, especially in big-game situations, could pay dividends for the Thunder team that needs to get better on defense as a whole next season.

3. Quickness

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    Harden's offensive game has been described as being "old school" or even "old man" throughout the season, which is good to an extent.

    However, in a league of players that have gotten faster and stronger over the years, his old-man game may not be the right style.

    He's not the slowest player out there and has a certain amount of savviness when he has the ball in his hands, but just imagine how many more opportunities he would have on offense if he was able to blow by defenders.

    Cutting without the ball would also be beneficial for Harden, since he could find more open looks by improving his agility to get around screens.

    Quickness and agility are not things that you can generate overnight or maybe even over an offseason, but any improvement at all would be welcomed.

2. Consistency

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    Every player has a bad game every now and then. Getting yourself out of that rut though, is what can separate the good players from the elite players.

    Harden had a miserable series against the Heat, when the games counted the most. You can factor in fatigue, tough defense and demoralizing close losses, but Harden was simply not a factor.

    He shot just 37.5 percent, much lower than his season average of 49 percent, and also saw a seven percent drop in his three-point shooting as well. Harden wasn't hitting shots or providing the scoring punch the Thunder expected from him.

    Harden's bad string of games came directly after shining in the series against the Spurs, where he was scoring efficiently and being the player his team needed him to be.

    Expecting Harden to deliver every single night is a lofty goal, since all players will fall short at some time or another, but seeing the night-and-day comparison of his last two playoff series is a cause for concern.

1. Toughness

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    Simply put, Harden needs to be a little meaner.

    This has nothing to do with him being a friendly guy off the court, or a contributing member to the overall welfare of the Oklahoma City community. I'm talking about his behavior on the court.

    Frankly, the Thunder are just a nice team: Kevin Durant, the clean-cut superstar, Russell Westbrook, the snazzy postgame dresser, Harden, the guy with the biggest beard in the NBA. Sure, it's nice to have fun and pleasant people around, but sometimes you've got to be mean.

    Harden immediately loses his tough-guy card by his heavy amount of flopping in games. Does it get called? Sometimes. But more importantly, the defense isn't scared of a guy who flops. They don't respect someone who is looking to pull a fast one on the refs. They respect tenacious defenders who will get in their face. They respect guys who go hard at the basket, fight through the contact and finish the play.

    Flopping is getting out of hand in this league, and Harden is as much a part of the trend as anyone else. That's why he needs to rise above it all and start to change the overall culture of the Thunder. As an individual, Harden just needs to get tougher physically and even mentally late in the season. His improvement could become contagious for the rest of the team, and could lead to positive changes for Oklahoma City.