What James Harden's Efficiency Says About His Superstar Ceiling

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 16, 2012

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 12:  Jeremy Lin #7 (L) and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets react to a call against the Miami Heat at the Toyota Center on November 12, 2012 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

James Harden is a superstar with the Houston Rockets—in spite of his efficiency.

With the Oklahoma City Thunder, however, he was one because of his efficiency.

Make sense?

I didn't think so.

Though Harden has been anything but unimpressive for the Rockets, he has been erratic. Yes, he's posting 26.4 points per game, but that comes on 44.3 percent shooting, a metric that is being held together by his first two out-of-this-world performances of the season. He's also shooting just 24 percent from beyond the arc while his assists-to-turnover ratio is at a career worst 1.09.

Now, I'm not saying Harden isn't a superstar, because he is. But his ceiling as one is predicated on his efficiency—or in this case, lack thereof.

Last season, the combo guard had posted an effective field-goal percentage of 58.4. This season, however, his effective field-goal clip is at 48—the lowest of his career. 

Which begs the question of why. Why has Harden never been more important, yet struggled to remain efficient?

Somewhat ironically, it's because he is now so important that his claim to superstardom has been hampered.

Harden was able to shoot 49.1 percent from the field with the Thunder because he was taking almost half as many shots, spending an ample amount of time playing against second-units and capitalizing off the offensive shadows both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook cast.

In other words, life as Oklahoma City's third option and sixth man boosted Harden's efficiency. Not his production, but his efficiency.

As a scorer, he was often left open to take his man one-on-one when playing alongside Durant and Westbrook. As a passer, he not only had a clearer view of the lanes, but two other superstars to dish the rock off to.

But now it's just him. 

Harden's ceiling as one of the most efficient players in basketball is the direct result of his environment. Jeremy Lin doesn't draw the attention Durant and Westbrook do. Omer Asik doesn't compress defenses the way Serge Ibaka does. And subsequently, Harden can no longer score at a high rate as efficiently.

Just take a look at his per-36 minute averages this season. He's averaging 23.9 points, nearly five more than last year, but shooting five percent worse from the field and 15 percent worse behind the rainbow.

The percentage of his possessions that end in turnovers is up to a career high 15 percent as well, which is saying something because his usage rate has never been higher.

Again, I'm not attempting to disprove Harden's worth as a star. That's not the point. 

The point is to understand that Harden doesn't have the same ceiling as a superstar in Houston, because he's effectively being thrust into a Durant-esque role, without the benefits Durant currently has.

Last season, Durant averaged nearly just as many minutes as Harden is now while taking more shots. But he shot 49.4 percent from the field en route to scoring 28 points per contest—numbers that effectively trounce Harden's.

Could Durant's continued efficiency and output be the direct result of playing alongside Harden and Westbrook?

Absolutely, but that's just the point. Harden's ceiling as a superstar—as an efficient superstar—is only as high as the amount of respect his supporting cast demands.

And don't just look at Durant to prove this notion. Consider, for a minute, LeBron James.

With the Cleveland Cavaliers, James was a superstar and an efficient one at that. Since moving to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade however, his field-goal percentages across the board have never been higher and his assists-to-turnover ratio currently sits at a career best.

Whenever one superstar has the opportunity to play alongside and familiarize themselves with another one, the opportunity to become more efficient is always going to present itself. The season Kobe Bryant is currently having will tell you the same thing.

Which essentially means Harden's ceiling continues to be weighed down because of circumstance. 

In Oklahoma City, his efficiency was through the roof, but he sacrificed his reputation by coming off the bench. In Houston, he now has the the reputation and responsibility, but without the efficiency.

Thus, Harden's potential as a superstar remains lower than that of many. We can compare him to Wade and Bryant all we want, but the truth is he doesn't compare. Not without at least one other superstar in the starting lineup.

So ultimately, what does Harden's efficiency tell us about his potential?

That he, just like any other superstar, can be a benefactor or victim of circumstance.

As it just so stands, the Rockets current dynamic has rendered Harden the latter.

Stats used in this article were accurate as of 11/16/12.


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