Oklahoma City Thunder: Why James Harden Should Come off the Bench

Eric PennellCorrespondent IIDecember 8, 2011

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 30:  James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives teamate Thabo Sefolosha #2 after scoring against the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at US Airways Center on March 30, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Thunder defeated the Suns 116-98. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The wretched offensive performances by Thabo Sefolosha in last season's playoffs (4.6 PPG, 0.7 APG, .154 3P%) and the electrifying, momentum-changing play of James Harden had many Thunder fans continuing their season-long campaign for Harden to start in Sefolosha's spot at the 3.

On the surface, that makes sense. You want your best players playing against the other team's best players, right? James deserves to get his name called at the beginning of the game with the fireworks and music, right?

Harden more than deserves to have his name echoing in the rafters of the Chesapeake Energy Arena during the pregame festivities, but that doesn't mean that it's best for the team.

Fans get too caught up in labeling players as "starters". Once the lights turn back on and the smoke clears, there is no real significance in being a starter. The fact that Harden is not in the starting five doesn't mean Brooks thinks he is not one of the five best players on the team. That fact is for certain.

The Thunder had one of the best second units in the entire NBA last season, in large part because James Harden was part of it. The game is 48 minutes long and having an effective first unit is just as important as having an effective second group.

I suppose you could call him an offensive "spark" off the bench, but his real role is the go-to scorer for the second unit. Harden combines seamlessly with Eric Maynor and Nick Collison to produce a group  that outplayed nearly every team they faced. 

In fact, according to the wonderful analysis at 82games.com, the full second unit was one of the most efficient combinations of players Brooks played all season. The Maynor/Cook/Harden/Collison/Nazr lineup was +32 last season, only one point behind the starting unit. Their effective winning percentage was ten points higher, even.

Would it be exciting to see a Westbrook/Harden/Durant/Ibaka/Perkins starting five? Sure it would. But there would be such a drop off in scoring ability in the second group that, in the end, it would likely hurt the team.

Thabo is on the first unit for a reason. There are plenty of scoring options—especially with a healthy Kendrick Perkins who led the league in dunks the two years prior to coming to OKC—in the starting group. Thabo provides crucial perimeter defending and consistent, intelligent play, most of which won't show up on the stat sheet.

And its not as if Thabo didn't have an impact on the stat sheet, either. He was second on the team in steals (97), third in blocks (38) and seventh in turnovers (55) while shooting a respectable 47 percent from the field. Yes, he slumped offensively during the playoffs but he is a hard worker and will be much improved this season. That, or Brooks just won't let him shoot.

Finally, the important fact is not who starts, but who actually plays the most. In the playoffs (read: when it mattered) Harden played 31.6 MPG, up from 26.7 in the regular season, while Sefolosha dropped to 20.2 MPG in the playoffs from 25.9 in the regular season.

Brooks basically took five minutes of playing time from Thabo and gave it to James, without ever slotting him as a starter. This was a smart move by Brooks, but it doesn't mean that Harden should start the game on the floor.

Remember when the Thunder blew the doors off their expectations, became one of the best teams in the NBA and was one miraculous, seven-foot German away from landing in the NBA Finals? I remember that too.

Brooks knows what he is doing. Let the man work his magic.

Stats used for this article were gathered from 82games.com and Basketball-Reference.com.