In every group of friends, there’s essentially a leader.
Whether they want to be the leader or not, it usually just happens without a lot of people noticing it. They organize the get-togethers. They pass information along within the group. They’re always in contact with every one of the friends. This person has a lot of responsibility and importance. It doesn’t even have to be a domineering personality that makes this happen. It’s just someone who naturally gets everybody on the same page.
In the Oklahoma City Thunder group of friends, there is seemingly a guy who does the same thing. Maybe he’s not the vocal leader and maybe he’s not the leader by example. But he tends to balance everything out and make things happen when they need to happen. The funny thing is it’s not the NBA’s leading scorer with a fiery touch, and it isn’t even the young point guard who has had one of the fastest tracks from tweener to near-stardom that I can remember.
It happens to be James Harden, the bearded volcano who comes off the bench for Scott Brooks’ squad.
Three months ago, you were probably in the same boat as a lot of people. You thought the Thunder screwed up the third pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. They left Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry on the board for other teams to snatch up. They had incendiary baby steps into the league while James Harden was trying to find his footing on a young team making a big leap.
Tyreke Evans was chasing down 20-5-5 to be Ringo to the John-Paul-George of Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James trio. Stephen Curry was breaking ankles, reinventing the pure jump shot and being compared to Steve Nash. And James Harden… well… he was growing a pretty sweet beard.
I tried arguing with people that James Harden was the right pick for OKC. Tyreke Evans and Russell Westbrook sharing a basketball in the same backcourt would have been like Jerome James and Eddy Curry trying to split the last slice of cheesecake. And putting Steph Curry next to Russell Westbrook defensively would have been a nightmare against any team with decent backcourt size. Considering this team won based on defense last season, I find that to be a troubling combination.
I also tried arguing that if you put James Harden on awful teams that are going nowhere fast, he’d put up pretty awesome rookie numbers. They probably wouldn’t have been approaching or wrestling history the way Curry and Reke did, but they’d be impressive numbers nonetheless.
However, none of this could be backed up because James Harden was stuck behind Thabo Sefolosha on the depth chart for both tactical and experience-driven reasons.
Then the unthinkable happened. Danny Ainge traded Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green. Suddenly, there were free shots open for anyone with the trigger finger to take them. Thabo’s limited offensive repertoire wasn’t going to let him advance on these unspoken for attempts. Serge Ibaka still wasn’t a guy you were going to feature that much in the offense. And Kendrick Perkins can only waste so many possessions per game by being given the ball.
Enter James Harden, who took his blazing, bearded talent and slapped it across the face of the naysayers.
Before Jeff Green was traded, James Harden was the fourth wheel on a tricycle. He had his moments here and there, but for the most part he was just fitting in sort of awkwardly. Jeff Green wasn’t establishing himself as a consistent difference-maker and James Harden was basically picking up any scraps along the way. After that scoring part of the offense opened up, Harden blossomed as grandiosely as his beard.
James Harden adds an element to the Thunder offense that they were missing so badly before the Jeff Green trade. It’s not that Jeff Green is bad (although he’s not good), it’s just that James Harden gives the team so much balance with his offensive game. Green was unlikely to put the ball on the floor and make a good play consistently. Harden is arguably their best playmaker when he’s in the game.
The Thunder’s offense has been very good for most of the season. In their 56 games before the Jeff Green trade, HoopData has them at a rating of 108.3, which would tie the Knicks for 5th for an entire season’s output. But in the 26 games after the trade, they operated at an offensive rating of 109.9. 109.9 would have been tops in the NBA for the entire season. In the playoffs, OKC is +7.64 in overall rating with Harden on the court and a -7.21 with him on the bench (according to Basketball Value).
A big part of this was the increased usage and scoring of Harden. But the bigger part is just that Harden’s presence gets everybody on the same page. He gives you a lot of perimeter scoring when he’s on the floor with Westbrook and Durant. He can penetrate and find the open man. He can also pull back for a jumper or get to the basket and score.
With Harden on the court, you can’t really overload on Westbrook’s driving because he can kick it to Harden who can then penetrate against the recovering defense. If he gets it into the middle of the floor, he can find Durant on the perimeter or the big man underneath as the defense is scrambling.
Looking back to the collapse against the Mavericks in Game 4, the loss of Harden fouling out really helped bog down the Thunder’s offense. When he fouled out with 4:34 left in the 4th quarter, OKC was up 12. From that moment through the end of the overtime frame, the Thunder shot 3/15 from the field with four turnovers and only six points. According to Ryen Russillo on the ESPN NBA Today podcast, the Thunder had just over 70% of their offense coming from inside paint with Harden and it dropped to under 25% once he was disqualified.
In a world in which everybody (including myself) is complaining about Durant not using screens and Westbrook not using his head in trying to get Oklahoma City to the NBA Finals, perhaps there is a quieter, beardier reason for OKC’s ability to get some good offensive flow going. Maybe we should look to the first player off the bench, much like we looked toward Manu Ginobili during those Spurs’ runs of last decade.
James Harden certainly isn’t the best or second best player on this team. With Ibaka’s emergence on defense (when he’s not having to guard Dirk), Harden might even be down to the fourth best player on this roster. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t the leader of this group of friends. Looking ahead to tonight’s game, keeping Harden on the court and active in the offensive attack is the key to extending this series.
After all, he sort of brings everybody together. Whether he knows it or not.