Top NBA Players: #24 James Harden

May 19, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol (16) blocks a shot by Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden (13) in the first half of game four in the Western Conference semi finals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

James Harden
Resume: 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 31.4 minutes, 312 free throws made (8th in league), 369 free throw attempts (10th in league), 49% FG, 39% 3PT, and 85% FT… Team record in games played: 44-18 (3-1 without)… Playoffs: 16.3 points (career best), 5.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 steals (career best), 44% FG, 41% 3PT (career best), 86% FT (career best), 13-7 record… Sixth Man of the Year

I mentioned two days ago that Manu Ginobili serves as the model for James Harden, “a lefty sixth man who can come in and change the course of any game no matter how many stars are on the floor.” From a legacy standpoint Harden won’t come close to Ginobili just because of the fact Ginobili is one of the best and most accomplished international players in basketball history. Plus Ginobili killed a damn bat. Unless Harden has a few living in his beard right now, that just isn’t happening.

It’s not unrealistic to think that if James Harden really is Manu Ginobili 2.0, that version could be better than the prototype. Besides the fact that their games are incredibly alike (herky jerky, left handed, plenty of flopping, very capable of facilitating the offense or taking over the scoring burden, and the unique ability to be loved by his team’s fans, hated by opposing fans and appreciated by basketball fans), statistically they are on track with each other. If you look at the regular season numbers of Ginobili in year three (16.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 47% FG, 38%3 PT, 80% FT) compared to Harden’s (his numbers at the top of the page), you’ll see they are very similar. Ginobili has the edge in postseason play to this point, but Harden’s had his share of moments this past spring too.

Sure, James Harden dropped a mini stink bomb in the Finals, but does Oklahoma City even get to the NBA Finals without the Beard? As great as Durant and Westbrook are and were in the 2012 postseason, I say no. Harden is the factor that puts them over the top. When Durant and Westbrook couldn’t get it going, Harden was the guy getting it done. He closed out game 4 of the 1st round, carried Oklahoma City in stretches during the 2nd round series vs. Los Angeles (and got to the free throw line plenty, enough that I got more than a few outraged text messages from my cousin/Lakers fan Pauley), and delivered a dagger three in San Antonio in game 5. Let me put it this way… even with the injuries to Wade, Rose, Howard and Bosh, Harden doesn’t get a spot on Team USA without a great playoff run. Everyone claiming Harden choked during the playoffs, simmer down.

A few times on this countdown I’ve talked about a player being forced into a role he isn’t quite qualified for. For the first time I might be ranking a player who is capable of jumping a role. Could Harden handle the burden of being the 2nd best guy on a great team? I would argue yes. I look at the body of work Harden put forth in the regular season and postseason up to the Finals rather than just the Finals. Assuming the Oklahoma City trio stays together Harden is likely never better than the third best guy on his own team. Harden surpassing Durant… not happening ever. Harden surpassing Westbrook… you might be able to talk me into that one, but it’s still unlikely.

Now the debate becomes how high James Harden’s ceiling is. Harden is only 23 years old and is already a top 25 player in my eyes. Coming up in the rankings, there are still four Lakers, three Celtics, and three Heat. In today’s superpower/big three era of basketball it’s not out of the question to think that when Harden is in his prime he couldn’t be a top 15 player. As for now, Harden will have to settle for being the most overqualified sixth man in the league and rocking the most bad ass beard in professional sports.