Top 50 NBA Players: #9 James Harden

James Harden
Resume: 25.9 points (5th in league), 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.8 steals (7th in league), 38.3 minutes (6th in league), 179 threes made (6th in league), 674 free throws made (2nd in league), 792 free throws attempted (1st in league), 44% FG, 37% 3PT,  and 85% FT… Team record in games played: 43-35 (2-2 without)… Playoffs: 26.3 points (career best), 6.7 rebounds (career best), 4.5 assists (career best), 2.0 steals (career best), 40.5 minutes, 39% FG, 34% 3PT, 80% FT, 2-4 record… All-Star, 8th in MVP Voting, 3rd Team All-NBA

Ranking James Harden was a tough task for a variety of reasons. His immediate and incredible success in Houston couldn’t have been expected by just about anybody. We knew he was a very good player and an exquisite complementary piece for Oklahoma City (almost certainly overqualified for the role he was placed in as a member of the Thunder), but I don’t think anyone realized he was that good. I ranked James Harden the 24th best player in the NBA prior to last season and prior to the trade from Oklahoma City to Houston; one of the more polarizing trades in recent NBA history which has been dissected by every single NBA writer or NBA fan who has a blog. In my write up of Harden I wondered aloud whether or not Harden could handle the burden of being the 2nd best guy on a great team, and if his ceiling would allow him to one day be a top 15 player in the league. What happened over the next seven months emphatically answered both of those questions for me, leaving me with very little doubt about James Harden the player coming into the 2013-14 NBA season.

February 23, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) shoots the ball as Washington Wizards small forward Trevor Ariza (1) defends in the fourth quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 105-103. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Harden killed the 2012-13 season like it was a gang of Albanians that had kidnapped his stripper daughter. His first two games of the season in Detroit and Atlanta put the NBA on notice that the Thunder made a mistake trading him for Kevin Martin, Kevin Martin’s goofy jump shot, and a vegetable platter. His 46 point explosion against his former team served as a metaphorical middle finger to Sam Presti and everyone who thought he was expendable after a poor Finals performance in 2012. Harden led a team without another All-Star player to the playoffs, carrying a larger burden than just about anybody else in the league. Like I said, he kicked all kinds of ass.

Now sure, Harden is far from the perfect player. Like Carmelo Anthony, he doesn’t play a tootsie pop lick of good defense. He turned the ball over way too much last season—more than anyone in the league— and his shot selection, much like his singing voice, is suspect. But keep in mind Harden is only 24 years old and will improve on all of those weaknesses. Already he’s one of the most unique players in the league, and that doesn’t have anything to do with his beard (how I got nearly 500 words in without mentioning the beard is beyond me).

Harden’s offensive arsenal is relatively bizarre, yet tremendously effective. No player that I can remember relied so heavily on and succeeded offensively with isolation (really, the whole Houston offense was built around James Harden isolating at the top of the key; this may be different in the coming season however), shooting and making a ton of threes, and getting to the line more than any player in the league. That’s not a normal offensive workload. Then again, Harden isn’t normal. He looks like a combination of Kimbo Slice and according to my mother, my cousin Tony (this lets me know my mother is getting old and crazy considering Tony is Italian, well under 6 feet tall, and doesn’t have a massive beard). He’s cooler than most players in the league and he’s supremely confident in his abilities, agreeing with Kevin Durant by saying that he is “For sure” a top ten player in the NBA. I’m on that bandwagon.