Oklahoma City Thunder's Biggest Question Could Be Answered By James Harden

DALLAS, TX - MAY 17: James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the first half while taking on the Dallas Mavericks in Game One of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 17, 2011 in Dallas, 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Russell Westbrook drama throughout the playoffs has overshadowed the development of James Harden, who is not only becoming a star, but one who offers the perfect fit alongside the talents of Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Never was this more clear than in the Thunder's Game 2 win over the Dallas Mavericks.

The question that Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy discussed midway through the first quarter of Game 2 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks is one that has come up many times. How about that Kendrick Perkins trade, Breen asked, noting the huge trade deadline move that gave the Thunder an extra gear and derailed the Boston Celtics. It's an issue that's been dissected over and over this year, but on a national broadcast, you can never be sure whether your audience has actually followed it. 

The three men began talking, recycling the same storylines for a while. But then, Van Gundy spoke up and offered something really profound. "This trade," he said (and I'm paraphrasing) "was as much about giving more time for Serge Ibaka and James Harden than anything."

It's true. Removing Jeff Green from the equation has made a huge difference for both players and the team. But whereas Ibaka was already playing well in limited minutes, Harden was actually struggling. His so-so performance over the first half of the season was concerning enough for GM Sam Presti to nearly trade him instead of Green. Even though Harden is so young, Presti was making a big leap of faith hoping he would turn it around.


Complete Coverage of Thunder vs. Mavericks Game 2

Three months later, and here we are. Lost in the shuffle of the Russell Westbrook story is that Harden was the man who really won Game 2 for the Thunder. With 23 points on just nine shot attempts, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals, Harden flashed the kind of all-around game teams constantly wish their young shooting guards can provide. Few can, but Harden did, and he's been doing it for three months now. Also, he's 21.

In a postseason where there's been some lack of chemistry at times between Oklahoma City's two stars, the truly dangerous thing is that they may now have a third player that can enhance the other two.

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Harden's development into what he is now is a bit complicated. He was a really unique prospect coming out of college, but because his skills were misunderstood, he was stuck with the dreaded "good at many things, not great at anything" label. Those kinds of prospects are very difficult for coaches, who tend to look for players who can bring specific skills to the table. In truth, Harden did have some very specific unique skills. Few shooting guards were as good with the ball in their hands as Harden was with Arizona State, and his playmaking skills allowed Herb Sendek's motion offense to thrive. Also, after looking skinny in college, Harden managed to blow away all the athletic tests at the combine. That transformation has allowed him to elevate and compete against NBA athletes and blew away one of his supposed weaknesses. 

These are unique talents, but many missed them because they were trying to place Harden in a shooting guard bubble. Shooting guards are supposed to shoot, and Harden wasn't a great catch-and-shoot player in college. But in a league where guards increasingly create more offense for themselves, Harden's clever pick-and-roll ability was a tremendous skill. Luckily, Presti and the Thunder recognized it and drafted him for it.


Related: Why Russell Westbrook Being Benched Is a Big Deal

So predicting Harden could play wasn't very hard to do if you paid attention. Predicting he could play like this, though, was a much tougher thing and required a bit of a transformation. In his rookie year, Harden was afforded many minutes without Kevin Durant and Westbrook, which allowed him to play to his strengths. Eventually, though, he had to learn how to play with them, and that's where the sophomore struggles came in. Harden started getting lost in the shuffle as more shots went to those two players, and his confidence suffered. In many games in the first half of the season, he was searching for his comfort zone in all the wrong places. Something had to change.

Here's where the Green trade came in. Both Green and Harden were struggling this season with their shot, and Presti realized that he needed to figure out whose confidence could be restored. Presti chose Harden. And since then, a lightbulb has gone off. Harden's playoff exploits are only a continuation of a trend that began after the all-star break. Here are some key numbers:

  • Pre All-Star Break: 25.7 minutes per game, 10.3 points per game, 49.8% eFG% (weighing three-pointers), 3.75 FTA/game.
  • Post All-Star Break + playoffs: 29.6 minutes per game, 14.9 points per game, 55.1% eFG%, 4.7 FTA/game
A lot of that is due to personal growth. Harden has become a much better catch-and-shoot player, a must when playing with Durant and Westbrook. But a lot of it simply is coach Scott Brooks believing in him. Slowly, but surely, Harden is starting to assert himself as a playmaker even with Durant and Westbrook on the floor. Brooks has given Harden more capability to make plays, and in turn, Harden is learning when to look for his offense, when to look for his shot and when to look to drive. He always had the idiosyncratic game; now, he's getting a chance to show it.

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So that's what is happening with Harden. Why is it significant? For one thing, Harden is so productive and so young. How many 21-year old shooting guards are there that are this good and can make this much of an impact on a great team? People don't want to rush to judge Harden, but if you think about it, given his age, rapid improvement and his game, why can't he be as good as someone like Manu Ginobili or Ray Allen? When Ginobili was 21, he was on a second-division European team. When Allen was that young, he was in college. Isn't Harden's play in this spot more impressive than that?

Digging deeper, though, and it's clear that Harden is the perfect compliment to Westbrook and Durant. We've established that Westbrook isn't a prototypical point guard and probably never will be. But neither was Tony Parker, and he and Ginobili turned out just fine. Parker without Ginobili probably isn't the Parker we see today. Their ability to share the playmaking role was what fueled San Antonio's success after 2004. Ginobili acted as the perfect bridge between Parker, the talented lead guard, and Tim Duncan, the superstar. His skills allowed each to play to their strengths.

Now, several years later, another bridge is being erected. For many teams, having two guys like Durant and Westbrook that are still working on their chemistry would be an issue. But with Harden's emergence as the piece able to fill in as either a playmaker (if Westbrook is off) or a scorer (if Durant is off), the Thunder suddenly have the kind of team where everything fits together.

That's a development that should truly scare Western Conference teams.
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