When the Oklahoma City Thunder picked James Harden at No. 3 overall in the 2009 NBA Draft, there were a couple of competing theories. I subscribed to the argument that, having Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook -- two strong alpha players on offense and a facilitator in Green -- in hand, Thunder GM Sam Presti wanted to add a player who would fit into the status quo. Other comparable prospects like Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry and Ricky Rubio seemed to potentially displace Thunder cogs, not complement them. The expectation was that Harden would be a defense-minded shooter to open up the floor for Durant and Westbrook.
Another theory was, simply, that Harden was the best player available, and that because the Thunder had Westbrook and Durant, they could afford to let him develop. Harden's stock was sky-high before he fizzled in the NCAA Tournament; he didn't exactly limp through draft season, but his buzz level remained low enough that not too many analysts and commentators were guaranteeing his success. But we had at that point learned to trust Presti's judgment.
So what theory prevailed? Was Harden a fit pick, or the best player available?
Both. He was the best player available who fit the team perfectly.
How he fit is what threw halos of birdies over our heads. Harden has remained a bench player, and this season was named the league's best sixth man. The Thunder didn't pick Harden to become a roleplaying cog between Westbrook and Durant -- they picked him because he showed the potential to be a major scorer and facilitator. But because they had Westbrook and Durant, they realized (and continue to rely on the fact) that he could do his thing when one or both were out of the game. And he has! Like the Spurs' use of Manu Ginobili over the years, the Thunder have allowed Harden to play as full a game as he is capable of. He's a hyperefficient, ball-dominant scorer who fits on a team that already has the league's No. 1 scoring small forward and No. 1 scoring point guard.
The next question is how to replicate Harden. If there's one thing about NBA successes, it's that everyone else wants to replicate them. That's why everyone started picking Europeans extremely high after Peja Stojakovic and Dirk Nowitzki became household names. That's why Big Threes became all of the rage. It's why the picks of Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant presaged scores of preps-to-pros selections in the subsequent years. The draft succumbs to trends as much as any other aspect of the league.
So if we're acknowledging the Thunder's success with Harden, how do we adapt that as a general rule? How do we find perfect fits who replicate our stars' attributes and have the discipline to stick with them instead of trying to fill holes elsewhere?
1. Ignore your immediate strengths and weaknesses. There wasn't exactly a whole lot of size for OKC to chase in '09 -- Blake Griffin and Hasheem Thabeet were taken Nos. 1 and 2, and Jordan Hill was the only other big man taken in the top 10 -- but the Thunder needed bigs more than they needed a perimeter scorer. It didn't matter. Instead of reaching for Hill or dealing with Memphis to grab Thabeet, they went with the player they felt was the best available: Harden. In the history of the draft, especially at the top, the lesson time and time again is to pick the best player available.
2. Groom for a role that can expand. You can't put whipped cream back in the can. The same is true of offensive responsibility in the NBA. It's so, so hard to give a player free reign on the court, then constrict his role when conditions change. Consider Tyreke Evans, the player picked immediately after Harden. He joined a bad team whose leading scorer was Kevin Martin. Martin played five games before a fracture in his wrist sidelined him for months. With Martin out, if Tyreke didn't become a high-usage scorer, the Kings (coming off of a 17-65 season) would have been relying on Beno Udrih and Jason Thompson for offense.
So Paul Westphal handed the reins to the rookie, and he excelled, and the team still stunk, but Evans scored a bunch. When Martin returned, there was apparently no way to reboot and revert Tyreke back to a less gunny version. Martin got traded, Evans continued to be the focus of the offense and the Kings continued to lose. Now the Kings have a legit point guard (Isaiah Thomas) and a strong scorer up front (DeMarcus Cousins) and in the backcourt (Marcus Thornton), and there's really nowhere but out-of-position at small forward for Evans to go.
Meanwhile, Evans' game itself actually resembles those of Harden and Ginobili, without the shooting but with a much more imposing physical profile. He could have been a stellar sixth man ... if he came into a situation with a front office and coaching staff that wasn't desperate for immediate wins, and into a situation where he didn't have to be the top hombre from Day 1.
O.J. Mayo is another example here, and actually did get put back in the can once Lionel Hollins decided to let Tony Allen breathe in the 2010-11 season. But the Grizzlies are bizarre, and the future with Rudy Gay and Mayo's own free agency is a mystery. We'll see.
3. Let blossom! Scott Brooks has continuously given Harden bigger roles not only in the grind of the regular season, but in crunch time and in the playoffs. This is the biggest lesson of Ginobili: even reserves can be the most important players some nights. Brooks has some issues calling plays and running a defense, but his handling of Harden through the restrained years and now in mid-blossom has been perfect. The current frontcourt version of Harden, Thaddeus Young, is entering this stage. We'll see how Doug Collins does.
Of course, the blossoming can include an ascension into the starting five -- Evan Turner is an example of long-term necessity requiring promotion. When roles are defined, use can be fluid. The difference between a supplementary scorer off the bench and one in the starting five is nil for some teams.
There you have it: how to create your own James Harden in three easy steps. How simple! Now, to get two All-Star players and acquire a pick high enough to land a player of that caliber ... ah, minor details!
There are some potential Hardens in the 2012 Draft. Brad Beal sticks out, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could actually do the trick from a slightly different angle. Harrison Barnes, though, is my dark horse Harden candidate. On the right team that doesn't need his offense in high volumes immediately, he can learn how to play NBA defense, work on his driving game and build confidence. Then, BOOM. You have HARRISON BARNES. We'll see who picks him and how he develops, but my hopes along these lines are high.