Give James Harden The Sixth Man Title Now
Just prior to the start of the NBA’s 2011-12 season, Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden came right out and said it.
One of his goals is to win the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year title.
“He’s going to be right there with the other Sixth Men in this league,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks told HOOPSWORLD. “He gives us what we need out of that role. He gives us a playmaker, a scorer, an attacker and his defense is much better. He’s right there with the other ones in the league.”
“As long as we keep winning and he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s got a good chance of winning that,” added teammate Russell Westbrook.
Kevin Durant, pragmatic in his response, won’t hand him the title just yet.
“It’s too early in the season for any of those type awards or anything, but hopefully he does,” he told us. “He’s been playing like it. We’ll see.”
“I’m not going to say that,” fellow guard Daequan Cook said when we asked him if Harden was on his way to claiming Sixth Man title this season. “James, with the way he’s playing, he’s showing that spark. He’s showing that he has that opportunity to become one of them guys in winning that, so I wouldn’t doubt it if he wins it.
“Sometimes it’s how you start,” he added. “It’s very important – regardless of how you finish – it’s always good to have a good start to get that under your belt, and right now he’s playing with a lot of confidence, and it’s actually helping us. He’s very consistent so it’s just important that he does that and just keeps working.”
For all the “is-he-or-isn’t-he” hubbub surrounding Harden’s insertion into the starting lineup, nobody on this team seems to care. Especially Harden.
“Whatever is best for this team,” said Harden. “Whatever makes us win. I think everybody’s in their comfortable role, especially with Thabo (Sefolosha) starting and me coming off the bench. I think that’s best for our team right now.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Cook chimed in. “That’s the good thing about it. With a guy like James, he doesn’t really care about starting or when he comes in. The thing about him is he always produces. Whether it’s on the offensive or defensive end, he’s always giving us that spark we need off the bench to get guys going.”
It took some time for Harden find his confidence and rhythm; after the Jeff Green/Kendrick Perkins trade last year, a few more minutes per game opened up for Harden. He took advantage.
After the trade, Harden logged notable increases in scoring, assists, steals, field-goal percentage, and player efficiency rating (PER).
His across-the-board improvements already this year are pretty staggering. By all accounts, it seems Harden is experiencing the famed third-year jump.
Last season he averaged 12.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 three-pointers.
In the eight games so far this season, he’s averaging 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.5 three-pointers. His field goal percentage has increased from .436 to .488. Astonishingly, his PER has jumped from 16.4 last season to 25.9.
Harden is the currently the second-leading scorer on the team.
He leads the team in free throws per game (6.5) at an impressive .912 percentage. In fact, he’s ranked fourth in the league in total free throws.
This stat is downright impressive: his PER of 25.9 ranks eighth in the league…higher than Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose.
He’s league-ranked sixth in true shooting percentage (.676). His Offensive Rating is fourth in the league. He’s ranked second in Offensive Win Shares, behind LeBron James and fourth in Win Shares.
Convinced now that he’s off to a stellar start?
Hoopsstats.com lists him as the second-best shooting guard in the league in terms of efficiency. Number one is Kobe Bryant.
“Definitely he’s gotten better,” noted Westbrook. “He’s (been) playing in the league for two years. Once he figured out how the league is run and what your role is, he perfected that and started getting better at that.”
During the lockout, coaches had no contact with their players. They had to hope guys were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Brooks was pleased how Harden showed up at training camp.
“You can tell he spent a lot of time in the summer in the gym,” Brooks shared. “He’s improved his decision-making. His jump shot, his middle game, (and) his defense is much improved. Give him a lot of credit. He’s worked extremely hard. He wants to get better. He wants to be a very good player in this league.”
“It’s part of all the work he’s put in, and he’s worked hard,” Cook said. “Put himself in a good position, and now he’s become one of our key guys. Not just coming off the bench but just on our team, period. We look for him to do a lot.
“He takes that role and takes that lead every time, especially a good, young player in his third year,” he continued. “He’s doing a good job of it and it’s showing every night.”
Durant minced no words when expressing how important Harden is to the Thunder’s success.
“He’s very key to the whole thing,” Durant explained. “He’s one of the main pieces to the whole puzzle. (When he’s) playing well; we’re going to be a dangerous team. He works hard every single day, so I know he’s going to come in and perform every single night.”
Harden is a low-key type; he prefers action on the court to speak for itself. If he keeps this level of play going, people will thankfully start talking more about his contributions than his infamous beard. It’s true, though, the beard is still awesome.
One coach in this league has high praise for the 22-year-old player.
“I think James Harden is probably the most underrated player in the league,” said Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry. “I really do. He’s probably as important on this team as anybody on it. (There’s) not a whole lot of people that really say that about him.
“I think what he is…is that he’s such a consistent guy,” Gentry added. “To me, he reminds me of the old players in the eighties. There’s nothing fancy about his game. He’s just really, really efficient. I don’t know if sometimes, people appreciate that or not. I think his coaches appreciate it.”
“It’s true,” agreed Cook. “At the end of the day, a lot of guys respect him and understand his game and pay attention closely to his game knowing how much he produces and how much he means to this team.”
The secret may be out. The NBA All-Star ballot was recently released, and Harden’s name was included as a candidate for the Western Conference All-Star team.