James Harden Embraces “Sixth Starter” Role
When the NBA and the Oklahoma City Thunder called a press conference to announce James Harden as the 2011-12 Kia NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award, the usual suspects were in attendance. Seated on stage were Harden, Thunder executive vice-president and general manager Sam Presti, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks and a Kia representative. Harden’s proud family members were there, as well as Brooks’ coaching staff and select Thunder personnel.
You might be pleasantly surprised to learn who else was in attendance.
Gathered together on one side of the room was the majority of Harden’s teammates including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Eric Maynor, Daequan Cook, Royal Ivey, Cole Aldrich, Reggie Jackson and Lazar Hayward.
“We’re a family,” Harden said when asked what it meant to have their support. “These are my friends, these are my teammates. We hang out off the court more than anybody. I love them and I appreciate everything they do for me. I knew that they would be here, because that’s the type of brotherhood we have, and it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
Harden, 22, was the thirtieth recipient of this prestigious honor. Now in his third year in the NBA, he is the second-youngest winner of the Sixth Man award.
“Not many players at this stage of their career would be able to understand and respect the role itself and the meaning it has to the team,” Presti said. “His approach to this role has really helped to define our team.”
Last year, Harden shot down questioners who had trouble understanding why he hadn’t been inserted into the starting lineup. It seemed Harden was the only one who got it, declaring the Sixth Man award was a personal goal. Did he expect it would come so soon?
“As long as I’ve done the right things and went the right way about it,” Harden answered HOOPSWORLD. “It would have (come) soon, and I’m happy it’s soon right now.”
His coach explained how and why it keeps working so well with Harden in this role.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen with training camp; if he was out-played, there might have been a change,” Brooks told us. “But I (told him) ‘You have an opportunity, if you don’t start, to be the facilitator and to be a scorer and to do kind of like everything during those minutes that Kevin and Russell are on the bench getting rest’ and that’s intriguing for James. He has six or seven minutes a half where he has to do everything. Keep the scoreboard moving and also lead us on the defensive end.”
As far as the future, Harden is content with his role…with one caveat.
“If we’re winning championships, I have no problem with it,” he quickly said. “That’s all that matters.”
The Thunder picked Harden third overall in the 2009 draft following two successful years at Arizona State University. Now, just three years later, his team (47-19) captured the Northwest Division title for the second season in a row and is presently chasing a title ring. Harden’s contributions off the bench (16.8 points, 3.7 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.8 in three-pointers) have been instrumental.
“Being drafted with the third overall pick, most guys would come in and think they’re going to be a starter on any team,” Harden said in his acceptance speech. “Scotty did a great job of making me that sixth man off the bench, helping me figure my role out.
“At first, as a rookie, I didn’t get it. I thought I was going to go in there and score and do all those things that every other player thought.
“Learning to embrace that role of coming in,” he continued. “Not just score the ball, but change the game – whether it’s defense or offense or creating steals, some nights I’m not going to score – but just doing whatever it takes to win the game. Scotty really embraced that and put it into my head, so I really appreciate him for that. It’s a blessing. It’s an honor to be the Kia Sixth Man of this year.”
It came as somewhat of a shock to hear Harden share that he “didn’t get it” as a rookie.
“I think it was the middle of last year when I really got it,” he said. “Just since that trade deadline happened (in February, 2011), my role became bigger on this team. I had to make sure that every single game I was supposed to focus on doing my role at its best. Just coming in and changing the game. I’ve just tried to get better at it; every single game just coming in and having that consistent work ethic and playing hard every single play.”
Brooks didn’t necessarily agree with Harden, and he set the record straight.
“I think James is being a little hard on himself,” Brooks began, patting Harden’s shoulder. “He did get it as a rookie. To come in as a rookie – the year before we won 22, 23 games – we won 50 games, and he played big minutes. Three years later, he’s a man. He’s really, really improved in every area that we’ve thrown at him. We don’t say ‘James, you’ve got to become a better three-point player.’ We tell James ‘you’ve got to become a better all-around player.’ He has the ability to improve all areas of the floor.”
The should-he-or-shouldn’t-he start debate among analysts and fans shows no signs of slowing despite Harden’s remarkable success in his reserve role. Brooks understands this, but instead chooses to view him another way.
“I look at him as our sixth starter,” he explained. “He has the ability to impact the game in many different ways. At such a young age, it’s not common in this league to accept a role of sacrifice. Let’s face it, our team is exploring. Each guy is trying to figure out what they can do, how they can become a better player, so getting it all together takes a lot of sacrifices. Having James on our team is an incredible asset.”
“A sixth starter,” Harden repeated. “He put it in the exact words just because most of the time in the second quarter or in the fourth quarter, I’m out there with the starters, finishing games. That came with that trust, in my rookie year to now. Being out there in the fourth quarters, giving me the ball, letting me make plays. Definitely sixth starter is the name.”
His coach recalls the moment in which he knew what kind of player he had in James Harden. It was just after the conclusion of last season.
“I just asked him ‘What are your goals going into the summer?’, thinking he would tell me ‘Well, I want to start.’ All he said was ‘Coach, I want to do whatever it takes for the team to get better.’ Right then and there I knew that he had bought into the job that we asked him to do.”
Brooks gave us a glimpse into the personal side of Harden that he knows.
“One of the things that we all love about James is his spirit. He just has a great way about himself. He understands that he’s playing a game that we all love. He takes it serious, but he understands that it is a game. He has fun while he’s working. He has fun while he’s playing the game. I think that’s important. Sometimes we all, including myself, we kind of lose perspective of that, but James kind of always brings it back in and tells us and shows us the way he plays. He has fun.
“One of the things I keep saying – and it’s so true – with Sam, he drafts guys and brings guys for trades or through free agency that are going to fit in with the team concept,” Brooks added. “You can put together a good team with a group of individual players that you’re not going to have a lot of success if they’re not buying into team, and our guys do that. James does that. Guys love James. It’s great to watch it when he comes into the games. The crowd, they love James Harden. They love what he’s about. He has a great game, and he has a cool look.”
Right, his cool look. In other words, the beard.
It seems only recently that Harden’s performance is finally garnering more attention than his infamous beard. Still, people love to talk about it. In fact, someone asked him if any of his success could be traced to the beard.
“Of course,” Harden deadpanned. “It’s very noticeable. It’s who I am. It’s gotten me to where I am. All credit to it.”
Brooks couldn’t help but share his take on the beard.
“I didn’t like it at first, but it’s growing on me. I would never want him to shave it.
“Let me retract my statement,” Brooks said. “I do like it other than having lunch with him, because when you have lunch with him, he does not clean it up until after the meal is over. So you’re having conversations, (and) whatever you’re eating, you’re seeing it. That actually happened yesterday. I even said ‘James, come on.’ And he said ‘No, I’m still eating, Coach.’ That’s a true story.”
Even the Thunder’s always-serious general manager was compelled to comment on the beard.
“James is a young person, but he has a very mature outlook and that has nothing to do with the stellar facial hair that you see right there that’s on display that makes all of us jealous,” Presti began, to appreciative laughs. “But there’s more to this person than a great left hand and great vision on the floor. He’s highly, highly intelligent. He’s a great teammate. He’s got great charisma and he’s someone we value very much. This award is much more about James the person and the competitor than just James as a player itself.”
“It’s a great honor for him to receive this Sixth Man of the Year award,” said Brooks. “It’s great to have on your resume. I know he doesn’t think about it as a 22-year-old, but when he’s my age looking back, it’s an incredible award because you’re doing something that you’re the best at this year.
“It’s well-deserved. He’s sacrificed a lot. He will always do that because that’s who he is.”