Is James Harden an Elite Player?


Sometimes before you realize what you have you must first let it go and see how much you miss it. That is what I am doing with my weekly Off-Base Percentage post this week. But also, the Oklahoma City Thunder are doing the same thing with James Harden. Harden is off to a great start in his 2013 campaign for Most Valuable Player.

The Beard is averaging 26.4 points per game, double his career average. But is he really doing that well? Or are teams just not used to that much James Harden on the court? He is averaging almost more than ten minutes more per game than he had in OKC last season. Or is his success just the product of playing some poor teams? Of the Rockets’ eight games they have only played two teams above .500. Also, we all know that the NBA is about match ups more than anything. Has Harden had it easy with less than stellar shooting guard opposition? Let’s look at the numbers.

Houston has played eight games. Harden’s four highest scoring outputs were against Portland (27 pts.), New Orleans (30), Detroit (37), and Atlanta (45). Those teams’ combined record is ten wins to twenty losses. He matched up mainly against Wesley Matthews, Austin Rivers, Rodney Stuckey, and Kyle Korver. None of those four strike fear with their defensive prowess (or lack there of). With their hands in his grill he shot 52% from the field.

However, when Harden and the Rockets have gone against stronger teams he has not fared as well. His four lowest scoring outputs were against Miami (22), Detroit (20), Memphis (18), and Denver (15). Their records total seventeen wins and sixteen losses, mainly because of Detroit’s one-win season so far. He drew much tougher shooting guards on the opposite side, too. Dwyane Wade, Stuckey again, Andre Iguodala, and Tony Allen all had much better luck keeping him in check. I attribute this too familiarity with Harden and sheer athletic ability. Obviously, his field goal percentage is significantly lower against better defenders at a little less than 33%.

But when you dig deeper you can see that given more time on the court, Harden produces exponentially more. In his 31.4 minutes per game last season he averaged 16.8 points. But this season he plays 39.8 minutes and scores 26.4. That comes out to .54 points per minute in 2012 compared this year’s .67 points per minute. Maybe Oklahoma City should have brought the beard off the bench for a longer amount of time.

Granted we are only one-tenth of the way through the season and it is unlikely that Harden will keep his statistics at this level, but it is now clear that he is probably worth a max contract–something Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook probably wish the Thunder would have given him. In my opinion, I think once players become more familiar with Harden, Rodney Stuckey for example, his scoring will drop a bit. Harden was a bench player last year, though he still played nearly seventy-five percent of the game starters did not defend him as often as they do this season. I could be wrong, though. It wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe Harden is taking on the ‘scorer’ role very well in Houston. Only time will tell.

How good is James Harden? Who will be the NBA MVP? Let me know in the comment section or on Twitter @Believelander.

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