#SLAMTop50: James Harden, no. 9

The second most unexpected thing about the Paul George injury is that James Harden was playing defense against him.

Houston’s Lucky No. 13 Superstar has a sturdy offensive arsenal, complete with fluid moves, a solid shot, a subtly deceptive first step and a signature Euro-Three. His smooth scoring skills are as effective as they appear effortless; he can drain shots from anywhere on the floor and slice through a defense with force and precision. Hence, #SLAMTop50 projects James Harden at an earnest No. 9, as we foresee him doing some amazing things in 2014-15.

Harden has an abundance of charisma, swag and charm. He has become an important face of the NBA, as well as a world-wide ambassador of the game, representing the country with Gold in the 2012 Olympics and this summer’s World Cup in Barcelona. Additionally, his likeability factor shines in his numerous print advertisements, TV commercials and has the most famous beard since Tom Hanks in Castaway.

Part of Harden’s mystique is that he is so difficult to define. He is a throwback in both appearance and in game. Essentially the luminary hipster of the basketball universe, Harden brings a 1970s cerebral and solid physical quality to the arena. But he is undoubtedly of this generation.

Standing at an authentic 6-5 and weighing in at 220 pounds, he is in many ways the new age prototype for his position. The former Sixth Man of the Year and Arizona State standout averages 38 minutes, 25 points, 4 rebounds and surprisingly, close to 2 steals per game. Harden doesn’t really foul out (insert defense joke here), or get injured (insert speed joke here). His .456 field-goal percentage and .866 average from the line is why this two time All-Star has made it to single digits on our list of a league with 390 players.

Does he play defense? No. Can he play defense? To be determined. Harden has publically acknowledged his renewed commitment toward defense and even demonstrated it to some degree during the FIFA World Basketball Championship this summer (though it’s a bit hard to gauge one’s efforts when shutting down Turkey’s Ender Arslan or Petteri Koponen of Finland). But despite going against a limited talent pool, Harden still battled bouts of defensive apathy, or as he recently referred to it: “an occasional lack of focus.” Regardless of the euphuism his summer lowlights became a viral YouTubesemi-sensation…Ball don’t lie (neither does game film).

And most offensive, his lack of defense has hurt him in the postseason where Harden has yet to author anything good. He has historically been underwhelming and perhaps underachieving during the slowed-down playoff pace, where mental adjustments are on an equal premium as athletic excellence. This was most exemplified in 2011 with OKC, as he helped them get to the Finals— and simultaneously aided them in losing it. (He virtually disappeared in the middle of that somewhat contested five-game series against the Heat.) During the past two seasons, it has been one series and done with his Rockets. Therefore, the question begs to be presented: Is his team and game only suited for the first 82?

Despite these questions, the Houston Rockets as currently constructed are his team. As in most great players he needs the ball in his hands. But unlike many upper echelon scorers, he likes to pass, can effectively play off the ball and makes those around him better.

Harden would be that much more effective as a leader if he put forth the effort to stay with his guy or at the very least attempt to play some help defense. Will he and Dwight become the next Shaq and Kobe or the next Kobe and Dwight? The upside is limitless and the potential going into this season for James Harden and the Rockets can therefore include them in the conversation of a deep playoff run.

The portrait of James Harden is still being painted and he is still very young (he turned 25 this past August). This is going to be just his sixth year in the NBA. If he was a college student, he would be one year away from a master’s degree. Analytics help in lists such as this Top 50, but they can sometimes choke us as it is difficult to measure certain intangible things, including instincts, desire to win and leadership.

The debate is not about his abilities and upside for improvement, but rather if it all comes together in a sustainable way. Currently as it stands, there is no better shooting guard in the League than James Harden and assuming he can develop his all-around game, Harden is on the cusp of joining the ranks of the true NBA elite.

Fear of the number 13 is called Triskaidekaphobia. If Harden steps up his D, the League will start to fear No. 13 and fear the beard.



#SLAMTop50 Players 2014
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Chandler Parsons Mavs SF 6
49 Deron Williams Nets PG 15
48 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 9
47 Eric Bledsoe Suns PG 14
46 Rudy Gay Kings SF 5
45 Joe Johnson Nets SG 8
44 Kenneth Faried Nuggets PF 11
43 DeAndre Jordan Clippers C 9
42 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 13
41 Pau Gasol Bulls PF 10
40 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 12
39 Paul Millsap Hawks PF 9
38 Lance Stephenson Hornets SG 7
37 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 8
36 Al Horford Hawks C 8
35 Bradley Beal Wizards SG 6
34 Kyle Lowry Raptors PG 11
33 Andre Drummond Pistons C 7
32 Dwyane Wade Heat SG 5
31 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 7
30 DeMar DeRozan Raptors SG 4
29 Klay Thompson Warriors SG 3
28 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 6
27 Goran Dragic Suns PG 10
26 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 9
25 Al Jefferson Hornets C 6
24 Chris Bosh Heat C 5
23 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 4
22 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 4
21 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 5
20 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 3
19 Kobe Bryant Lakers SG 2
18 John Wall Wizards PG 8
17 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 7
16 Kyrie Irving Cavs PG 6
15 Dwight Howard Rockets C 2
14 Joakim Noah Bulls C 1
13 Tony Parker Spurs PG 5
12 Derrick Rose Bulls PG 4
11 LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 4
10 Kevin Love Cavs PF 3
9 James Harden Rockets SG 1

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’14-15—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.