Top 50: James Harden, no. 5

by Ben Collins / @oneunderscore__

James Harden is going into this season as the best shooting guard in the NBA and I’ll tell you the three seconds I knew that to be true.

This was three months ago, a month after the season ended, in a sweaty gym with no air conditioning in Willowbrook, CA, at the Drew League. James Harden showed up and scored 35 points. By “showed up,” I mean he sort of casually strutted his way to 35 points. It was like listening to Beyonce sing to the radio in the car. He was not trying to score 35 points. It’s unclear if he was even aware that he was playing basketball. Two weeks later—no joke—he would show up to a game midway through the first quarter and drop 25 points.

This was a game filled with NBA players like Dorrell Wright and DeMar DeRozan (potentially a better streetball player than an NBA player), otherwise horrifyingly talented streetball players (Kwame Alexander, potentially the best dunker in the world), and professionally tall people (Keith Closs, potentially a skyscraper).

His team, The Money Gang, was losing its grip on its double-figure lead in the fourth quarter, so he hit a three with a hand in his face, then appeared to try for the first time, really, by stealing an inbounds pass, which he immediately turned into a wind-up dunk. This was 5 points in three seconds.

The place almost fell to the ground. I mean that. It was that gross and humid in there and everything was made of wood, so we almost all saw something horrible happen because of how unearthly this guy looked when he turned off cruise control. It was like he was saying, “And this is what it’s like when I exert myself.” The other 30 points were the easy way. The game was over at that point.

A few minutes later, he walked off the floor mobbed by about 40 people and changed in a room where no one could get to him. It was a straight up coronation. He came out with giant sunglasses on, as if this would help a 6-5 dude with a 15-inch beard not get recognized, took a picture with a bunch of underprivileged kids and ran out a back door before he had to crowdsurf out of there.

Then he got in a yellow Camaro convertible and booked it up Martin Luther King Blvd. This was some serious Miami Vice s–t right here, but that’s beside the point.

One week later, Kobe showed up to the Drew League, where he’d played and dominated last year, and had to watch from the sidelines because he’d popped his achilles four months earlier.

I know this is all anecdotal. I know these are two fleeting moments. I know this is a false choice—Kobe or Harden. I know there’s Paul George and Dwyane Wade. I know they exist. I know.

But if this didn’t feel like a torch passing, nothing ever will.

We’ll get this out of the way: He has to work on his defense. It’s not optional at this point. He was asked by the Rockets’ coaching staff this summer if he’s up to the challenge of doing that. He gave a three-quarter-hearted yes. He’s not Monta Ellis. He’s pretty good right now already. It’s not a lateral quickness thing. It’s an energy conservation thing for a guy who was sixth in the NBA in minutes last year. But it’s a real thing, and it needs to get fixed.

It’s still not enough to rank him any lower than any other shooting guard on this list. He was fifth in the League in scoring. He dragged a team to the Playoffs (plus two Playoff wins)—a team that did not have a starting power forward—and wound up playing better when it didn’t have its starting point guard. This usually means your team is a little headless and has huge problems, like when the Mavericks dragged Mike James out of a Bingo Night and started him for the final two months of last season, or when the Sacramento Kings do anything at all. For the Rockets, it was because they didn’t truly know how good this guy was and everyone was adapting to this new reality.

Here’s the new reality: James Harden is the best shooting guard in the NBA. This came as a great shock to Dwyane Wade, who played 69 games last regular season and gets to feed off of the doubles and attention that LeBron James commands instead of the free throws and hair gel of Chandler Parsons, but Harden and Wade wasn’t even a discussion last year after December.

Still, Kevin Durant won’t be drinking Gatorade anymore because of The New Reality.

This is the other issue with The New Reality: This team is going to get successful. Fast. It might get successful to the tune of 55-or-so wins and a 3-seed. A lot of it is going to be attributed to Dwight Howard.

Dwight Howard is very good at basketball. Dwight Howard will probably deserve a lot of that credit.

But this is James Harden’s team. This is becoming James Harden’s league.

Sometimes he looks sleepy out there. We know. Sometimes he plays like Beyonce singing “Wrecking Ball” on the way to the supermarket. We know. Maybe it’s the beard. Maybe it’s the defense. That needs help. We know.

But say it with me: James Harden is the best shooting guard in the NBA right now. Like it or not. Drink the Gatorade or not. This is The New Reality.

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10
48 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 14
47 Greg Monroe Pistons PF 12
46 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 9
45 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 13
44 Al Jefferson Bobcats C 9
43 David Lee Warriors PF 11
42 Jrue Holiday Pelicans PG 12
41 Anthony Davis Pelicans PF 10
40 Joe Johnson Nets SG 4
39 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 9
38 Kevin Garnett Nets PF 8
37 Rudy Gay Raptors SF 8
36 Paul Pierce Nets SF 7
35 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 11
34 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 7
33 Al Horford Hawks C 8
32 Andre Iguodala Warriors SF 6
31 Brook Lopez Nets C 7
30 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 6
29 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 6
28 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 10
27 Josh Smith Hawks SF 5
26 Joakim Noah Bulls C 5
25 Roy Hibbert Pacers C 4
24 John Wall Wizards PG 9
23 Chris Bosh Heat C 3
22 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 5
21 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 4
20 LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 3
19 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 8
18 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 2
17 Blake Griffin Clippers PF 2
16 Deron Williams Nets PG 7
15 Kevin Love TWolves PF 1
14 Dwyane Wade Heat SG 3
13 Paul George Pacers SF 4
12 Russell Westbrook Thunder PG 6
11 Tony Parker Spurs PG 5
10 Stephen Curry Warriors PG 4
9 Kyrie Irving Cavs PG 3
8 Dwight Howard Rockets C 1
7 Derrick Rose Bulls PG 2
6 Kobe Bryant Lakers SG 2
5 James Harden Rockets SG 1

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.