James Harden Is Not a Top 5 Player?

On a Las Vegas stage in July of 2015, James Harden accepted an award that validated the year he had just completed. He was awarded a trophy as the Players MVP, finally able to bask in some sort of glow for carrying the Rockets when no one else could, when Dwight Howard was injured and their cast of three point shooting role players depended on him. It was a defining moment.

Harden had a jagged road to stardom. Traded away from friends Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook where he was a happy Sixth Man, he was thrust into the role of star and leader. But still, the questions about Harden never disappeared, despite the Players MVP. Memories of Harden in the NBA Finals with a distracted and distant expression, morphed around a lazy game, remained a constant despite his award. And there was the issue of Harden and defense, his Achilles heel. Yes,  NBA players honored Harden that July night. But the basketball public? They took the long approach.

Two years after his peers awarded him the Players MVP, James Harden displayed a brilliant tour de force in 2016-17. Harden had career highs in three point attempts, free throws made, free throw attempts, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, total rebounding, assists, scoring, PER, Usage Rate. His pairing with Mike D’Antoni and moving to the point guard position was a brilliant re-imaging of the Harden game.

However, an almost MVP does not make you a top-5 player, despite a remarkable season. In ESPN’s annual pre-season player rankings, their collection of basketball experts gave Harden’s new teammate Chris Paul more love. Paul is ranked as the 7th best NBA player while Harden is ranked 8th. Keeping Harden out the top 5 is nemesis/friend Russell Westbrook, the reigning MVP.

What is it going to take for Harden to crack the top-5?

First, let’s go back to the last game we saw Harden play. It was a disaster.  Harden cannot be given a pass for his lack of competitiveness and imagination and will. If you didn’t know it was an elimination game you would have thought it was the first game after the All-Star break. But remember the NBA Finals of 2012 and how James Harden performed? That Thursday night in May had a similar texture, a deer in the headlights performance.

James Harden has not changed overall. Everyone likes to say he has. He is the same person. What he has done is add more responsibility. Last season, he didn’t have the luxury of being Russell Westbrook where he could take every shot and not consider teammates.  His attention to defense, which had been depressed, spiked as he actually paid attention to the other end of the floor rather than using it as an opportunity for a mini vacation in-game. He wasn’t negligent.

Naturally, when you play a team without two of their All-Star starters (Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) and are outplayed, out hustled, and no one can really explain why, there has to be a fall guy, blame.  People who played in the playoffs, in elimination scenarios, after that elimination fiasco called  Harden a quitter, according to Stephen A. Smith. James Harden will continue to  carry that burden until he rises up and carries his team somewhere. It is what we expect from someone who had a MVP season and is a top-5 player. Die on the hill. Don’t die hiding behind the bunker. Or as commentator/former player Mark Jackson said, “don’t tell me, show me.”

Harden’s ranking is also representative of the hallowed Real Plus-Minus statistic. Real Plus-Minus is a statistic in which 230,000 possessions, give or take, are measured to illustrate a players impact. The binary conclusion creates rankings. The top-5 Players, according to ESPN, were ranked as follows in Real Plus- Minus (2016-17), seen in bold.

1. Lebron James: 1st

2. Kevin Durant: 11th

3. Kawhi Leonard: 5th

4. Steph Curry: 3rd

5. Russell Westbrook: 9th

7. James Harden: 13th.

Among point guards, Harden was ranked behind Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry. Among shooting guards he was ranked second behind Jimmy Butler. When you look at the Offensive Ratings and Defensive Ratings of last season, of the ESPN top 5 players, Harden had a similar net plus. Only Kevin Durant (+24), Kawhi Leonard (+19), and Steph Curry (+14) had a higher net gain than Harden’s (+11).

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Harden, it seems, always has the long walk. He has never been universally adored. He’s a dominant scorer. He’s not a defender. He froze in the NBA Finals. Of his peers, Harden’s overall critique is always harsher because of his flaws that are magnified, not suppressed, in the glow of his stardom. Harden has to prove he is who his game says he is. When the Dwight Howard marriage blew up in his face, Harden was blamed for that as well. Not making an All-NBA team when he deserved to was the final humiliation.

Or maybe not. Maybe game 6 against the Spurs was one more chapter in the James Harden story, something he has to fight against, this perception that he is kind of soft. Or maybe Game 6 only solidified the thought that Harden has to have another superstar to keep him from freezing.

Harden said, “everything falls on my shoulders. I take responsibility for it. Especially losing game 6 at home. It happened. It is frustrating. Especially in the way we were resilient all year long. It stings. We have to figure out a way to get better.”

Harden had it a little twisted though. It was not losing at home that was the issue. Memphis lost a game 7 at home against the Clippers. Back in the day, the Kings lost their game 7 at home that would have sent them to the NBA Finals. The Warriors lost the NBA Finals at home. Home isn’t some magic serum. But it is the place you know. You play harder at home because everything is on your side: the fans, the rims, the familiarity. It is set up for you not to fail. You have the privilege while your opponent has the deficit.

About hell, Winston Churchill said you keep going. But often, Harden stops when everything is on the line. It is Harden’s responsibility to resuscitate his game in-game. Breathe life into it when it is all going sour. The great players resurrect in the moment. They understand what is at stake.

So much of what happened is irrelevant now that Chris Paul is in town. Paul is a tough, willful leader who dies trying to do more, not less. He is the Harden antidote. What happened in May would have been forgotten if it wasn’t for those ESPN rankings dredging up bad Harden memories. Unlike other stars, Harden can never shake his brain freezes. Analytics has it on his record. Not a top-5 player, not yet. The third worst elimination defeat in NBA history. 10 points for the elite player James Harden.

It’s a new year, a new teammate, a lot of hope in a besieged city. James Harden is still James Harden. He’ll make jumpers. He’ll drive to the rim. He’ll win games with his three ball. But those are not questions, but facts. What we do not know, however, is if James Harden will ever honor those among us who think he should be more, do more, create more, dominate more. The best combo guard in the NBA mantle is his for the taking. If he wants it. But does he really want it? Often, what is possible is not what is probable.

photo via llananba