James Harden: Heartbreaking Story to NBA MVP
He was just a kid from Compton.
While some NBA players were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, James Harden was not. Raised by his mother and her single income, James turned to basketball to keep himself busy and stay out of trouble. As a pure shooter in high school, James drew interest from UCLA, Washington, and North Carolina–all good NCAA basketball programs. But instead, James followed his high school basketball coach to Arizona State University.
In high school, James had promised his coach, Scott Pera, that if Scott ever got a college coaching job, James would follow. And despite the chance to play at a bigger-name university, James kept his word and chose loyalty over prestige.
After a stellar career at Arizona State, James Harden was selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder with the number three overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
As a bench player, Harden grew, as he averaged 9.9 and 12.2 points per game his first two years in the league. But in the 2011-12 season, he had a breakout year, averaging 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game off the bench, and winning the Sixth Man of the Year award in the process.
Playing alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the new “Big Three” in OKC had big plans for the future. OKC coach Scott Brooks even asked Harden at one point if he wanted to start, considering his breakout numbers. But Harden declined, and according to ESPN’s E:60 segment, James noted that “we had a chemistry. My role was to come off the bench, and that was for the better of the team.”
James Harden helped lead that Thunder team to the NBA Finals in the 2011-12 year, only to lose to the Lebron James-led Miami Heat in five games. But the three budding stars in OKC had set their team up for prolonged success and an undoubtedly bright future. But while Harden believed he “was gonna be the sixth man, forever,” on OKC, the Thunder had different plans. After offering Harden a contract shy of the max, James didn’t even have time to contemplate it before he learned the news.
He had been traded to the Houston Rockets.
Drafted and raised by OKC for three years, and even having reached the doorstep of a title with their young core, James felt betrayed. His mother even described it as a “divorce.”
But despite being a bench player his whole career, James was about to take a step up. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey believed James to be underrated and a “foundational” player. James would usher in a new era of Rockets basketball and would be the base to build their team around. For a fourth-year player who’s only ever come off the bench, those were lofty goals.
Now in a lead role, James didn’t disappoint. After scoring 37 points in a promising season opener, he averaged 25.9 points per game in his first year as a Rocket, and was elected as an All-Star for the first time in his career.
Harden’s growth as a player continued to progress, as he made more of an effort to get his teammates involved. His assists-per-game numbers increased each season in his first five years in Houston. Then, in 2016, the Rockets named Mike D’Antoni as the head coach of the Rockets.
Known for his “Seven Seconds or Less” offense with the Phoenix Suns in the 2000’s, Mike D’Antoni had a brilliant offensive mind. The union of D’Antoni, a genius offensive guru, and James Harden, a gifted scorer at the peak of his game, was a match for the ages. In D’Antoni’s system, James thrived.
While he was mostly known as a scorer, Harden was moved from shooting guard to point guard that season, and D’Antoni put the offense completely in the hands of number 13.
The gamble paid off, as Harden averaged a league-leading 11.2 assists per game in the 2016-17 season. The shift to point guard didn’t come without its negatives though, as James also averaged a league-leading 5.4 turnovers per game.
D’Antoni also started to change the way the Rockets played, as they became a high-octane, offensive-focused team that relied on the three. Harden shot 40% of his shots from three-point land in 2015-16, and that number jumped to 49% once D’Antoni took over.
But one of the biggest changes was made to take advantage of Harden’s unique skills. James had developed an uncanny ability to read a defender and get by him. His propensity to draw fouls on nearly every drive may have had NBA fans rolling their eyes, but it results in two more free throws for James each time.
Complementing his quickness and driving ability was his step back jumper. James has practiced and perfected it as his signature move–a dance with his defender that required precise footwork and elite ball-handling. According to Sports Illustrated, James took 0.9 step-back three’s per game in the 16-17 season, and 2.4 step-back three’s in the 17-18 season. This year, though, he’s taking more than six step-back three’s a game.
But considering how unstoppable this shot is, Harden may be revolutionizing the game:
James’ quickness in his drives, his ability to create contact, and his unguardable step-back jumper pushed D’Antoni to call more isolation plays for him. While James led the league in possessions in isolation in 15-16 and 16-17, his number of possessions spent in iso leaped from 6.8 to 10.0 in 2017-18. James scored 12.2 of his league-leading 30.4 points per game on isolation plays in his MVP season. This season, the number has again skyrocketed, as James now has isolation plays on 16.8 possessions per game.
When he wasn’t used in isolation, Harden was utilized as the pick-and-roll ball handler. Harden had 10.2 possessions a game as the pick-and-roll ball handler in ’17-18, which was fifth in the NBA. This year, however, that number has dipped to 7.5 possessions a game, indicating a move more towards isolation and less emphasis on the pick-and-roll.
In addition to getting to the rim on iso drives and drawing fouls, Harden was also adept at creating contact on his three-point shot. When talking to Sports Illustrated, P.J. Tucker, James’ teammate on the Rockets, described the dilemma in guarding the step back:
“To contest it, you gotta go under him. Even if you don’t hit his arm, you’re under him and a lot of times you’re hitting the bottom part of his legs. That’s how he gets those fouls.”
It’s no surprise, then, that James Harden has been drawing more fouls on his three-point attempts than almost every NBA team. He averaged 10.1 free throws per game in the 2017-18 year, and made 8.7 of them—both numbers leading the NBA in their respective categories. This year, he’s shooting 11.1 free throws per game, and as an 85% career free throw shooter, these are free points. In fact, James has led the NBA in free throws attempted in every season since the 2012-13 year except for one. In the ’13-14 year, he came in second, trailing only Kevin Durant.
In that ’17-18 season, fully entrenched in the Rockets’ three-point-happy offense, Harden’s 3.7 three’s made per game ended up being second in the league, behind only Stephen Curry. This year, he’s making 4.7 three’s per game, again second in the NBA only to Curry.
Harden’s numbers last season resulted in winning the NBA MVP, averaging 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game. All while shooting 45% from the field, 37% from three, and 86% at the line. This year, he’s somehow improved on his MVP numbers, averaging a league-leading 35.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game.
Teams are shifting to a much faster pace this season, but D’Antoni and the Rockets are sticking with their game plan of hunting for a mismatch in isolation, launching three’s, and getting to the line. The Rockets currently rank 28th in the league in PACE, which measures possessions per game.
While the Rockets continue to stay true to themselves, James continues to adapt his game, and is taking an obscene 54% of his shots from downtown, a career high. Paired with Chris Paul, who thrives in isolation himself, James has the Rockets eyeing a deep playoff run, and will be firmly entrenched in the MVP race for the third straight season.
James represents the perfect foil for the reigning champion Warriors. While Golden State shares the ball and thrives off of ball movement, James finds his success in isolation, hunting for the perfect defender to prey on. The two styles clashed in last year’s Western Conference Finals, with Harden and the Rockets nearly knocking off the superteam Warriors in seven games.
It’s not far-fetched to say James has changed the game. His ability to create contact on drives has sparked league-wide controversy over what is and isn’t a foul. His isolations and step-back three’s go directly against the increased pace and ball movement the league has seen recently. And James, in sheer MVP form yet again, has the Rockets looking to make the Finals for the first time since 1995.
Love him or hate him, he’s changed the way we think about basketball. His 32-game streak of 30+ points this season was a testament to his ability to score at will, and put the league on notice again that the one of the best scorers in the game is only getting better.
His step-back, unstoppable. His drives, unguardable. His iconic beard, unshaveable.
He wasn’t born as a monster basketball player. He didn’t grow up with the privilege of NBA parents. Instead, James Harden has had to overcome betrayal, adversity, and criticism. He’s stayed loyal at every turn in a league where the concept of loyalty may not even exist anymore. And he’s adapted his game to become one of the most unguardable players in NBA history. MVP, and still getting better.
And all this, from just a kid from Compton.