The Maturation of James Harden

James Harden was selected 3rd overall in the 2009 NBA Draft. He was 19 at the time.

The Thunder provided Harden with a structure and organizational feel similar to what you would find in a college basketball atmosphere. There wasn't an immense pressure to win - at least not yet. Little was expected of Harden and the young, exciting nucleus that was being assembled in Oklahoma City. Sure there were indications that the front office was building towards a championship, but it was still very early in the process.

Just making the playoffs would be an impressive feat for this team.

And somehow, they did just that. In Harden's first year, he was coming off the bench for a playoff team.

This raised the eyebrows of many around the league as everyone quickly realized Oklahoma City, equipped with young Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden, had a rock solid foundation. This team was built to be a dynasty for years to come and everyone on the team genuinely liked each other which created that college basketball vibe mentioned earlier. The best example for anything similar ever assembled would be the Minnesota Timberwolves right now.

James Harden, coming off the bench in a sixth man capacity, wasn't expected to do too much. All his role dictated he do was provide a modicum of playmaking and scoring to keep the offense above water. However, he quickly grew to be more as a player and ended up winning the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in 2012. The same year, Harden was a significant factor in helping the Thunder reach the NBA Finals where they unfortunately fell short of winning the title.

Harden was a budding star in a team loaded with stars and wanted to get paid as such. While Harden wanted to stay in Oklahoma City, he wasn't going to sign an extension for anything less than the max.

OKC didn't view Harden as the superstar Harden viewed himself as and as a result, negotiations on an extensions stalled. The CBA also really hurt as Oklahoma City was a small market team that was hesitant to pay the luxury tax and have to pay the repeater tax for years to come. Thunder GM Sam Presti then decided to do what he viewed was financially best for Oklahoma City long term.

The Rockets extended him a 4-year $80 million extension soon soon after. James Harden decided to bet on himself and his patience had paid off. The young guard had finally received the contract he felt he deserved and had just become the face of the Houston Rockets.

However, we aren't here to discuss the James Harden trade. There's not nearly enough time.

James Harden was handed the keys to the kingdom and expected to perform at at least an All-Star level at age 23. That's an insane amount of pressure for someone who came off the bench the first 3 years of his career. Harden accepted that challenge, put up an impressive 25.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, and 5.8 APG stat-line, made his first All-Star team, and let the Rockets to their first playoff birth in years as an 8th seed (45-37 record).

At this point, James Harden had more than exceeded Daryl Morey's expectation of James Harden being a possible franchise cornerstone. However, the Rockets had no real pressure to contend for a championship with the talent base they had, there wasn't an expectation to win, and Harden still had a lot to prove.

In 2013, he got his chance when the Rockets had managed to lure star center Dwight Howard in free agency.

The spotlight was soon on Houston as they had just acquired two bonafide superstars and had a plethora of quality role players to fill out the roster (Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Terrence Jones, etc..). The Rockets were now expected to contend with the best of the best.

The pressure to lead very much became a real thing for James Harden.

The franchise, the city, and the rest of the league all had very lofty expectations for the pairing. This was supposed to be the dynamic duo that would bring a title to the city.

Unfortunately, they were ousted in just the 1st round of the playoffs their first time around.

This is the year people first began to question Harden's commitment to defense. In fact, some fan made an 11 minute YouTube video (now taken down) of stretches where Harden would give little to no effort on that end of the floor. Plenty of jokes were made at Harden's expense, poking fun of his deficiencies.

James Harden, Defensive Juggernaut (2013-14) by vladream

James Harden came back the next year like a man on a mission.

Harden posted an incredible stat-line of 27.4 PPG, 7.0 APG, and 5.7 RPG, led the Rockets to their best season in nearly two decades (56-26 record capped off with a Western Conference Finals appearance), and came in 2nd in the MVP race. Harden also proved without a shadow of a doubt that he had the ability to be an average to slightly above average defender given the effort. If there was any doubt that James Harden was a top 10 player (top 5, when focused), he erased it.

Unfortunately, some of the same old problems with Harden arose the next year.

Last year, James Harden came into camp out of shape. You can speculate how and why this was the case, but everyone can agree that it happened and it was evident from the minute he stepped out on the court. When your own former coach admits it on national television, it's pretty hard to deny. Harden was sluggish, made careless turnovers (broke the NBA record for turnovers recorded in a season), and didn't seem as engaged as he was the last year for the first stretch of the season.

Harden quickly turned it around offensively, but by then it was too late and the Rockets had begun their tailspin towards becoming one of the most disappointing teams in franchise history. Defensively, Harden never turned it around. He quickly became a viral sensation again.

Sure, he'd try hard for stretches, but he failed to give the team a consistent effort. Understandably, Harden had a lot on his plate last year from carrying the offense to having to be the first one to answer questions in scrums on why the team was such a disaster. However, that wasn't an excuse to not give half of an effort. Harden didn't provide the leadership required from one's star player last year and that started a trickle down effect to the rest of the roster. It's unfair to say last year was all his fault, but being the best player, he has to carry some of the burden for what went wrong.

This summer, however, we're seeing a different James Harden. A transformation is happening before our very eyes and few are taking the time to notice it. James Harden is showing great signs of maturity and leadership.

Most will point to James Harden's contract extension as the first sign of commitment from Harden.

However, this seemingly all started when James Harden elected to not participate in The Rio Olympics with Team USA.

At the time, this was odd, and most chopped it up to the Zika virus, the fact that other superstars weren't participating, or a possible family issue that Harden needed to attend it.

In actuality, none of these were reasons for his absence.

James Harden made the basketball decision to help recruit free agents to Houston instead of representing his country and trying his hand at another gold medal. This was something Harden's never done before. Every opportunity Harden's been given to participate in the festivities (FIBA in 2014, Olympics in 2012), he's taken it. Sidelining himself from the action to do what's best for the team tells you Harden prioritized the Rockets having a successful offseason above anything else. That's leadership.

Then, there's subtle things like the fact that Harden decided to stop by the front office on draft night.

To most, this may not be a big deal, but James Harden didn't have to do this. It's not often you hear about franchise players stopping by the front office on draft night, much less accompanied by the head coach. While it's a small, it's a sign that Harden was genuinely interested in who the Rockets were going to draft and possibly wanted his input heard. It also presents a united front with the front office. It may sound ridiculous, but it's a mini display of commitment to the future of the organization.


Then, of course, there's the biggest sign of commitment James Harden showed this summer.

On the day of the introductory press conference for Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, the Rockets shocked the NBA world by inking a 4-year $118 million extension with James Harden. The structure of this contract guaranteed that he would be under contract for at least three more years with the 4th year being a player option.  Harden had just committed to the organization for the long haul.

This was huge. This contract took James Harden into his 30s with the Rockets. He had just agreed to be in Houston through his prime years. By signing the contract, Harden had sent the message to the organization and to the fanbase that he believed in what Houston was building and he was willing to see it through.

Harden signing the contract wasn't just the impressive part. He carried himself in the press conference as a true leader. Harden was serious, calculated in what he said, and said everything with a purpose.

This wasn't the same James Harden that was traded here 4 years ago. This was a James Harden that tasted success, learned how quickly it could be taken away from him, and wants badly to return to prominence.

Harden capped off his extension announcement with penned letter to Rockets fans.

Again, Harden didn't have to do this. It was strictly voluntary on his part.

Now, you can speculate that perhaps someone invested in his image advised him to do it, but at the end of the day, he still did it. It felt genuine and the language didn't feel manufactured by somebody employed by Harden (unlike the Kevin Durant Players' Tribune piece). This read like something coming directly from Harden himself and that means something. It's exactly the mindset you'd like to have from your franchise player and it really put an end to any doubt that Harden wasn't fully committed to at least trying to get the Rockets back on track. It screamed maturity.

Of course, actions speak louder than words, but it wasn't just the words.

It was widely reported and even leaked on social media that Harden had assembled the team in Las Vegas to get workouts in preparing for training camp and the season. Harden also indicated that he would assemble the team a few more times during the summer to get acquainted with the new acquisitions to gain some chemistry heading into training camp.

That's leadership. Assembling the team for non-mandatory workouts is a sign that you want to be as prepared as you can be for the regular season. It's become clear that Harden doesn't want a repeat of last season. You don't get to be as good as James Harden without being ultra-competitive and competitive athletes hate losing.

We're seeing a different James Harden. We're seeing a committed and mature Harden. Whether or not this all translates into on-court leadership is still up in the air. However, we've never seen Harden handle an offseason like this and it's refreshing.

Harden came into the league a 19-year old kid with no sense of how to lead an NBA team or burden the responsibility required of being "the guy" (no different from most draftees). He's heading into the 2016-17 season a 27-year old man who now understands the level of commitment and consistency it takes to succeed as the face of the franchise.


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