There are really just two numbers you need to know when it comes to evaluating James Harden. The first is 29.9. The second is 23. And, really, those numbers aren’t even connected to Harden – they’re connected to Thabo Sefolosha, so there. Sorry for the immediate mind screw. Sefolosha was starting and playing 29.9 minutes per contest through December to start the season. By April, the Thunder, like Van Halen, realized they weren’t their best selves with the Thabo Wabo guy and regrouped. With Sefolosha down to a hair under 23 minutes per game, Harden became a bear after the All-Star Break. Not the 300-pound hairy-chested prison inmate sporting lipstick and volatile expectations, the kind of bear that was first off the bench and wrecked a ton of opponent benches. Harden didn’t start a game in ’09, he started five in ’10 and my guess is he doubles that next year and starts seeing 30+ mpgs. Here’s what else we’re looking at with Harden in 2011.
It’s easy to forget that Harden was the third pick in the ’09 draft. He was a rookie the year the Thunder became respectful, but all eyes were on Durant becoming Mana from Texas and Westbrook becoming enough of a playmaker to keep the Thunder from being a one-trick bison. Harden was a respectable rookie, but his beard hadn’t fully grown in and so we ignored him. Last season, the guy had the fourth-highest PER on the team behind Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka and with Sefolosha’s backcourt defense becoming less valuable with Perkins and Ibaka in the front court, there’s less reason to play Sefolosha more than 34 mpgs (as illustrated in the second half of the season). Everything points to the trend started in March (29 mpg/.494 FG%/1.7 3ptm/16.8 pts/1.4 stl) and continued in the first round of the playoffs (29.3 mpgs) following him into next season. He won’t score as much as some owners banking on his March production will hope for (he’s never shot over .470 from the field in any other month so far in his career and it’s usually much lower), but he’ll give you a little of everything else you need. Even if he only sees a bump up to 30 minutes all season (up from 26.7), mix in another year of experience under his belt and a more complimentary roster than the first 16 months of his career and I could see him sticking 14/5/2.5, with a combined three blks+stls+3ptm per game up on the wall.
* I’m not sure Sefolosha brings quantifiably better defense to the table than Harden (Sefolosha has a 106 DRtg, Harden’s is 108, but whatever).