• Dalton Pence

What’s Next for James Harden?

Sports Illustrated

The Houston Rockets ultimately fell short of the NBA Finals after losing to the Golden State Warriors in seven games. Despite his team’s defeat, James Harden saw his personal drought come to an end as he won his first MVP trophy. With multiple top-three finishes in the award’s voting in years prior, Harden has solidified himself as one the league’s best players. So, how does he take the next step? The better question is: what defines the next step? Honestly, there is not too much more that Harden can improve on, especially on the offensive side.

But there is room for improvement in Harden’s defensive game. Last season, he had a defensive rating of 104.7, which is the third-highest of his career. As a matter of fact, the only season in which his defensive rating was under 100 was during his rookie campaign back in 2009 (99.8). Last season, players that Harden guarded made 46.4% of their shots, most of those coming inside-the-arc (51.0%). He averaged 1.8 and .7 steals and blocks per game, respectively; he was 7th amongst the league in steals per game.

We’ve all seen the GIFs and video compilations of Harden showing a lack of effort on the defensive end, but that does not epitomize his abilities. In fact, Harden holds his own in the post and often time effectively guards the opposing forwards and big men. One aspect that is in need of improvement is consistency. Harden can take the next step this season by continually putting in the effort on the defensive end.

Offensively, it is not so simple. Arguably one of the best isolation scorers in NBA history, the 29-year-old veteran is one of the toughest players to guard. Since he arrived in Houston in 2012, Harden has never averaged under 25 points per game. Usually players have certain moves with which they excel, but Harden has multiple. Whether it be the infamous Eurostep, stepback or the demoralizing beating-of-the-dribble, Harden’s craftiness creates a headache for opposing teams.

Not only can he score with the best of them, but Harden’s passing abilities are worth noting as well. Since the trade to the Rockets, the Beard consistently raised his assist per game numbers, reaching a career-high 11.2 in 2016. His number dropped to 8.8 APG in 2018 primarily because of the acquisition of Chris Paul and the split point guard duties that resulted from it. His ability to run the pick-and-roll (currently with Clint Capela) makes the Rockets one of the most dangerous offenses in the NBA.

So where can Harden improve? The most evident aspect is field goal percentage from behind the arc. Although he is a volume shooter, Harden has never shot over 40% from three. Even though this statistic isn’t truly alarming, there is not much to critique from an offensive standpoint.

Another aspect is turnovers; the ball is in Harden’s hands throughout the game, but he turns it over frequently. During his tenure in Houston, Harden has finished top five every season in turnovers per game, setting the single-season turnover record in 2017 with 464. There is not much in terms of improvement for Harden, but if he becomes more efficient in ball handling and three-point shooting, he may become even scarier to guard, which is terrifying for opposing teams.

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