With all due respect to Kyle Lowry, Ryan Anderson, and the rest of this season’s pleasant surprises, history suggests that one player’s 2011-2012 breakout will lead to far greater accomplishments. James Harden is averaging career highs of 16.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game, and is currently 7th in the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, at .233. What is particularly remarkable about the season Harden is enjoying is that he is only 22 years old. Only 4 players in the last 30 years have registered a WS/48 mark that high by Harden’s age.
Even if Harden is unable to maintain his current rate of production over the second two thirds of the season, he is certain to join a very select group of players. Should he revert back to his 2010-11 rate for the rest of the year, he will finish at around .190 WS/48. As long as he can sustain a bit of the progress he has made going into his third pro season, he will join this list of players who have posted a .200 WS/48 season at 22 or younger in the last 30 years:
That’s 12 players, all of whom have been All-Stars, and 10 of whom have made an All-NBA 1st Team (11 of 12 if Love makes one). Brand and Stoudemire have fared the worst in later seasons, but both suffered major injuries within a couple of years and saw their production fall off afterwards. And if we compare Harden to the guards on the list, his only peers at this age are two Hall of Famers (Magic, Jordan), two future Hall of Famers (Bryant, Paul) and our reigning MVP, Rose.
If we put Harden up against players of similar experience rather than age, he is posting the fourth-highest WS/48 of any third-year shooting guard in the last 30 years:
This list puts Harden in very close company with a couple of players who weren’t on the first list, but make for more apt stylistic comparisons: Dwyane Wade and Manu Ginobili. Like those two, Harden is a versatile playmaker whose chief talent is putting points on the board without taking a ton of shots.
One advantage Harden has had in his young career is a relatively low usage rate for such a talented player. Efficiency generally declines with an increase in usage, and Harden’s usage has been kept down by the fact that he plays alongside two All-Stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. I will note that Harden, who is currently being utilized in a 6th man role much like Ginobili was in San Antonio for several years, does play fewer minutes than any player on either of the above lists, at around 31 mpg. However, his usage rate of 21.4 this season would not be the lowest on either list.
Piecing together lineup data from Basketballvalue.com reveals that 40% of Harden’s floor time comes when either Durant or Westbrook is on the bench, and 28% of his minutes come with both sitting. Thus, while Harden may benefit from the attention drawn by his talented teammates, he spends no greater than 60% of his time as a third option, and plays a substantial chunk of his minutes as the Thunder’s go-to scorer.
The Thunder have, thus far, done a great job of keeping their young nucleus happy and intact. They boast the West’s best record, are legitimate title contenders, and just locked Russell Westbrook in for 5 more years in Oklahoma City. However, they will face perhaps their toughest challenge yet when Harden’s rookie deal expires after next season. If Harden stays on his current trajectory, he is bound to have plenty of offers for a greater share of the spotlight.
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