Well, I didn't expect my choice for "most underrated star" to get traded on Saturday night. Here's to hoping that James Harden will make the leap from "underrated" to "rated," as franchise player for the Houston Rockets. He finally has the spotlight on his own team, which is a status-leap forward, even if playing for Houston is a step down from playing for OKC.
This season will present a challenge for Harden because his usage rate will go up. The measure of superstardom is the ability to take on high usage while still being efficient. There's a chance that Harden will turn the ball over more often and miss a higher percentage of his shots when calling his own number so often.
He's demonstrated the ability to thrive as his offense's generator, though, and he did so most memorably in these past playoffs. In a close-out Game 4 against the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, Harden was a human fourth-quarter offense.
You might fault him for asking for a max contract, but you'd probably say, "Pay me" if this was your feat. In these moments, James Harden showed superstar power. At his best, Harden has the ability to create shots like Russell Westbrook and make shots like Kevin Durant.
Of course, there is also a bad James Harden and we saw that guy in the five-game series versus Miami. In those games, he was pressing, missing layups and flopping entirely too often. It colored perceptions of his ability—a bit too much in my opinion, considering the overall efficient playoffs the Beard had submitted.
Digging into the numbers, Harden notched an equivalent Win Shares per 48 minutes (an aggregate stat that doesn't weigh shot attempts as heavily as PER does) to Kevin Durant. That might sound surprising on the face of it, but watch Harden for a while.
James slithers sideways with such deftness that he almost always draws a foul upon contact. It helps that Harden flips his massive beard back in a faux whiplash, a Pavlovian signal that prompts a ref's whistle. If you back off James, he nails the three, hitting 39 percent of his treys last season. The combination of threes and free throws carried James Harden to an insane 66 percent true shooting percentage last year, the highest among guards who played over 30 minutes per game.
Once dribbling, Harden is also a threat to pass, averaging roughly four assists per 36 minutes. His usage rate (the measure of offensive involvement) is considerably lower than Durant's or Westbrook's, making that figure all the more impressive. Unlike Westbrook, Harden can run the pick-and-roll well, which made him OKC's point guard almost by default. The offense surged when Harden came off the bench, averaging 14 points better per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Value.
Looking at the evidence, James Harden is a superstar in waiting. Oklahoma City has kept him buried on the bench, hidden behind Thabo Sefolosha. That wasn't enough to stop the max contract offers from coming, though it may have been enough to decrease Harden's status in the eyes of many fans. Today, he's basketball's most underrated player. Tomorrow? He just might get his due.
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