12 Players – Heroic Labors: James Harden

With the NBA playoffs back in action, the challenge that the players will face in their quest for a championship becomes clearer. While it’s foolish to argue that this restart will decide the legacy of an NBA player or organization, it certainly can help to build up one should they go the distance.

Just as Hercules had to overcome 12 challenges or labors in order to prove himself to be worthy, NBA superstars will be taxed in a way they never have before. Superstars will be responsible for carrying their teams on the court like usual but they will also have to keep their groups focused, engaged, and united in their quests for a championship. Here are the biggest challenges that 12 NBA superstars will face as they seek to win the title. Next up…James Harden.

10-15 years from now when basketball historians look back on this era of NBA basketball they will be hard pressed to find someone who revolutionized the game more than James Harden. There is no arguing the greatness of Harden’s scoring ability. His ability to consistently knock down off the dribble, step-back three’s has changed the game.

Yet, ultimate playoff success eludes him. Yes, he’s reached two Western Conference Finals but he’s more famously had playoff flame outs — 2-11 from the field in a 2017 Game 6 loss against the Spurs and a 12-29 performance in a 2018 Game 7 loss to the Warriors. Critics argue that Harden is worn down by the end of series’ and isn’t in good enough shape to carry the load over the course of an NBA playoffs.

Harden, like most NBA superstars today, is keenly aware of his stature in NBA history and his reputation as a playoff big-game and big moment no-shower. Harden is running out of time to change the narrative of a generational scorer that lacked ultimate playoff success. Right now he’s closer to the likes of Tracy McGrady, Bernard King, and George Gervin than great scorers who won titles like Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade.

This season the Rockets have mutated into an NBA anomaly. Spitting into the face of decades of traditional basketball they’ve abandoned the center position entirely. Playing lineups featuring PJ Tucker (6’5″), Robert Covington (6’7″), and Jeff Green (6’8″) at center. Since turning to this lineup the Rockets have gone 14-12 — including going 4-4 in the seeding games and 2-2 in their first round series against the Thunder. With Game 5 on deck, now will be the time to see if a team can succeed playing this kind of style. Their switch everything defense has largely held up (shout out to the brick wall that is PJ Tucker) and is particularly good at forcing turnovers — 15.5% of opponents possessions end in turnovers good for 4th in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.

Offensively, the tenets remain the same. It’s the Harden system. Spread the court with shooters. Let Harden hunt mismatches and make the right reads. The new wrinkle has been the unleashing of Westbrook who looks revitalized with the wide-open driving lines created by playing super small. But for as good as Westbrook has been, his offensive limitations prevent him from consistently being the closer in games. The requirement to get quality shots late in games still falls under Harden’s job description and too many times he settles for late clock, step-back threes that are low percentage shots.

With the Rocket’s disruption model of going super small fully deployed in the playoffs this is a critical point in Harden’s career. He’s got the skill, the shot making ability, the basketball IQ, and you could argue the right team around him to run through the West. The quad injury to Westbrook limits them in the short term but it means all the more responsibility on Harden’s shoulders.

This great basketball experiment is about to put to the test. James Harden has the offensive firepower and good enough defense to prove his detractors wrong, but he will need to relegate his big moment playoff demons to the past. This is the most vulnerable the Western Conference front-runners have been in half a decade. It’s up to Harden to strike at that vulnerability. Likely with a step-back three. He’ll need for it to be a dagger three rather than the bricks of the past.

by Frank Greco (@fgreco12)

Damian LillardJoel EmbiidJimmy ButlerDonovan MitchellJayson Tatum — Pascal Siakam — Nikola Jokic — Giannis Antetokounmpo — Kahwi Leonard — Lebron James

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