Since leaving Kevin Durant’s side, James Harden has seen his NBA reputation transform from lovable beard to loathed star. His exit gave him the freedom to show the basketball universe all that he had to offer, while also putting his shortcomings in the spotlight. Many of the NBA’s less forgiving fans point to him as the poster child for what’s “wrong” with the league — he flops, plays lackadaisical defense and thinks a little too highly of himself.
Harden punctuated that last point recently, telling ESPN’s Scoop Jackson that he believes he is the best basketball player alive right now… despite claiming he hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential. That attitude can be interpreted as arrogant and delusional, but it’s exactly the mentality that Team USA needs Harden to have heading into the FIBA World Cup.
The loss of Paul George to a traumatic injury hit the Americans hard, and Durant’s subsequent withdraw from the roster only exacerbated the team’s need for capable wing-play on both ends of the court. In steps Harden, mocked by plenty for suggesting to CBS’ Ken Berger that it was time for him to lead. It’s a position that’s fairly new to him, but one he feels trained for. Per Berger:
In Oklahoma City, I had a little leadership role, but I was the sixth man. I didn’t have the majority of the say-so. Now, it’s prepared me in my game, being a leader, being able to talk to my coaches and better myself and coming out here and having confidence as a leader to kind of talk and communicate.
When the U.S. is involved in international basketball, “leadership” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Dominance, brilliance and swagger seem more fitting for the scoreboard explosions engineered by the American attack. When your talent level far outstrips the competition (usually), there’s not a big need for motivation through rah-rahing. What Harden is talking about is being the lead dog, the onus for the team’s success. At this stage of his career, these are the things we should expect him to think.
Nearing his 25th birthday, Harden is fresh off of All-Star appearance No. 2, having shown he can thrive in an offense as a team focal point. He’s a human embodiment of the free throws & threes offense that is sweeping across the league, registering 67 percent of his shots from downtown or at the rim. He was pretty damn good once he got those opportunities too:
The general consensus is that he’s one of the 15 best players in the league; defensive struggles aside, you’d be hard pressed to argue. When he’s coerced into keeping play moving rather than letting the offense devolve into repeated isos, he’s a devastating player that causes defensive collapses, leading to match-up advantages for teammates. 6.1 assists per game last year didn’t come by accident.
That’s an especially valuable skill on this USA team, an outfit stacked with guards that can shoot. No matter who ends up making the roster, there will be players ready to launch between Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving and others. If the tables are turned, Harden has loads of experience as the player off-ball as well, and he’ll be prepared to make the best out of cuts and spot-up opportunities.
Offense has never been the question. To attempt to cover for the loss of George and Durant, Harden will have to dig in on defense, something that he hasn’t proven willing to do over the last couple seasons. He was given a pass for year one in Houston as a lone star, but with a Dwight Howard-sized infusion last season and nary an improvement in sight, he was rightfully panned for his wandering, lazy effort within defensive schemes.
The upcoming FIBA World Cup is the perfect stage for Harden to lay those demons to rest. FIBA’s tournament is the perfect place for coming out parties, with many established stars choosing to stay home and rest their legs for the 82-game grind. The missing man has already drawn the blueprint for Harden; following his first All-Star appearance four years ago, former teammate Durant turned the World Championships in Turkey into his own personal showcase, capturing MVP honors and putting the league on notice.
Harden will have to go about his business a different way if he wants to change his reputation. People know he can score, but he is forever trying to outrun the belief that he’s a selfish player and mediocre teammate at best. When Donatas Motiejunas was recently misquoted saying that Harden and Howard eat separately from other Rockets players, no one batted an eye. (To be fair I didn’t either, but Lithuanian isn’t my strong suit)
That reputation will dog Harden if he doesn’t seize this opportunity. There’s a reason beyond “he’s the best player on the planet” that veterans will take lesser deals to sign with LeBron James’ team — he gives a shit. Players want guys who are accountable for their actions, who will do more than throw their hands in the air or turn their heads in faux-surprise as a cutter leaves them standing in cement on the perimeter. They know that makes the difference when times get tough, particularly when May and June roll around. It’s about time Harden starts taking responsibility on defense, whether it’s for self-preservation or as a means to recruit talent down the line.
He’ll never get a better opportunity than this. Alongside some of the best young players in the world, Harden has the chance to lead an offensive blitzkrieg and show he can be part of an effective team defense. With Anthony Davis still testing the waters and Derrick Rose prioritizing his health, it is Harden’s time to lead.