And while James Harden, the No. 3 selection in 2009, isn’t a scorer of Durant's caliber, or an elite athlete like Westbrook, he has the most complete game of all three. It’s an unprecedented draft bounty for a small-market franchise, and how the Thunder manage their three young stars will be one of the most interesting stories of the next few years.
Harden, at 6’5 220 with a 6’11 wingspan and a vertical over 30 inches, has prototypical size and athleticism for a shooting guard. His offensive game, deliberate and methodical, is extremely deceptive: his ability to dunk in traffic has surprised quite a few of the NBA’s big men.
With Westbrook and Durant dominating the ball in the starting unit, Harden has come off the bench in his first two years with Oklahoma City. An All-American at Arizona State, he’s transitioned from consistently looking for his own shot to playing off of two All-Stars.
In only his second season, he put impressive scoring numbers (16.4 points on 44% shooting) per-36 minutes despite a usage rating of only 19.5. While players tend to shoot less efficiently the more they are featured in the offense, Harden’s statistics suggest he could shoulder a much heavier offensive load.
When he fouled out of Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder offense completely fell apart. They blew a 15-point fourth quarter lead in only 4:30 minutes and their season was effectively over. Harden, not Westbrook or Durant, is the team’s most natural passer, and without his presence on the court, their offense can stagnate.
Durant is a pure scorer, with an assist to turnover ratio barely over one. Westbrook, while accumulating a lot of assists, tends to pound the ball into the ground while waiting for something to develop. Harden has a step-back jumper defenses have to respect (a 36% career three-point shooter), the ball-handling ability and athleticism to get into the lane (29% of his shots came in the paint) as well as the vision to make the correct pass through traffic.
Unlike his more celebrated teammates, he doesn’t have any glaring holes in his game. Eric Gordon is the only one of the NBA’s young shooting guards who can match his skill-set.
In terms of drafting philosophy, Oklahoma City is miles ahead of most of the league. Recognizing that the draft is the only way for a small market to acquire elite talent, they gutted their roster in order to ensure the maximum number of ping-pong balls. As a result, even after they took Durant in 2007, they were still years away from being a playoff contender.
By conducting such a thorough fire sale, they gave themselves two more chances in the top-five to find an elite player around Durant. In contrast, the Cleveland Cavaliers made only one lottery pick (No. 10 Luke Jackson in 2004) before LeBron James led a veteran-led team to the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets haven’t had another lottery pick since selecting Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Both teams had a much smaller margin for error to build a team that could entice their star to stay long-term.
Of course, getting high picks is only half the battle, as the Toronto Raptors discovered after surrounding Chris Bosh with the No. 8 pick in 2004 (Rafael Araujo), the No. 7 pick in 2005 (Charlie Villanueva) and the No. 1 pick in 2006 (Andrea Bargnani). Not only did Oklahoma City strike gold with Harden and Westbrook, they found guys whose games complemented each other, an extremely underrated aspect of building a team.
Now, for a Thunder roster lacking a consistent low-post threat, the question becomes whether Harden is a luxury or a necessity. Will the increased visibility of playoff runs make Harden more attractive to other teams or will his market value be suppressed by being a third option in Oklahoma City? And even if the owners don’t muscle through a hard-cap in the new CBA, will the small-market Thunder be able to afford big contracts for Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka?
They have been remarkably free of the type of personal drama and infighting that can affect a team full of young players trying to get a big contract. But next season will be the first where the Thunder will have the burden of championship expectations, and there’s no way to know how will they react if they don’t meet them. How will Harden and Ibaka, both still on rookie deals, feel about sacrificing their individual statistics while Durant and Westbrook have max contracts?
With Harden’s emergence, Oklahoma City has an embarrassment of riches. But turning perimeter talent into titles is extremely difficult, and their window to do so may not be as large as people assume.