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How James Harden Can Improve After Career Year

James Harden’s 2014-15 season was the greatest all-around performance of his young career. In addition to finishing second in MVP voting and leading the Houston Rockets to the Western Conference Finals, Harden finished in the top six of several common and advanced statistical categories. Here’s a list of some of the major areas the former Arizona State standout dominated in:

  • 1st in total points scored (2,217)
  • 2nd in points per game (27.4)
  • 6th in total assists (565)
  • 3rd in total steals (154)
  • 1st in free-throws made (715) and attempts (824)
  • 4th in Player Efficiency Rating (26.7)
  • 1st in Total Win Shares (16.4) and Offensive Win Shares (12.2)
  • 4th in Value Over Replacement Player (7.8)
  • 3rd in Real Plus/Minus (8.50)
  • 1st in Wins Above Replacement (20.63)

Despite The Beard’s fun with numbers, the honor of the league’s most valuable player went to Stephen Curry. Five months later, that remains a tough pill for Harden to swallow.

I know I was the MVP. That’s 100 percent given all the things that happened last season. There’s so many factors. I led the league in total points scored, minutes played. Like I said, I’m not taking anything away from Steph, but I felt I deserved the Most Valuable Player. That stays with me.

To his credit, Harden won the first-ever NBPA Most Valuable Player award, which was voted on by his peers. With the 26-year-old making huge strides at both ends of the court last season, the question now becomes what does he have in store for an encore?

“You don’t think I can do more? Just watch. I’ll show you,” Harden said. “I’m the best player in the league. I believe that.”

 

Take Better Care of the Basketball

The trade from Oklahoma City to Houston in the fall of 2012 helped Harden transition from dangerous sixth-man to NBA superstar. However, the increased responsibility also led to Harden becoming one of the league’s biggest turnover machines.

In his three seasons with the Rockets, Harden led the league in turnovers twice (2012-13,  2014-15). The one time he didn’t earn the top spot, 2013-14, he finished fifth. He also set an NBA playoff record for turnovers in a single contest when he committed 12 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against Curry’s Warriors. The last time someone turned the ball over at least 10 times in a postseason game was during a first-round series in 2013.

Who was the player in question on that night, you ask? James Harden.

Harden’s aggressiveness and ability to create off the dribble is part of what makes him an elite scorer.

Most of the time, that combination leads to plays like this.

However, sometimes, we get moments like this.

If Harden is going to call himself the best basketball player in the world, he’ll need to do a better job of squeezing the orange going forward.

 

Do More With Less

The Rockets’ struggle to put together a healthy roster forced the club to lean on Harden more than it should have last season. While the heavy workload led to some gaudy offensive numbers, a lot of that was volume-dependent, as well.

Harden led the league in minutes played, and his career-high 31.3 percent usage rate was the sixth-highest in basketball. He was also one field-goal attempt shy of tying Oklahoma City Thunder workhorse Russell Westbrook for the league lead and his 823 misses were second only to Westbrook. Harden still managed to produce a stat line of 27.2 points, 7.5 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals, but the weight of carrying the team took its toll.

“It was a long, tiring, beat-down season … Playing the most [total] minutes in the league, dealing with so many injuries every single day … It’s a wear-and-tear. It’s a grind,” Harden said. “So that’s what my offseason has been all about — better conditioning and better preparation for this time.”

Prior to the team’s first practice of the new season, Harden told reporters he focused on a workout regimen that was less taxing on his knees.

“So spin class, workouts in the pool, boxing, things like that to where I’m not pounding, pounding on my knees to where I’ll be in condition and be effective as well.”

The hope is the increased conditioning will keep Harden from running out of gas down the stretch. Another bonus for the Rockets’ franchise player is the arrival of former Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson. Like Harden, Lawson is an offensive weapon who can create for himself and others. His presence will take some of the pressure off of Harden, but it will take some touches away, as well.

With the ball in his hands less than last year, Harden will have to make the most of his opportunities. He’ll remain the focal point of the offense, but he won’t have to force the issue like he did last year and can now focus on becoming a more efficient scorer.

Harden may not have been the most valuable player in the league last year, but there’s no question he was the most valuable player to the Rockets. He made impressive strides on defense, going from a walking turnstile who had YouTube clips dedicated to his deficiencies to a pesky defender who posted career-highs in defensive rating (103) and defensive win shares (4.2).

He’s already one of the best players in the NBA, but after feeling slighted last season, he still has a lot more to prove.

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