Cornerstone players will be a recurring theme on Second Look Sports where I look at each position in a certain sport and I choose a cornerstone player to build my franchise around. I will have a couple of parameters for this selection though I will factor in age, potential, injury history, experience, reputation and production. I think it should be a fun and interesting topic to discuss on here. I hope that you guys agree.
The selection: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Honorable mentions: Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson, Tyreke Evans, Victor Oladipo
This pick was a lot more clear-cut than my previous selection turned out to be. Not to say that there aren’t many good shooting guards, there is just one that stands out above the rest. James Harden is one of the best players in the league and he is having an MVP caliber season in Houston. He is only 25 years old and likely has another 8 or so years left in the tank where he can play at an elite level. While he is already an excellent player he is still improving, evident by his overhauled defensive play this year. The other thing that Harden brings to the table that very few others do is playoff experience. In his first five seasons, Harden played in 55 postseason games. He was part of the Thunder team that made it to the 2012 Finals after playing in the Conference Finals the year before. Harden actually hasn’t played a year in the association where his team did not make the playoffs.
All of that aside, Harden would still win for best two guard purely on his superior stat line. He is leading the league in scoring this year. Not just shooting guards, all players. He also has the most assists per game and the third most rebounds per game by a shooting guard. Defensively, he ranks fourth in blocks and first in steals among shooting guards as well. This decision is an absolute no brainer. He is clearly the best shooting guard in the league right now and that likely won’t change any time soon.
He can basically score at will with his 27.6 points per contest. Since becoming a starter when he moved to the Rockets in 2012, Harden has averaged 26.3 points per game. He also scores them fairly efficiently. Harden has turned himself into a much more consistent shooter over the last two seasons, hitting on roughly 45.5 percent of his shots. He has also been an above average three-point shooter, converting 37 percent of his attempts. The man who’s beard takes on a legend of its own has also improved his free throw shooting every year that he has been in the league and is now making almost 89 percent of his attempts from the line.
I mentioned his defensive stats this season being impressive and they are even more so because of his historical weakness on that end of the court. He is not an elite defender quite yet but the recent improvements provide some hope that there is potential for Harden on defense. This better defensive play also has Harden’s player efficiency rating higher than it has ever been previously. He ranks third behind only Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant among starters for the highest rating in the league. In the past, Harden’s overall efficiency was held back by his below average defensive play. Offense might still be where he excels but he has turned himself into a much more complete player.
Another knock against “The Beard” is his high number of turnovers, which sits at four per game this season. However, Harden has the seventh highest usage percentage in the NBA this year. He fits in right about where all of the six players in front of him do for turnovers per game. The reality is, when you handle the ball a lot in the NBA, you are going to have a much higher number of turnovers.
You can make the argument that Thompson is a better shooter, or that Butler is a better defender or that Wiggins has more potential but for the combined mix of talents James Harden brings to the table, it does not matter. Harden is probably one of the best all-around players in the league right now and could push himself into the conversation of being the best if his defense continues to improve. When he plays, he is involved in just about every facet of what happens on the court.
Despite how good of a supporting cast Harden has, featuring Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Terrance Jones most notably, Harden is still making the largest impact on the game. He leads the NBA in a stat called Win Shares, which calculates how much a player contributes to his team winning. The fact that Harden is tops in the league for that and has the highest value over replacement value of any player this season speaks volumes. Harden is a proven winner and while he may not have an NBA title to his name yet, he is definitely the shooting guard I want on my team to help me pursue one.
For previous Cornerstones selections, click here.