Dec 28, 2011; Memphis, TN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden (13) drives up the court while being defended by Memphis Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo (32) during the game at the Fed Ex Forum. Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 98-95. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE

Oklahoma City Thunder 2012-13 Projections: James Harden

Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

James Harden had a breakout season last year with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In his third season in the NBA, he won the Sixth Man of the Year Award and was named a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team.

Harden began his rise to stardom after the Jeff Green trade a season before. Harden like Serge Ibaka would be featured more in the Thunder offense with Green gone. Harden continued to come off the bench last year and has really embraced that role.

Harden’s future with the Thunder is a little cloudy right now as we wait to see if he will sign a contract extension this summer. The Thunder have until Oct. 31 to come to an agreement with Harden. All signs are that the Thunder will get this done so that Harden does not become a restricted free agent next summer.

Assuming Harden remains a key part of the Thunder’s future, what kind of improvements should we expect to see from him next season?

Year MPG PER USG% FG% 3PT% FT% TS% AST% FTA
2009-10 22.9 14.0 20.4 .403 .375 .808 .551 12.3 3.2
2010-11 26.7 16.4 19.5 .436 .349 .843 .598 12.8 4.2
2011-12 31.4 21.2 21.6 .491 .390 .846 .660 19.3 6.0

Harden made a huge jump last year from his second to third season and a lot of that had to do with increased minutes. He averaged about five minutes more per game and really took advantage of that increasing his PER from 16.4 to 21.2. He also posted a huge true shooting percentage number of .660. Another big improvement was getting to the free throw line which Harden did 6.0 times per game last season and he actually led the NBA in fourth quarter free throws.

We won’t see the same kind of production jump from Harden next season. You can’t really ask Harden to improve his shooting percentages much since they are already among the best in the league. You might even expect his assists to go down some now that Eric Maynor is returning and Harden won’t be asked to run point as much with the second unit.

Harden should improve though as he just turned 23 years old and another year together with this team will only make it a more comfortable fit for him. For someone that is all about efficiency, any kind of improvement should result in sustained efficiency for him.

Defense is an area where Harden could improve the most. He was sort of disinterested in committing fully on defense last season and will need to get better at that. He often finds himself matched up with some really talented players too so it is essential for Harden to make big strides with his defense next year.

Expect to see Harden’s role while playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook improve too. Harden really got better last year and while he fit in seamlessly, he could do so even more. Harden was rarely part of the Thunder’s crunch time offense in the regular season last year but proved in the playoffs that he can run the offense late in games even with Durant and Westbrook on the floor with him.

It felt a little like Harden didn’t want to step on Durant or Westbrook’s toes last year, especially late in games. That shouldn’t be the case next year as the team should have no problem handing the reins of the offense over to Harden when he is feeling it.

With Harden as the primary ball handler and playmaker for the Thunder offense, OKC is at their best. He is the best passer on the team and the roles Durant and Westbrook revert to when Harden has the ball make them more efficient as well. Durant becomes more of a catch-and-shoot, spot-up shooter and Westbrook turns into a slasher who is deadly attacking right after the catch when Harden kicks out to him.

The greatest improvement for the Thunder with Harden’s progression next season may not be seen exactly from Harden but rather the improved roles with the rest of the players around him. The good news is that Durant and Westbrook have no problem letting Harden be the man from time to time as they know better than anyone just how talented he is.

Harden averaged 16.8 points per game last season. Next year, that number should go up closer to 19 or 20. If his shooting numbers can remain the same and he continues to get to the free throw line a ton, then the Thunder will become a much better team simply from Harden’s improvement.

Harden was always thought to be the key for the Thunder reaching their championship level. Now entering his fourth season his confidence should be at an all-time high which should make the Thunder ready to win a title. Remember how close the Thunder were to winning it all last year and that Harden played his worst basketball of the year in the NBA Finals. As long as he can be himself all year long, the Thunder will have as good of a chance as anyone to win the championship.

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