Before James Harden became a scoring machine, before he became a step back master, he was making his name as one of the best reserves in the NBA.
During the early 2010s, Harden was part of the young Oklahoma City Thunder trio that included Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. With Durant as the headliner, and Westbrook the athletic, bouncy guard, Harden helped provide a boost off the bench.
Harden was drafted No. 3 overall in the 2009 NBA draft, and he played his first three seasons with the Thunder.
Through three seasons, Harden didn’t earn any All-Star appearances in OKC. Still, he quickly showed that his potential was clear. Harden ranked eighth in points per game (9.9) among rookies during the 2009-10 season, and then his impact only went up from there.
The Thunder were on the rise during Harden’s sophomore season, posting a record of 55-27 and ranking fourth in the Western Conference. Harden elevated his game as well, proving to be a key player on both ends of the floor.
During the 2010-11 season, Harden scored 12.2 points per game on 43.6% shooting. He also averaged 1.1 steals a game, tied for third on the team with Durant.
Harden was pivotal for the Thunder in the 2011 postseason, as he was third in points per game behind Durant and Westbrook.
OKC lost in five games to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks during the 2011 Western Conference Finals, but the following season the Thunder’s talented Big 3 would reach a peak.
The Thunder ranked second in the West during the 2011-12 season, and Harden’s role had bloomed.
He officially became the third option behind Durant and Westbrook, scoring 16.8 points per game — the most he ever averaged with the Thunder. Along with his increase in scoring, he was helpful defending the perimeter and playing passing lanes, averaging 1.0 steals a game.
The 2012 NBA playoffs served as a launchpad for Harden’s current stardom. He scored 16.3 points per game off the bench and shot 41.0% from the 3-point line, per Basketball Reference.
Harden his best series when the Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs in six games during the Western Conference Finals.
Game 2 was arguably his top performance, as he scored 30 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished four assists. He shot 10-of-13 from the field and from the free throw line.
The Thunder would lose the NBA Finals in five games to the Miami Heat, with Harden’s best performances coming in Game 2 and Game 5. He scored 21 points and shot 7-of-11 from the field in Game 2. In the final game of the series, he poured in 19 points, dished five assists and shot 3-of-8 from deep.
Though the Thunder were on their way to more success, the trio of Harden, Westbrook and Durant was broken up in October 2012. Harden was coming off winning Sixth Man of the Year, but the Thunder couldn’t agree on a contract extension.
He was traded to the Houston Rockets, and while there he has become one of the league’s top five players. What-ifs surround the Thunder of that era, but perhaps the breakup was necessary.
Each player has won an MVP award since the breakup. Durant has two titles. Westbrook is the only player in league history to average a triple-double in multiple seasons.
Harden might never have become The Beard, the scoring dynamo that has won two scoring titles.
With his career beginning in Oklahoma City, Harden had a base that launched him into the upper echelon of today’s players.