There is little doubt that Houston Rockets All-Star guard James Harden is an extremely talented basketball player — guys don't make the All-NBA First Team by accident, no matter how controversial there selections prove to be. But Harden gets the sort of criticism that most elite stars don't receive. Harden's lackadaisical and often just horrible defense has been extensively documented, and it doesn't help that he also occasionally makes ill-considered comments about his teammates and mocked at least one very respected member of the media. There's a not uncommon belief that Harden doesn't really get what it takes to be the top dog on a title contender, which makes it a bigger deal than usual when he, like many athletes before him, overestimates his standing in the sport.
Although Harden turned 25 years old just this Tuesday, he is one of the most experienced players on Team USA as it heads into Saturday's opening game of the FIBA World Cup of Basketball in Spain. As such, Harden sees himself as a leader. If that appears a bit presumptuous of him, then please consider that USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo believes Harden is taking well to the role. From Michael Lee for The Washington Post (via EOB):
“Right now, I think I would look to Harden as that leader,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said as his team continues to prepare for the tournament in which the winner earns an automatic berth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “Harden is kind of a natural leader and he seems to be willing to accept that role. And you can just kind of feel it and sense. He’s the one.” [...]
Colangelo said Harden has been one of the team’s most vocal players and has helped elevate practices with his effort and tenacity.
“I don’t know if he’s been waiting [to lead]. It’s evolved,” Colangelo said. “He came in as a pretty high draft pick. Got off to a great start in Oklahoma City. Whether he was disappointed or surprised by what transpired, he found himself in another uniform and that’s part of life in pro sports and the NBA, and I think he’s adjusted to that and his numbers get bigger and he’s being recognized more and more as the player he is. And this is a great platform for him to come out as a leader.” [...]
“This is a different platform,” Harden said. “A platform that I haven’t really been on before, but I think most of us haven’t been on it, either. I think we’re all kind of figuring it out together. That’s what’s going to be so special about this team. We figure it out together and we come out with a gold medal, it makes it that much more special.”
Lee notes elsewhere that Harden is one of just two players on the 2014 roster to have also played on the 2012 Olympic team — Anthony Davis is the other — so it makes sense that he would be seen as something of an elder statesman. It's possible to argue that Harden earned the role by default after the withdrawal of Kevin Durant and in the absence of players like Kevin Love, but there seems to be little doubt that the Rockets star is occupying the role for Team USA right now. That's notable in itself, if only because NBA fans haven't been conditioned to think of Harden as the sort of guy who is capable of leading a roster of stars (diminished or not) in a major international tournament. We're not sure he's ready to represent Houston on a major stage, let alone the most powerful basketball country in the world.
Colangelo's praise is important, but it's also true that it's his job to talk up the positive qualities of the national-team experience in order to convince fans and prospective players that the squad represents the best of America. If an increasingly vulnerable Team USA fails to win gold in the World Cup, it's easy to see public opinion on Harden turning increasingly sour, if only because leadership and championship-readiness are often defined in terms of what someone did most recently. Anything less than convincing victory will suggest that Harden lacks what it takes to lead the national team.
In other words, it would be prudent not to declare any certainty about Harden's leadership ability, because it's at least partially dependent on the result of the World Cup. Plus, even if Team USA does develop into a dominant squad that wins every game convincingly, Harden will face a whole new challenge with the Rockets this fall. To paraphrase a cliche, the true test of a leader — or maybe just the true test of a leader's reputation — comes when the going gets tough.
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