James Harden didn't get it.
When he joined the Oklahoma City Thunder three years ago, he thought he was going to be ‘The Man.” He thought he would score both a bunch of points and playing time.
“Being drafted with the third overall pick, most guys would come in and think that they're going to be a starter on any team,” Harden said.
Harden was no different. But, for him, things didn't start that way and still haven't reached that point.
“At first, as a rookie, I didn't get it,” Harden said. “I just thought I was going to go in there and score and just do all the things that every other player thought.”
When he finally figured it all out, Harden transformed into the league's best player in a reserve role.
The third-year shooting guard out of Arizona State on Thursday was officially announced as the winner of the 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year award. As expected, Harden ran away with the honor, receiving 584 points out of a possible 595 points, including 115 first-place votes out of 119 from a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada.
Philadelphia guard Lou Williams finished second, and Dallas guard Jason Terry came in third.
Harden became the first recipient of the award in Thunder/Sonics history and, at 22, the second-youngest winner behind Ben Gordon.
“In our eyes, James has won an award for far more than simply being a productive player,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti. “The Sixth Man of the Year award is not only an award for on-court production that enables team success, but above all else it acknowledges sacrifice and commitment to the greater good of the team. It's special and fitting to have James recognized for this award because it really does symbolize so many of the attributes that we want the Thunder to be known for for many years to come.”
Harden now goes down in history as the player who first established that part of the franchise's culture.
This season, Harden averaged 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists, all career-highs, while helping to lead the Thunder to a 47-19 record and its second consecutive Northwest Division title. In a win at Phoenix on April 18, Harden came off the bench to score a career-high 40 points in 36 minutes.
It was a year that illustrated how Harden has gotten better in each season.
To those who work closest with Harden, his success doesn't come as a surprise. At a news conference Thursday to formally introduce Harden as the Sixth Man of the Year, Presti told a story of how Harden's work ethic was evident from early in the draft process.
“In our workout that we had here, we were scheduled to go to dinner at like 7 o'clock,” Presti said. “And he stayed in the gym shooting afterward until like 8 o'clock. And we were all waiting around to go. But it was an indication of not just his work ethic, but I think he really wanted to improve and he really wanted to be a part of what we were doing. And that made an impression on us.”
Harden also wanted to win.
It's the reason why he's never complained about his role despite knowing full well that he's talented enough to start on 27 of the league's other 29 teams.
“This team is definitely something special, especially with all the talent that was already here,” Harden said. “Scotty (Brooks) did a great job of making me become that sixth man and helping me figure my role out.”
Harden said he didn't fully understand how valuable he was in a reserve role until mid-season last year. That's when the team traded Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic for Kendrick Perkins.
“Since that trade deadline happened and my role became bigger on this team,” Harden said, “I had to make sure every single game I was focused on doing my role at its best.”
Brooks quickly countered by saying Harden was being hard on himself.
“He did get it as a rookie,” Brooks said. “The year before, we won 23 games. The year we drafted him, we won 50 games and he played big minutes. A lot of times he played big fourth-quarter minutes. And he averaged 10 points a game as a rookie.”
But the moment when Brooks knew without a doubt that Harden realized his role came over a lunch meeting last summer. Brooks knew it was going to be an important summer for Harden's development and the team's.
“I just asked him what are your goals going into the summer thinking that he would tell me ‘I want to start,'” Brooks remembered. “All he said was, ‘Coach, I want to do whatever it takes for the team to get better.' And right then and there I knew that he had bought in to the job that we needed him to do.”
But how long can the Thunder afford to keep its emerging star out of the starting lineup?
“If we're winning championships, I have no problem,” Harden said. “That's all that matters — championships.”