James Harden has his eyes on the prize.
If he's asked to again accept the role of being the Oklahoma City Thunder's sixth man, he wants to be the best one he can be.
In other words, Harden wants to be the best one in the league — and he wants the hardware that accompanies the honor of the league's Sixth Man Award.
“That's definitely one of my goals,” Harden said.
Harden finished last season as one NBA's best reserves. He averaged 15.8 points on 46.5 percent shooting after the All-Star break. When Harden showed he was virtually unstoppable in the Western Conference Finals, serving as the ideal buffer between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, many felt Harden had earned a promotion into the starting lineup.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks, however, appears comfortable in keeping Harden coming off the bench. Brooks kept last year's season-ending starting lineup intact for the team's two preseason games, and he has yet to give any indication that he will make a change this season.
But under league rules, a player is eligible for the Sixth Man Award simply if he comes off the bench in more games than he starts. So in a shortened 66-game season, Harden must be a sub in at least 34 games.
“If that's his role this year, he should be in that race,” said reserve center Nazr Mohammed. “There's no reason why he shouldn't be Sixth Man of the Year.”
Veteran players, coaches and past winners of the award identified five traits a player needs in order to be a great sixth man. In no particular order, they include accepting the role, willingly sacrificing minutes and scoring opportunities, fitting with any group on the floor, consistently entering the game hot and always maintaining confidence.
“It's guys that can gear their mindset around the beginning of their game being six or seven or eight minutes into it,” said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. “And then being able to jump in there and just play the game. If a shot comes right away, you got to be ready to take it. But play within the system otherwise. And it's not an easy thing. A lot of guys convince themselves that they can't be as effective coming off the bench.”
Carlisle now has two of the league's best reserves in Lamar Odom and Jason Terry. Odom took home the Sixth Man Award last season, while Terry earned it in 2008-09. Now, their presence on the same team only boosts Harden's chances of winning the award this year.
Of a panel of 30 writers and analysts affiliated with ESPN, 11 predicted Harden would win the award. Odom and Terry tied for second with four votes each.
“He's got a chance to fight for it,” Odom said of Harden. “He's one of the best bench players in the league. He's definitely a game-changer… He's got a lot of game.”
Odom stressed the importance of maintaining confidence. It's something that can easily waver, Odom said, when a player is accustomed to being a team's starter, if not its star, and then must come off the bench.
“Just keep that confidence in knowing that you always belong in the game,” Odom said. “In this league, it's about who finishes the game, and he's usually in there toward the end.”
Carlisle called players who can effectively fulfill the sixth man role “special.”
So far, Harden has played with the aggressiveness that was erratic in his first two seasons but likely will now be needed to compete for the Sixth Man Award. Harden now shoots without hesitation and stays in attack mode every second he's on the court.
“Playing with the second unit, he's our KD,” Mohammed said. “So if he just does what he does, everything else will take care of itself. It's not something where he needs to concentrate on scoring or one thing specifically. Just playing the way he plays it'll happen.”
Harden has said he expects several different combinations to be used throughout games this year, and Brooks sounded as if there is a possibility of Harden joining the starting five at some point down the line.
“Last year, we had a great (sixth man). James was really good,” Brooks said. “And he came in and really improved from year one to year two. And even in the second year, each month he got better. I don't know who's going to fill that role this year, or it might be the same guy.”
Whatever role Harden is thrust into, he'll try to have the same impact. After two seasons, he now knows the best way he can contribute is by staying aggressive, taking open shots and, most importantly, making any play necessary to help his team win.
“You don't get a Sixth Man Award or any other accolade for losing,” Harden said. “So as long as we're winning and I continue to play well then everything should fall in place.”