Mar 16, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) passes by Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Houston Rockets: Will James Harden Be NBA's Best 2 Guard?

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It was merely two years ago when James Harden, then a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, was considered one of the most promising shooting guards that the league had to offer. Playing in the shadows of the precocious Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook had presented Harden with likely the best chance of winning an NBA championship he’d ever get, albeit his role subsumed less money and fewer shot attempts.

After being traded, Harden consequently made the lucrative choice of signing a max contract with the Houston Rockets as the fulcrum of coach Kevin McHale‘s high-octane offense. His altered role in Houston was a seamless transition for the illustrious shooting guard, as he reached the top five in scoring the past two years and propelled the Rockets to the 2013 playoffs in the ruthless Western Conference, as Houston’s lone All-Star.

Harden displayed another exceptional season offensively last year, managing a sterling 25-5-6 stat line. He mastered the Euro-step while driving to the basket, and he adapted to the “technique” of flailing arms and snapped back heads (flopping) to draw fouls.

The fact that he’s also a 36.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc renders Harden as a strenuous matchup for any defender.

Albeit a formidable player on the offensive end, Harden’s glaring deficiencies could entail the usurpation of his status as the league’s best shooting guard in the near future. Harden has proved that he’s capable of playing lock-down defense during his time with the Thunder; however, he’s been flat out lazy on the defensive end of the floor with the Rockets.

He quickly loses sight of his man off the ball, trudges around screens, and simply watches as his opponent blows by him.

Perhaps it’s Harden’s poor nutritional regimen that contributes to his sluggishness on defense. His negligence to defend and maintain a healthy diet has likely stunted Harden’s growth as a player — despite being only 25 years of age.

Perhaps Harden feels as though he’s so good at what he does offensively, that there’s no need for him to ameliorate his weaknesses; it would be surprising if Harden does improve much from last season.

The prevalent notion that Harden is the games best shooting guard is partly attributed to the emaciated talent at his position. Prominent superstars at the shooting guard position are rare in the NBA currently, outside of Kobe Bryant (who only played six games last season), Dwyane Wade (whose play has quickly degenerated), and James Harden; however, the last time Kobe was healthy, he was clearly the better shooting guard.

Kobe surpassed Harden in points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage in the 2013 season. If 2013 is any indication, a healthy Kobe Bryant is still superior to Harden.

Nonetheless, there are few up-and-coming two-guards who will also look to threaten Harden’s “best shooting guard” title this upcoming season.

Klay Thompson

At age 24, Klay Thompson is already one of the league’s best two-way shooting guards. He isn’t as versatile as Harden offensively; most of Thompson’s points derive from beyond the 3-point line, albeit a deadly shooter from that area of the floor.

In fact, Thompson is the only player in NBA history to record at least 500 made 3-pointers in his first three seasons.

Putting the ball on the floor and creating plays for others isn’t Thompson’s forte, but it hasn’t impeded him from scoring 18 points per game on 41 percent from 3 and playing pesky defense on the league’s premier point guards. Thompson has also shown the ability to effectively post up smaller guards — a skill Harden has yet to add to his repertoire.

Now that he’s under a more creative offensive coach in Steve Kerr, Thompson could certainly take his game to the next level in the 2014-15 season.

Bradley Beal

Much like Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal has one of the smoothest strokes in the league, and he’s a wizard (pun intended) at knocking down long-range shots. He averaged 17 points on a highly efficient 40 percent from deep last season.

Moreover, Beal is also adept at putting the ball on the floor and driving to the hoop. During last year’s playoffs, Beal undoubtedly elevated his game (the same cannot be said about Harden).

He also had enhanced numbers of 19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.5 steals per game.

Although Beal isn’t an elite defender, he’s certainly an intelligent one. He does an excellent job of reading opposing offenses and is adroit at beating his man to advantageous spots on the floor.

If Beal can build on his offensively versatile postseason performance and continue to sharpen his defensive skills, his comprehensive game could prove to be more valuable than Harden’s one-way game. Oh yeah, and Beal is only 21 years old.

Lance Stephenson

Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson is quite the showman on the basketball court. Last season, Stephenson displayed an array of nifty crossovers and fancy passes, as well as the valiance to charge toward the hoop with reckless abandon — regardless of who was standing in his way.

Aside from his colorful performances, Stephenson’s circus antics can admittedly be irritating at times. He’s blown in player’s ears, gotten himself ejected in a pivotal game against the Miami Heat late last season (though it was probably an unwarranted ejection), and apparently engaged in a fist-fight with a teammate; the accumulation of Stephenson’s buffoonery helped erode the Indiana Pacers’ chemistry amid their post-All-Star-break debacle.

Nonetheless, Stephenson was Indiana’s best playmaker last season, as he dished out 4.6 assists per game. Stephenson has shown a propensity for attacking the basket, but his jumper from beyond the arc is rapidly improving (he shot a respectable 35 percent from deep last year).

Additionally, his aggressive disposition enables him to gobble up a plethora of rebounds per game. As a result, Stephenson led the league in triple-doubles during the 2013-14 campaign.

Stephenson is more than capable of  defending the league’s best perimeter players, as he whirls like a dervish on the court and intimidates the opposition from driving to the basket against him. Stephenson’s versatility around the perimeter can potentially propel the Charlotte Hornets to a deep playoff run in 2015.

Should he keep his head on straight under the esteemed Michael Jordan, the focused Steve Clifford, and the leadership of his teammate, Al Jefferson, Stephenson would plausibly be the best candidate to usurp James Harden’s “best shooting guard title” next season.

Harden will have to *gasp* work diligently to maintain his ascension to the league’s optimal 2-guard. This entails that Harden must venture outside of his comfortable domain to truly expand his horizons and establish himself as the league’s best player at his position for years to come.

Otherwise, one or more of the aforementioned young guns will swiftly surpass the bearded one.

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