I have an obsession with combo guards. I am even more interested in the best young combo guard in the league: The one and only Jimmy the Hard—James Harden.
As I’ve pointed out, combo guards are treated poorly by fans, media, and coaches until they are beaten down enough into accepting a bench role. A couple guys that have already gone through this transformation: Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams, Mo Williams. Some guys are going through it now or probably will go through it: Monta Ellis, Buckets Thornton, OJ Mayo, heck, even Allen Iverson, who would probably still be in the league if he had accepted the pine in Memphis.
Then, there is the outlier; the platonic ideal of the combo guard, and the reason I have faith that combos, if deployed correctly, don’t have to be treated like lepers who don’t understand that they’re lepers: Manu. I need not here list Ginobili’s virtues.
People compare Jimmy the Hard to Ginobili because they’re both lefties, they’re beautiful in the pick and roll, and they gobble up their available space in small, zig-zaggy bites rather than huge mouthfuls at once (though at times they both do the latter—binge eat, as it were). But they are similar to each other in the same way they’re both similar to Jason Terry, Jamal “Jason Crossover” Crawford, and the rest of the combos. Combos reach a Decision Point (lol)—they have to decide whether or not it’s OK with their ego to come off the bench.
Most guys decide the bench is OK only when they get old and their skills and the friction-filled years (Coach: “You’re coming off the bench!” Combo: “I am a smoldering mad about that decision, Coach!” Coach: “Too bad!”) force their egos to shrink. But Manu didn’t do that: He took Pop at his word and took to the bench. Manu could have left the San Antoine Walker Spurs and tried to become a first option somewhere, but he didn’t.
Which brings us back to Jimmy the Hard. Next year he’ll be up for an extension or restricted free agency. Which will he choose? He’ll never be the first option in OKC, and may never be the second. Recently Sefolosha (who shouldn’t start anyway) went down, and after one bad game by Jimmy Scott Brooks idiotically started Daequan Cook at the 2 as if to try to brainwash The Hard into thinking he’s a bench guy.
Jimmy the Hard is not a bench guy. He’s a star. And in the coming years, he could very well force OKC to let him go, as so many other combo guards have, looking for superstardom (and he could definitely find a team to try him out as their no. 1—Jimmy’s as good as Eric Gordon). Or, he could do the Manu—the path of least resistance, least money, and most “What an underrated guy!” features.
There exists a third option, though, a near-mystical possibility I’ve pondered before. In that dream scenario, Jimmy the Hard stays in OKC, and the coaches start him and play him the same minutes as Westbrook. In other words: OKC’s backcourt would comprise two combo guards, and that backcourt would be part of a 60-win team.
Not even Manu and Parker can claim to have led basketball fans to that new understanding.