James Harden Regresses to the MeanAfter the first two games of the season, many members of the mainstream media seemed ready to award the scoring title, the MVP and possibly induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame to James Harden, who scored 37 points on 14-25 field goal shooting in his season debut with the Houston Rockets and then poured in a career-high 45 points on 14-19 field goal shooting in his second game--but in his next five games Harden has averaged 19.8 ppg while shooting 29-88 (.330) from the field. Neither sample size is large enough to form the basis for drawing definitive conclusions about Harden but the way that the mainstream media swooned about Harden's first two games while largely ignoring how poorly he has played in his next five games reveals a lot about the nature of mainstream media coverage not just of sports but in general: the mainstream media selects a narrative and then highlights anything that follows that narrative while ignoring anything that deviates from that narrative. This is true in politics, economics, sports and any other subject that receives extensive mainstream media coverage.
The preferred Harden narrative is that Harden is a superstar, that he is a better team player/playmaker than Russell Westbrook and that "stat guru" Daryl Morey used "advanced basketball statistics" to make a brilliant trade that substantially improved his Houston Rockets while weakening the Oklahoma City Thunder. I have a decidedly non-mainstream perspective about the James Harden deal: I do not consider Harden to be a superstar, I do not think that he is a better player than Russell Westbrook and--even though Morey does, in some ways, seem to be more reasonable and objective than the typical "stat guru"--I am not impressed by Morey's tenure as Houston's General Manager, nor do I agree with his contention that Harden is a "foundational player."
A basic tenet believed by many "stat gurus" is that per minute production is much more meaningful than per game production, with the corollary that a player's per minute production in one setting is completely transferable to a different setting. In other words, if a player averages 25 points per 36 minutes as a reserve playing 18 minutes a game for Team A then he is perfectly capable of maintaining that production--without any loss of efficiency--while playing 36 minutes a game as the number one option for Team B. Harden earned the Sixth Man of the Year Award last season but he benefited from playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook; Harden also spent most of his time either playing against other reserves or else facing starters who were already fatigued from being on the court while Harden rested. Harden is a very good player--and he is young enough that he could possibly continue to improve--but it is more than a bit of a stretch to suggest that he is a "foundational player" or that he he is worth the five year max contract that Morey gave him. I do not project that Harden's career path will approximate the career paths of John Havlicek and Paul Westphal, reserve players for excellent teams who later became All-NBA players; Harden's skill set is much more similar to Manu Ginobili's and thus Harden is best suited to being the third option on a championship contender. The added demands of playing more minutes against starters coupled with facing more double teams will take a toll on Harden's productivity and efficiency over the long haul, even though Harden is--like any good player--capable of producing great games on occasion.
It is amusing that "stat gurus" and their media sycophants simultaneously claim to be more objective than other talent evaluators yet do not seem to understand basic concepts like regression to the mean. Whether Harden scored 45 points in the first game of the season or in the 45th game of the season, that is clearly an aberrant performance--it will almost certainly be his season-high and it could even end up as his career-high. One great game does not justify the decision to build an entire franchise around Harden--and a closer look at Harden's overall production for Houston suggests that his per minute production is not translating very well from Oklahoma City to his new team. While Harden's per minute scoring has increased--mainly because his field goal attempts are up by more than 50%--his rebounding and assists are down slightly, his turnovers have skyrocketed and his shooting percentages have plummeted. Contrary to what "stat gurus" believe, there is a big difference between being the third option on a championship caliber team and being the first option on a mediocre team. Harden shot .491 from the field, .390 from three point range and .846 from the free throw line last season; this season--even including his aberrant first two games--he is shooting .432 from the field, .256 from three point range and .824 from the free throw line. He has shot better than .353 from the field once in the past five games and he has shot 5-29 (.172) from three point range in those five contests. Harden's much praised playmaking resulted in 14 assists and nine turnovers in the first two games--not a great ratio--and he has 32 turnovers against 32 assists overall.
Meanwhile, Kevin Martin--the key player who the Thunder received in exchange for Harden--is quietly having the most efficient season of his career (though the only reason this is "quiet" is that the mainstream media is ignoring Martin's production because it does not fit the preferred narrative). Remember all of the overheated rhetoric about how Martin could not replace Harden? Martin is averaging 17.1 ppg while posting career-high shooting percentages from the field (.481), the three point line (.500) and the free throw line (.938). Martin is not a great playmaker but he is averaging 2.0 apg, very solid for a backup shooting guard playing 29.4 mpg. Harden averaged 16.8 ppg and 3.7 apg in 31.4 mpg for the Thunder last season. It should be obvious that the shift from third option to first option has hurt Harden's efficiency while the shift from first option to third option has helped Martin's efficiency. Both trends will likely continue.
Some critics have decried a "system" that "prevents" teams like the Thunder from keeping their nucleus together but that is not an accurate description of what happened; the Thunder offered Harden a very generous contract--much like the Spurs offered market value, non-max deals to Manu Ginobili in the past--and Harden elected to turn down that deal with the full knowledge that this would result in him being traded. Harden chose money over a potential championship. He certainly has every right to do so, just as the Thunder have every right to not overpay their third best player. It is not possible to overstate how ironic it is that Morey has likely vastly overpaid Harden, because for years the "stat gurus" and their mainstream media sycophants have criticized traditional-minded GMs for overpaying players, something that "stat gurus" supposedly would not do when given the chance to run NBA franchises. If Harden averages 18-20 ppg while shooting .430 from the field this season for a Houston team that once again misses the playoffs will Henry Abbott, Bill Simmons and other "stat guru" media sycophants eagerly expound at length on this subject the way that they ludicrously dissect Kobe Bryant's facial expressions and shot selection? It is more likely that Harden will morph into LeBron James than that Abbott, Simmons and others of their ilk will objectively cover the strengths and limitations of "advanced basketball statistics." If Harden continues to struggle and it is no longer feasible to write Harden for MVP articles then you can expect that Abbott, Simmons and other like-minded propagandists will once again become very intensely interested in "analyzing" a subset consisting of less than 100 of the more than 22,000 field goals that Bryant has attempted during his career (i.e., last second shots in one possession games); those shots are no more statistically significant than James Harden's first two games of this season but "stat gurus" much prefer sticking to the "Kobe Bryant is overrated" narrative than admitting that the narrative about the alleged value of "advanced basketball statistics" for talent evaluation in the NBA has more than a few holes in the plot.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:49 PM