Why James Harden and Pau Gasol Should not be Considered Elite PlayersThe difference between being an elite player and being an All-Star is not just about a player's skill set; an elite player also has a different mindset than an All-Star (just like an All-Star has a different mindset than an above average player and an above average player has a different mindset than an average player). An elite player is an All-NBA First Team caliber performer, a legit MVP level player, someone who is capable of leading a contending team to a championship. The term superstar is thrown around far too liberally, because at any given time there are only a handful of elite players in the NBA. An elite player is willing and able to shoulder a tremendous load on and off of the court. Tim Grover calls such a rare performer a Cleaner.
James Harden and Pau Gasol are clearly All-Star caliber players--not just because they have been selected as All-Stars but because both of them have the mindset and skill set necessary to be ranked among the league's top two dozen players--but are they elite players? Some "stat gurus," media members and fans may choose to anoint Harden and Gasol as superstars/elite players but the evidence suggests otherwise.
Harden averaged 28.0 ppg as his Houston Rockets fell behind 2-0 in their first round series versus the Oklahoma City Thunder but Harden shot just .349 from the field (including .154 from three point range) and he averaged 4.0 turnovers per game. Harden does not have a midrange game or a post up game, so his only plan of attack is to bomb away from three point range and/or hurl his body into the paint hoping to draw fouls. That is why I predicted that Harden "is likely to shoot a low percentage and commit a high number of turnovers against the Thunder" if the Thunder "run him off of the three point line and then meet him in the paint with either shot blockers and/or players who are willing to take charges." The Thunder have committed a few senseless fouls that boosted Harden's point total but overall Harden has performed exactly as I expected. Harden is a very good player but his limitations make him much more suited to being a second option (or the first option off of the bench, as he was last year for the Thunder) than to being the first option.
As a reserve player with the Thunder, Harden feasted against other, less talented reserves--and, when he played in the fourth quarter, he faced starters who had logged heavy minutes and thus were more fatigued. If Harden were Houston's second option then he would benefit from the double teams drawn by the first option; he would have open driving lanes and/or uncontested three pointers. Harden is not LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook (which is why Harden came off of the bench for Oklahoma City); his offensive game is more limited, regardless of how high his regular season scoring average soared for a Houston team that plays at a fast pace: Harden is Monta Ellis with a beard, not a franchise player who can be the first option for a championship team.
Harden is a young player, so if he works on his game perhaps he can become a franchise player--but because he turned down Oklahoma City's reasonable contract offer and gave up the chance to win a ring in order to be the best player on a mediocre team and because Houston has already paid him as if he is a franchise player I am not convinced that Harden has the mindset or motivation to change his game in that fashion: he clearly believes that he is a franchise player and he is being paid like he is a franchise player, so what voice--inside his head or outside his head--is going to convince him that he has a lot of work to do to reach that level?
Before Pau Gasol teamed up with Kobe Bryant, Gasol was a one-time All-Star with an 0-12 career playoff record. No one thought of Gasol as an elite player and, indeed, Memphis traded him to L.A. precisely because he is not an elite player; the Grizzlies knew that they had to rebuild their roster if they ever hoped to contend for a title. After Gasol joined the Lakers, his field goal percentage and offensive rebounding rate both improved because Gasol benefited from all of the defensive attention that Bryant attracted. Gasol sometimes whined that he did not get the ball enough, but he had already proven that he could not shoulder first option responsibilities for a championship team.
With Kobe Bryant sidelined by a season-ending Achilles injury, Gasol averaged 14.5 ppg and shot just .400 from the field as his L.A. Lakers fell behind 2-0 in their first round series versus the San Antonio Spurs. Gasol averaged 2.0 offensive rebounds per game, his lowest postseason average in that category since becoming a Laker. Gasol is a skillful player but--contrary to popular belief--he is not the most skilled big man in the game; Tim Duncan and a healthy Dirk Nowitzki are every bit as skilled as Gasol and they have both proven that they are willing/able to be the first option for a championship team. Like Gasol, Chris Bosh is not an elite player but Bosh's overall skill set is no worse than Gasol's; Gasol is taller and a slightly better passer but Bosh is more mobile and he is a better defender. However, the main reason that Gasol is not an elite player is not because of his skill set but because he does not have the mindset of an elite player; he seeks to fit in, not take over, so during the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship runs Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson constantly had to prod Gasol to be more aggressive at both ends of the court.
While Harden is young enough to perhaps develop into an elite player--though I do not expect that to happen--Gasol is an older player who is clearly in the declining phase of his career and thus his numbers have trended downward the past few years even while playing alongside Bryant; it is evident that playing without Bryant does not open up offensive opportunities for Gasol but rather makes it more difficult for Gasol to score because the defense can pay more attention to him. Bryant's individual field goal percentage is adversely affected by "hand grenade" shots (i.e., shots that he has to take so that the ball does not "explode" in his hands because the shot clock is about to expire) but what "stat gurus" fail to understand is that Bryant's ability to create shots for himself and for his teammates makes his team much more efficient offensively. It must be very puzzling to "stat gurus" and certain commentators that the Lakers are struggling to score against the Spurs with the supposedly inefficient, ball-hogging, gunning Bryant out of the lineup.
It is "dangerous" to write this article now; a two game sample size is small and it is likely that as their respective series shift venues both Harden and Gasol will perform better at home in games three and four than they did on the road in games one and two--but the underlying truths expressed in this article transcend sample size and the vicissitudes of one playoff series: Harden and Gasol both lack the skill set and the mindset to be elite players, so unless/until that changes their production--particularly against top level teams in postseason play--will reflect this, regardless of what "stat gurus" and media members say or write.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:20 AM