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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Changing of the Guard--or Diminishing of the Guards?

Subjectively, it seems like there is a changing of the guard--literally and figuratively--in the NBA. Young players like Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis are moving to the forefront, while older players who have dominated the NBA for the past several years are declining and/or hampered by injuries. The shooting guard position is taking on a new look. Kobe Bryant, the best shooting guard--and often the best player overall--in the NBA for the better part of the past decade and a half, has just suffered another season-ending injury; surgery on his right rotator cuff is expected to keep him out of action for nine months. Dwayne Wade, probably the second best shooting guard in the NBA for most of the time frame that Bryant dominated, has been battling injuries and declining athleticism for several years.

In FanDuel leagues the best fantasy basketball player options at shooting guard are guys like James Harden and Klay Thompson. Harden and Thompson--who set the all-time NBA record by pouring in 37 points in a quarter en route to scoring 52 points during Golden State's 126-101 rout of Sacramento last Friday--are also the scoring leaders among shooting guards so far this season, at 27.6 ppg and 23.0 ppg respectively (Harden is the NBA's overall scoring leader as well). Surprisingly, Bryant (22.3 ppg) and Wade (21.4 ppg) are next in line, though of course Bryant will not play enough games this season to be a qualifier. Monta Ellis is fifth (20.3 ppg) and Jimmy Butler is the only other shooting guard averaging at least 20 ppg (20.1 ppg).

My initial assumption was that if I looked back five years the list would be much different but in 2009-10 the scoring leaders among shooting guards were Kobe Bryant (27.0 ppg), Dwyane Wade (26.6 ppg), Monta Ellis (25.5 ppg), Tyreke Evans (20.1 ppg) and Jamal Crawford (18.1 ppg). Evans is seventh this season (17.0 ppg) and Crawford is 11th (15.7 ppg).

However, 10 year ago the shooting guard landscape included greater quality and quantity. Allen Iverson led the scoring parade (30.7 ppg, capturing the last of his four scoring titles) but seven other shooting guards also averaged at least 20 ppg: Kobe Bryant (27.6 ppg), Tracy McGrady (25.7 ppg), Vince Carter (24.5 ppg), Dwyane Wade (24.1 ppg), Ray Allen (23.9 ppg), Michael Redd (23.0 ppg) and Jason Richardson (21.7 ppg). The first six players on that list are future Hall of Famers in their primes, while the 2005 versions of Redd and Richardson would almost certainly be All-Stars in 2015 (Redd made the All-Star team once in an injury-riddled career and Richardson never made the All-Star team).

Obviously, even though the position is called "shooting guard" a lot more goes into being a great shooting guard than just shooting/scoring. However, I doubt that many objective talent evaluators would take the top shooting guards of 2015--using any relevant statistic or standard--as a group over the top shooting guards of 2005. Maybe we are not seeing a changing of the guard as much as we are seeing some talent depletion at the shooting guard position. Such things are cyclical and it could be argued that the point guard position is now enjoying a renaissance but thinking about this does put All-NBA selections and All-Star selections in perspective; when considering such honors from a historical standpoint, it is important not to just look at how many times a player was tapped but also what kind of depth existed at his position during his prime.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:51 PM



At Thursday, January 29, 2015 3:18:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Totally agree. The shooting guard is probably the weakest position in the NBA right now, and the point guard likely the deepest. By my count, there are almost 20 PGs this year who could believably have made an All-Star team in a weak year:

Paul, Curry, Westbrook, Dragic, Bledsoe, Conley, Lillard, Parker, Lowry, Rondo, Holiday. Wall, Walker, Teague, Rose, Irving, Knight, Jennings, and Lawson are all putting up seasons that might have done the job in the late 70s.

The only "star" SGs in the league right now who play constantly are probably Thompson and Butler. You can maybe stick Harden in there on raw numbers, but he has a demonstrably lower impact as a two-way guy than those two. Wade and Kobe are both still talented but can't stay on the court. The next tier of the Johnson/Afllalo/Beal level guys is nice, but obviously not of the same caliber.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 5:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PG is deep. Agree with Paul, Curry, Westbrook, Conley, Lillard, Lowry, Wall, Teague, Irving and Rose. Hard to see the others ever really much of a chance even in a weak era. Maybe some of them are fringe AS, probably top 40 somewhere, but there's always guys like this.

You obviously don't like Harden much and neither do I, but to say he's not a star, and to say Thompson/Butler are stars instead, is very confusing to say the least. Thompson/Butler each have 0 AS and 0 all-nba teams between them. Thompson is the #2 guy on his team. Butler is no better than #2, and possibly #4 on his team. Harden is #1 on a contender, has 2 AS, 1 3rd team, and 1 1st team, #5 in MVP voting last year, and is a true MVP candidate so far this year by everyone except David and you. Is he better than prime Kobe or even Wade were? Certainly not, yet anyway. Unlikely, but never know. A lot of those things probably wouldn't have happened for him 10 years, but it certainly wouldn't have happened for Thompson/Butler either. Harden doesn't have much of a midrange game, but that probably has more to do with his team's philosophy, though that philosophy has its limitations. His defense is actually at above average now, and he actually taken over games for stretches defensively. Thompson/Butler have way more holes in their games, and don't operate as the primary offensive weapons nor much as playmakers.

Wade probably shouldn't be an AS this year, even in East. Kobe is debatable, but he's out now.

SG is probably the least important position, though. AI only had 1 playoff run, Mcgrady had none, Carter 1, Allen had 1 in MIL, and then a few in BOS as 3rd/4th man, Wade had 2 before James/Bosh came. Kobe's really the one who stands out, especially while playing at an elite level.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 9:28:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I disagree that Harden is the #1 player on his team; Howard has much more of an impact (and according to On/Off court numbers, so does Ariza). Harden is also still an abysmal defender, while Butler and Thompson are both borderline elite. It's true that they aren't playmakers to the extent that Harden is, but both are at least capable off the dribble. That said, Harden is certainly a better OFFENSIVE player than Butler, and it's possible to argue he's a better offensive player than Thompson (though, again, he gets stifled in the playoffs as he's fairly easy to neutralize given time to prepare for him).

However, I'd happily take a Butler, who let's say is 80% as good on offense, over Harden because Butler doesn't hurt his team on the other end; in point of fact, he makes them much better. Ditto Thompson.

Too many people think the game is 90% offense, 10% defense, but every player in NBA history spent half their career playing D. In Harden's case, not very well. He posts gaudy numbers in the regular season, which is nice, but he doesn't stop anybody and his offensive "brilliance" is largely smoke and mirrors. Thompson and Butler are better players than Harden, and neither of their teams would trade them for Harden straight up; they also wouldn't trade them for Harden and a pick. Harden's 25 points or whatever are nice, but if you deducted all the points scored off of opportunities he provides on defense, they'd be much less impressive.

Thompson's team, despite having a much deeper bench, and a stronger surrounding cast generally, is 15 points per 48 minutes better with Thompson on the floor. Harden's team, despite him being their "#1" guy and a relatively weak bench, is only 11 points per 48 minutes better with him on the floor. Perhaps more relevantly, the Warriors allow 3 fewer points per 48 with Klay on the court, while the Rockets allow 5 more points per 48 whenever Harden plays- and this is despite the fact that Harden's backup is Jason Terry, who even I could score on. Also despite the fact that Harden plays most of his minutes with three great defensive players in Howard, Ariza, and Beverly. The other starter is Josh Smith, who for all his warts is ALSO an above average defender at his position, but Harden's so bad that when he plays the Rockets become a bad defensive team regardless of who's out there with him. That's pretty damning.

All-Star selections are semi-meangingless in any year where there's a fan vote; Kobe was voted into this year's despite shooting less than 30%. Harden is a "star" in that he posts gaudy stats and does commercials, so fans vote him in; it's not an accurate measure of his value as a basketball player though. Similarly, I don't much care where somebody finished in the MVP voting unless it was first. The fact that someone is popular with sportswriters does not necessarily mean they're a better ballplayer than someone who isn't.

Incidentally, prior to Chicago's recent weird slump, both of their teams were doing better than Harden's. Some, even most, of that may be because they have better supporting casts. But part of it is also because they're better basketball players.

Note: Full disclosure, there's a chance I'm overestimating Butler; I haven't watched as many Bulls games this season as I have Warriors or Rockets and I didn't realize until I checked the standings while writing this response how bad Chicago has been lately.

At Thursday, January 29, 2015 10:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Come on Nick, let's get real for once. You're seriously going to say Howard and/or Ariza have been better than Harden? If you want to criticize his midrange, fine. If you want to criticize his defense from 2013/2014, fine. Other than that, he does everything. He's playing good defense this year and gets lots of steals/blocks. He's HOU's only real playmaker. Nobody is setting him up, but he scores a lot, leading the league, and he leads the league in assists for a SG. He's #3 in rebounding for a SG, really #2, Butler is more of a SF at 6-7. He leads the league in FTs and FTAs. And he's an extremely efficient shooter, despite being his team's lone playmaker. There's very little he isn't great at.

Kobe isn't shooting less than 30%. And despite his low shooting pct., he was still able to perform at an extremely high level. He's had bad shooting playoff series in the past, but still managed to dominate them.

GS is a more talented and deeper team than HOU. Thompson has Curry who is much better than Howard. Who knows what Howard you're going to get this year. He's very inconsistent plus can't seem to stay healthy. CHI has 4 AS caliber players when they're playing plus deeper, plus they play in a much weaker conf. None of what you're saying even remotely supports Butler over Harden.

I know the problems with MVP voting. Nash has as many MVPs as Shaq/Kobe combined. Other than Nash winning 2 and Kobe/Shaq only getting 1 each though, generally the voting isn't too bad.

Not sure about most of your advanced stats. Among HOU's top 8 player in minutes, Harden ranks #2 in DRTg, just below Howard. He's also #1 on HOU in VORP at 8.2, which is #1 in the league. #2 is Ariza at 2.6. Howard is only at 0.4. I don't read into most of these stats much, but you seem to pass these up. Harden rates high in pretty much every raw or advanced stat. It's kind of funny listening to you denigrate Harden so much. Stretching at straws at best.

At Friday, January 30, 2015 9:02:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

I do agree that the shooting guard position is watered down.

Harden is clearly the best shooting guard in the league.

It's one thing if you believe he is overrated(which I in a way agree with); it's another thing to talk of him as if he's not even a top 20 player.(he's at least a top ten player)

Harden is overrated. But he is not overpaid. People say Houston shouldn't have given him max money but its a lot of players that get the same amount or more than what Harden gets. He's a top ten player so if he was a free agent several teams with cap space would line up to give him the same contract Houston gave him. It's not like he's getting paid the same amount Carmelo is getting.

At Friday, January 30, 2015 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I don't wanna spend all day on this because at this point it's clear that you either don't understand or don't much care about defense, and I'm unlikely to change your mind, but here's why I don't much care for D-RTG or VORP.

D-RTG is a noisy stat because it's based on simply what happens when that player is on the court, without a baseline to compare it to. As i mentioned, Houston's got a lot of great defensive players, and Harden spends most of his minutes with them, so his D-RTG is ok. I prefer to use On/Off court Defensive numbers, because it shows you how Houston's defense is both with and without Harden, and it's 5 points better per 48 when he sits. That's no coincidence.

VORP is one of many stats I don't much care for, much like PER, as it tends to mostly only factor in offensive value. Nobody's arguing that Harden isn't a good (regular season) offensive player. I'm just arguing that he hurts you so much on the other end you'd be better off with somebody like Thompson, who's a comparable scoring threat AND a way above average defender.

You're also underselling Dwight Howard, who affects almost every defensive possession just by dint of being on the court. But, hey, Harden was 0on Sportscenter so he must be their star.

At Sunday, February 01, 2015 3:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I did not elevate Thompson and Butler above Harden in this article. I would not say that any of those players are as good right now as the elite shooting guards of five or 10 years ago.

However, if I were comparing Thompson, Butler and Harden, I would be inclined to give Thompson and Butler the edge over Harden because Thompson and Butler are more well-rounded. None of them are max players right now, though; none of them are good enough to be the best player on a championship team.

At Sunday, February 01, 2015 3:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


There can be noise with some of the "advanced" numbers but I agree with your overall analysis of Harden's game and his impact, even though I might phrase my analysis differently.

At Thursday, February 05, 2015 9:02:00 AM, Blogger the unnatural said...

How Nick and David cannot give credit where it's due to Harden is mind-boggling to me. Harden is the best two guard in the league and neither Butler or Thompson are very close. I'm not even sure if you're watching the standings or the games when you both keep going on about how the Rockets improvement has as much or more to do with Howard as it does with Harden.

The guy is averaging 27, 7 and 6, playing better defense than in the previous two seasons and the Rockets are currently third in the west at 34-15. Howard has now missed 17 (that's about 35% of the season so far) games this season and having his worst season since his second in the league when he has been on the court. They're 12-5 in games Howard doesn't play, which is a slightly better winning percentage than in the games in which Howard has played where they are 22-10. And that 22-10 includes a game the Rockets won recently against the Suns where Howard only played 8 minutes. If you were to count that towards the games Howard didn't play, that push the totals even further away from the claim you're both making.

I don't know how you guys are coming to your conclusions when the numbers so clearly contradict your positions. It appears as if your minds are already made up and anything short of Harden walking on water en route to delivering a championship to Houston will not change, or even soften, your positions.

At Thursday, February 05, 2015 9:04:00 AM, Blogger the unnatural said...

And is Harden's position as the best two guard in the league a result of the physical declines of Kobe and D-Wade? Of course, but that is the natural order of things in the sporting world. The guy is playing excellent ball this season.

At Thursday, February 05, 2015 2:00:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

The win totals are a small enough sample size that I'm not wowed by them. If that ratio holds up, I'll reconsider. The much larger sample size of Harden in Houston w/ and w/o Howard tells a different story.

Nobody's disputing that Harden puts up good offensive numbers. But regardless of whether or not he's "better" than he was last year, he's one of the worst defensive players in the league. That's the reason David and I would take Thompson or Butler over him.

Let's say for the sake of argument Harden's worth 50 points or whatever on offense per game, between points/rebounds/assists/opportunities created. Great. But he costs his team let's say 30 points a game by playing lazy defense or blowing rotations.

Thompson maybe is only worth 40 points on offense (points and opportunities created by his spacing), but he saves you another 15 or so on the other end by playing, you know, good defense. Butler's worth even less on offense, but again, makes some of that back.

If you don't understand why Harden's a bad defender, I can't help you. If you do, then you get why I'd take Thompson and probably Butler over him.

On top of that, Harden has yet to demonstrate an ability to be a meaningful impact player in the playoffs, as his offense is relatively to gameplay against.

At Thursday, February 05, 2015 2:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick summarized my position very nicely: Harden is a productive player offensively in the regular season but his overall impact is diminished by his poor defense--and his value is further diminished by how easy it is to gameplan against him in the postseason.

At Thursday, February 05, 2015 11:09:00 PM, Blogger the unnatural said...

Okay, I don't think I actually submitted the previous message I mentioned. Doing this on a phone is a pain. To summarize, I never said Harden was an ace defender, so it's easy to argue a position didn't take. Also, it's funny how you're harping on defense when Butler himself just came out saying his D has been awful this season. Yet his defensive value is somehow enough in your mind to outweigh Harden's edge on offense. Furthermore, the sample size is now more thsn half the season. Calling this small is holding less and less weight as the Rockets continue to not muss a beat in the tough west. That's more than half a season with Harden being undoubtedly the best player. And Howard's missed games would already would account for about 20% of the entire season at this point. The sample sizes ain't that small anymore. And making that claim appears to be for no reason than wanting to because you're choosing to stick to a certain position no matter what, and chances are you'll because Harden has next to chance of leading his team out of the tough west with his best teammate broken.

At Thursday, February 05, 2015 11:13:00 PM, Blogger the unnatural said...

Lastly, you can't knock points off of Harden for not proving he can do certain things in the playoffs whe you aren't asking the same of Butler. What has Butler proven as a no. 1 option in the playoffs? What has Thompson? Nada. All I'm pointing out at this point is blatant inconsistency. Heck, at least Harden is currently proving he can lead a team that wins games in the regular season right now while neither Butler or Thompson are. The Bulls are flaming out in the fashion David suggest the Harden lead Rockets would in his previous entry, and Curry is the leading man in G-State. Like I said, all I'm pointing out is inconsistency.

At Friday, February 06, 2015 2:42:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

This'll be my last post on the subject, because at a certain point it stops feeling like a discussion and more like arguing with a wall.

Harden's particular game is easy to gameplan against, because he has no midrange game, and no alternate plan for when the refs aren't blowing the whistle inside. He's a good-not-great three point shooter but his offensive arsenal is limited.

While it's true that Thompson and Butler haven't done much yet in the playoffs, the fact that they can still contribute on D is the difference; Thompson can go 1-13 in a game and still help his team win; Harden really can't. Thompson's offensive contributions are also more difficult to mitigate (his lightning quick release helps space the floor off-ball, something Harden can't do at the same level; Thompson also shoots a much higher percentage from 3). That's sorta the whole point here.

I admitted earlier in the thread that I haven't watched the Bulls much lately, so perhaps Butler has cratered and isn't much better than Harden now. I did read his comments, and it sounded a lot less like "I suck now," and a lot more like "I was great, now I'm not, so I need to be better." Big difference between "not great defensively" and "Harden defensively."

Howard's missed, what, 20 games, tops? I remember a Rockets team missing T-Mac and Yao winning 22 in a row. They... didn't make a whole lot of noise in the playoffs, and despite the fact that their winning percentage without Yao/T-Mac was better than with them, it'd be ludicrous to argue they were better without them. 20 games isn't a meaningful sample size, really, and just looking at the raw numbers fails to take into account things like strength of schedule, back to backs, etc.

Bottom line, you've argued again and again that Harden's #s- whether they be scoring, MVP votes, or wins-without-Howard- make him the best. Fine. But you haven't addressed the fact that he's a hack defender, which is really the bigger point here. His team is better defensively without him, and most numbers bear that out.

Fun stat: in 71% of games, the Rockets have outscored their opponents while Howard is on the court. Harden's third on the team in that metric among players who play meaningful minutes at 66%, so good for him, but it doesn't paint him as their most important player. Neither does his 1.04 DPPP (defensive points per possession), worst among their top six guys. HIs Net 48 number (basically a normalized plus/minus) is 6.7, well below Howard' 7.6 and only a hair ahead of Corey Brewer's 6.6. These are all advanced numbers that track, basically, what happens when a player plays. And they all say that while Harden helps his team, Howard helps more, and that Harden dramatically compromises the defense.

Yes, he's offensively essential for Houston. But they can't guard anybody when he's on the court.

On the other hand, Thompson and (presumably) Butler help their teams on both sides, and aren't easily neutralized by smart defenses or refs swallowing their whistles.

Lastly, while I disagree that Harden is his team's best player, even if he were the argument that "he's his team's best player and Thompson isn't" is a stupid one. Scottie Pippen was better than a lot of team's best players when he played with Jordan. Ditto for Kobe with Shaq, McHale with Bird, and so on. Being the best player on your team only means you're better than the other players on your team.

TL;DR There's more to the game than the box score. Defense is literally half the game, and Harden doesn't play it. It doesn't matter if he's better on offense than Thompson or Butler unless the margin of his advantage their is greater than theirs on D, and it's very difficult to intelligently argue that it is.

At Wednesday, February 11, 2015 12:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

If after the first two games of the season the Rockets were 1-0 with Harden but without Howard and 0-1 with Howard but without Harden would that be a meaningful sample size because the Rockets had played 50% of the season without Howard? That is an extreme example but the point is that a large sample size within a small portion of a season does not mean much. Houston has not played enough games without Howard against a wide enough range of teams so far this season to make the broad conclusion that Harden is more valuable than Howard to the Rockets. Furthermore, the larger sample sizes available from previous seasons strongly suggest that, as Nick mentioned, the Rockets improved much more after adding Howard than they did from just adding Harden.

I don't think that Harden, Thompson or Butler can be the best player on a legit championship contender but I would take Thompson or Butler over Harden because their games are more complete. Harden is a dynamic regular season scorer but so is Monta Ellis and (a few years ago) Gilbert Arenas and a bunch of other guys who were good (or even very good) players who were never going to be the best player on a championship team.

Harden is scoring a little more than I expected him to score (I thought that he would average 23-25 ppg as a number one option, not 25-plus ppg) but he is having about the same impact on team success that I expected and he has still not proven that he can be the best player on a championship caliber team.


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