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Monday, November 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Shooting Guards

A highly regarded NBA guard is shooting .371 from the field--including .240 from three point range--and leading the league with 49 turnovers in 10 games as his team performs far below expectations. No, this is not about Kobe Bryant, a 20 year veteran coming back from serious injuries to his Achilles, knee and shoulder in addition to a calf bruise that he suffered during the preseason; this is about James Harden, who has been widely hailed as an MVP caliber player for a potential championship contender. Bryant's production is predictable, given his age and his injuries. What is Harden's excuse? It is bizarre that the media focuses so much attention on Bryant's supposed shortcomings as his Hall of Fame career draws to a close but ignores the poor performance of a much-praised player who should be in his prime and who recently declared that he should have won the 2015 NBA regular season MVP.

Harden's Houston Rockets, who supposedly added the final piece to their championship puzzle when they acquired point guard Ty Lawson, are currently 4-6 and would not qualify for the Western Conference playoffs if the season ended today. Among Houston's main rotation players who average at least 30 mpg, Harden's plus/minus number (-4.7) is fourth, trailing Marcus Thornton, Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard. This is a small sample size of games but the trend actually extends back to the 2015 playoffs, when Harden's plus/minus was third on the team--the same as Jason Terry, .1 better than Trevor Ariza and worse than Dwight Howard and Josh Smith. Harden puts up gaudy scoring and assist numbers because he monopolizes the ball but there are many other players in the NBA who could put up similar numbers if they handled the ball as much as Harden does. In that regard, Harden is much more like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Carmelo Anthony than he is like Kobe Bryant in his prime or Stephen Curry now. Guys like Harden do not lead teams to championships; they only win championships if they understand their limitations and accept a smaller role behind a player who is more qualified to handle such a heavy workload. Marbury was unwilling to do that in Minnesota with Kevin Garnett. Arenas was much more interested in being quirky than in winning basketball games. Anthony made one fluky run to the Western Conference Finals (much like Harden did last year) but has spent most of his career jacking up shots, playing inattentive defense and losing in the first round of the playoffs.

Yes, Harden has already had a couple games with 40-plus points this season and he likely will have more such games before the end of the season. Those games do not refute my take on Harden. I have never said that Harden is a bad player. He is a very talented player who is more than capable of putting up big numbers--but he is not an elite player or an efficient player or much of a leader. Leadership is defined by actually leading a group of people to a meaningful accomplishment. Kobe Bryant is a great NBA leader--no matter how much media members bash him for supposedly not being a leader--because he has been an All-NBA performer for five championship teams. Steve Nash and Chris Paul are called great leaders by media members but what concrete results did their supposed leadership actually obtain? Someone did some kind of study showing that Nash high-fived his teammates more than anyone else--but what does that actually have to do with leadership or with winning? Jason Kidd was a great leader because everywhere he went his teams got better and everywhere he left those teams got worse. Results on the court spoke volumes about his leadership.

Harden puts up empty numbers and there is far too much variation between his best games and his worst games. Truly great players have a consistent impact on a game to game basis; when their shot is off, they compensate with their passing, their rebounding and/or their defense. Harden does not do that. Like Marbury, Arenas and Anthony, Harden is a talented player who can score a lot of points but is indifferent--at best--defensively and whose playing style/leadership style is not conducive to building a championship culture. Teams inevitably take on the identity of their best player. A defensive-minded player like Bill Russell can be the best player on a championship team because by sacrificing his own scoring opportunities such a player sets a good example for his teammates to follow. However, an offensive-minded player who does not work hard on defense is unlikely to be the best player on a championship team, because his teammates will follow his lead and also not work hard on defense (plus, such a player will play a lot of minutes and thus be a detriment to the team's defense even if the other four players do work hard at that end of the court).

I predicted that Harden would be a high scoring All-Star but that he would not be able to lead a team to a championship as the best player and nothing that has happened since he arrived in Houston has refuted that prediction. Harden is ideally suited to being the third or, maybe, second option on a championship-caliber team. Since Harden has arrived in Houston, the Rockets have exited the playoffs twice in the first round, with Harden playing poorly in both of those postseasons.

Last year, the Rockets had a record that was better than their point differential would predict and they took advantage of their favorable seeding to advance to the Western Conference Finals as an injury-riddled Thunder team missed the playoffs, as the Spurs rested their way to a bad seed/first round loss and as the ever-underachieving Clippers blew a 3-1 lead against the Rockets despite Harden's bricklaying (.398 FG%) throughout that series. Houston's run to the Western Conference Finals was a fluky result--and the players who did the heavy lifting were Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza. The Rockets actually did better in the playoffs with Harden off of the court than they did with him on the court. In fact, Harden was not even on the court during some of Houston's most critical runs during the 2015 postseason, including their big fourth quarters in game two of the Dallas series and game six of the L.A. series. Then, Harden shot 2-11 from the field and committed 12 turnovers in game five of the Western Conference Finals as the Rockets went down in flames versus the Golden State Warriors, four games to one.

The Rockets openly lobbied for Harden to win the 2014-15 regular season MVP but it would have been a travesty if Harden had won that award. Stephen Curry is clearly better than Harden and Curry was the best player on the league's best team, a team that went on to win the championship. Curry and the Warriors look even more dominant now than they did last season, which further emphasizes the gap between Curry and Harden.

An MVP vote should not just reflect what happens in a given season but it should make sense historically. A Harden MVP would have been as discordant historically as the two MVPs that Steve Nash won. Nash was a good player and his career arc made for a nice story for the media but Nash--despite the plaudits he received as a leader and as supposedly the best player in the league two years in a row--never sniffed a championship. The best players of the 2000s were--in alphabetical order--Bryant, Duncan, James and O'Neal, with Garnett, Nowitzki and Wade also making an impact; each of those players won at least one championship as the best player on his team. Nash was in the next level below those guys and that was obvious at the time that the media gave him two MVPs but the story of a small player from a small school serving as the point guard for a high octane offense seduced the media MVP voters to ignore the fact that Nash was not actually better than the league's truly dominant players.

Nash left Dallas and the Mavericks not only remained a good team but they actually improved, reaching the Finals twice and winning the 2011 championship. When an MVP level player leaves a team that never happens, unless the MVP level player is replaced by another MVP level player. When Wilt Chamberlain left the 76ers, they rapidly declined from arguably the best single season team of all-time (1967) to arguably the worst single season team of all-time (1973). Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 seasons. Boston missed the playoffs the year after he retired and did not win another championship until adding another MVP caliber center (Dave Cowens, who won the 1973 MVP before helping the Celtics win championships in 1974 and 1976). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to two Finals and one championship but since he left Milwaukee the Bucks have never returned to the Finals while his new team--the L.A. Lakers--won five championships with him patrolling the paint. When Moses Malone left the Houston Rockets for the Philadelphia 76ers the Rockets crashed--and did not reemerge until they obtained two dominant big men, Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon--while the 76ers enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. It is true that the Chicago Bulls did not fall apart when Michael Jordan retired--thanks largely to the efforts of the vastly underrated Scottie Pippen--but the Bulls did not improve, either. The Lakers missed the playoffs after Shaquille O'Neal left, though Bryant soon led them back to the top after the Lakers acquired one-time All-Star Pau Gasol. Bryant did not need that much additional help because he is one of the greatest players of all-time.

An MVP is an irreplaceable player. Nash was very good but he was not irreplaceable and his name does not belong on the MVP list. Similarly, Harden is very good but he is not irreplaceable; there are many other NBA guards who could do the same things Harden is doing if given the same opportunity and the Rockets would not be any worse off if they swapped Harden for one of those guards. The Oklahoma City Thunder replaced Harden with the likes of Kevin Martin and Reggie Jackson and did not miss a beat until their best two players--MVP level performers Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook--missed significant time due to injuries.

Many things broke right for Harden and the Rockets last year and they still got smoked in the Western Conference Finals. Harden is not as bad as he has looked in the early part of his season and I expect the Rockets to be a playoff team--but I also expect them to go out in the first round this year and in most if not all of the next several years. Maybe after Harden has lost in the first round as many times as Anthony people will begin to reassess their inflated views of his ability, much like the shine is coming off of Chris Paul as people are slowly figuring out that not only is he not good enough to lead a team to a championship but he might even not be good enough to be the second best player on a championship team, since for the past few years Paul has been the second best player on a highly touted Clippers team that has yet to reach the Western Conference Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:12 AM

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