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Friday, January 13, 2017

Russell Westbrook Versus James Harden: Should the MVP be Selected Based on Analysis or Narrative?

It has become apparent that, barring injury or some unlikely and unforeseen circumstance, either Russell Westbrook or James Harden will win the 2016-17 NBA regular season MVP award. My default position regarding the NBA regular season MVP award is that the recipient should be the league's best all-around player, unless there is a player who is so dominant in one or two categories that his dominance outweighs all other considerations; Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are prototypical examples of the former type of player, while Shaquille O'Neal is a prototypical example of the latter type of player.

It is obvious that the media members who annually vote for this award do not share my criteria. Bryant and O'Neal only won one regular season MVP each despite being, respectively, the best all-around player and most dominant player in the NBA for several years. James has fared somewhat better in MVP voting than Bryant and O'Neal but James--who inherited best all-around regular season player in the league status from Bryant circa 2009 or 2010--arguably deserved even more than the four MVPs he has received. Three years ago, many voters became tired of voting for James and looked for narratives (excuses) each season to elevate at least one player above him. James has finished second, third and third in the MVP race the past three years, even though he has led his team to six straight NBA Finals and three championships while clearly establishing himself as the best all-around player in the league.

James' Cleveland Cavaliers once again sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference but there is virtually no chance that James will win the MVP award this season. The media voters prefer to create and then validate a narrative. Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry each won at least one MVP because the media determined that in a particular season or seasons those players represented the league's most compelling narrative.

This season is providing narrative overdrive but two narratives have gathered the most attention; you could call those narratives "Angry Russ" and "Revenge of the Beard."

I have already explained why I would select Russell Westbrook as the 2016-17 NBA MVP. I rank James second this season but not because I have been seduced by a narrative or because I am tired of picking the same player (which is a stupid reason to not vote for a worthy candidate); I acknowledge that James is a better all-around player than Westbrook but that gap has closed, Westbrook is having a historic season and Westbrook plays hard every game while James often enters self-described "chill mode." I would take James in "chill mode" as the MVP in most seasons but not when Westbrook is making triple doubles look effortless.

The "Angry Russ" MVP narrative received a lot of play early in the season. That narrative stipulates that Westbrook is angry at the world because Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. "Angry Russ" will therefore exact revenge on the entire league.

Westbrook cannot be a media darling for the long haul, though. He is too intense, too competitive and too dismissive of stupid questions asked by media members. Westbrook is singlehandedly carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder--a team so bereft of talent and depth that they literally need for Westbrook to put up 30-10-10 every night just to have a chance to win--but instead of acknowledging that reality, the media nitpick Westbrook's shot selection and decision making.

Thus, a new narrative is gaining popularity: "Revenge of the Beard." We all saw James Harden spend last season not playing defense, getting two coaches fired and running his most talented teammate out of town. No one made up any of that. It all happened--but because the Rockets are enjoying early season success in 2016-17, we have a narrative emerging that Harden was somehow disrespected and is now exacting revenge on the league and anyone who dared to question his greatness.

Narratives are inevitably simple and simple-minded, so expect much to be made of the fact that Harden's Houston Rockets won the head to head regular season series versus Westbrook's Thunder two games to one. Never mind that it took Daryl Morey several years to put together a supporting cast that fits with Harden's quirky skill set, while Westbrook's supporting cast contains some mismatched parts and was definitely not built around his skills (Westbrook should be surrounded by shooters and/or by athletic players who can run the floor with him). Never mind that Westbrook is responding to adversity by elevating his game, which is exactly the opposite of the approach that Harden took last year.

Above all, don't expect anyone to point out that Harden actually had a negative plus/minus number in those three head to head games that many media members will likely weigh heavily when casting their MVP votes. The Rockets were outscored by the Thunder when Harden was in the game; they beat the Thunder based on overall talent and depth, not based on what Harden did (this is reminiscent of the Rockets' fluky run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals, when Harden rode the bench during many of the most critical possessions and moments of key games). Harden averaged 20.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 12.3 apg in the three games versus the Thunder this season, while shooting .291 from the field, .217 from three point range and .793 from the free throw line.

What about the way that Harden recently led the Rockets to 19 wins in a 21 game stretch? Did you know that during those games the Rockets performed better with Harden on the bench than with Harden on the court? I have to admit that Morey has put together a better team top to bottom than I thought--at least in terms of regular season play. I expected Harden to put up astronomical individual numbers in Coach Mike D'Antoni's system but I did not expect the Rockets to win as many games as they have thus far. D'Antoni has the Rockets running and gunning from all angles, which is the last thing that an opposing team wants to deal with while playing a fourth game in five nights, but we all know what happens when a good team with at least one day of rest between games and a chance to prepare for "seven seconds or less" faces D'Antoni's squads in the playoffs.

By the way, Westbrook had a positive plus/minus number in those three head to head matchups with Harden. Westbrook averaged 35.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 8.0 apg versus Houston, while shooting .418 from the field, .385 from three point range and .882 from the free throw line. When Westbrook and Harden were on the court, Westbrook put up better numbers than Harden and Westbrook's team had the advantage--but those games will cost Westbrook in the MVP race because Houston's second unit is better than Oklahoma City's and the simple/simple-minded narrative is "Harden trusted his teammates and won; Westbrook played 'hero ball' and lost." Splice that narrative together with a video of a couple highlights cherry-picked to "prove" that Westbrook committed some basketball sins and you have what it takes to be an esteemed member of the basketball media.

So how should these players be compared? The same way that any players should be compared--objectively evaluate their skill sets:

Scoring: Harden is a better three point shooter than Westbrook but Westbrook is quicker, more athletic and more dangerous from more areas of the court. Every year in the playoffs, we see the defensive game plan that works against Harden: force him right, deny him wide open three point shots and when he gets into the lane meet him with high hands while sidestepping his flopping/flailing attempts to draw fouls. The game plan against Westbrook is concede the three point shot, pray that he settles for it and pray really hard that he does not make it, because when Westbrook is making that shot he is completely unguardable.

Rebounding: They are both excellent rebounders for their position but Westbrook has the edge in this department. Harden's rebounding numbers this season are a little inflated based on Houston's pace of play (his offensive rebound rate has nearly doubled, because Houston shoots so many long shots and long shots typically result in long rebounds that can be snared by guards). Westbrook attacks the boards like a shark smelling blood and he would be a terrific rebounder in any system and any era.

Passing: Harden averages more assists than Westbrook but Harden plays in a system that breeds assists for the primary ballhandler and he plays alongside better shooters. Westbrook can make any pass that Harden can make. If Westbrook and Harden traded places then Westbrook would easily match or exceed Harden's assist numbers but Harden's assist numbers would drop.

Ballhandling: Westbrook is explosive, while Harden is crafty (and a bit quicker than he looks at first glance). Both players have high turnover rates: Westbrook tries to do too much at times, while Harden is often shockingly careless with the ball.

Defense: Harden's defensive shortcomings are obvious and notorious. Westbrook is not an All-Defensive Team caliber defender but he plays with much more passion and energy at that end of the court than Harden does. You could put Westbrook on the opposing team's best perimeter player for a few key possessions and expect good results; no one would dream of doing likewise with Harden.

Attitude/Leadership: Harden talked his way out of one city, he ran two coaches out of Houston and in four full seasons as the top player in Houston he has exited the playoffs in the first round three times. His supporters will say that he has emerged as a leader this season; I say let's wait and see until Houston faces some adversity, because that is when we will find out if Harden is a leader or a front runner. Westbrook plays hard and he inspires his teammates to play hard as well. Westbrook has been a top level performer for a team that advanced to at least the Western Conference Finals four times in six years (and likely would have made it even more often were it not for injuries that he and Kevin Durant suffered during that time). Poor leaders do not take their teams to the NBA's equivalent of the Final Four on a nearly annual basis.

Some might say that playoff success--whether past, present or projected in the future--has nothing to do with being the regular season MVP but I disagree; if a player has a pattern of putting up gaudy regular season numbers that are rarely if ever validated by postseason performance (individually and/or collectively) then the MVP voters should take that into account. Not every 25-30 ppg season is created equally; Michael Adams was a very good NBA player but his 26.5 ppg in 1990-91 while playing for Paul Westhead is not equivalent in impact to the 24.7 ppg that Stephen Curry is averaging this season.

Overall: Harden is an unorthodox but effective scorer and playmaker. He is bigger than Westbrook and he rebounds like a small forward. He has little to no interest in playing defense. Westbrook is perhaps the most explosive athlete in the NBA and one of the most explosive, powerful athletes to ever play point guard. Westbrook has demonstrated that he can thrive as the first or second option for a playoff bound team, while Harden chafed at being the Thunder's third option but has yet to prove that he is capable of consistently leading a team very far as the first option. If Harden leads the Rockets to 55-60 wins and homecourt advantage in the first round this season then he will have no excuses if he suffers his typical early postseason exit.

Harden is having a career year in a system designed to inflate the statistics of the team's primary ballhandler but Westbrook is having a historic season while surrounded by a supporting cast that is almost helpless when he is not in the game. Even if one would say that Harden and Westbrook are equal as scorers/playmakers--and I would dispute that notion--Westbrook has a clear edge as a rebounder, defender and leader.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:34 AM

28 comments

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28 Comments:

At Friday, January 13, 2017 1:21:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I agree with your overall conclusions and most of your individual points. We do differ a few places:

* I would take Lebron in "chill mode" over either other player, both because "chill" Lebron is still a much better defender than either, but also because Lebron can turn off "chill mode" at will. It reminds me, actually, of late period Kobe (albeit on opposite ends of the court) who would often slack off on defense for the first three quarters before locking in during crunch time. I am a little harder on Kobe for that than I am for Lebron on offense, as Lebron's team has plenty of offense even when he is playing at half-speed but Kobe's Lakers teams were not especially defensively stout, particularly on the perimeter, when he was not engaged.

That said, I would also take '09-'10 Kobe over either Harden or Westbrook regardless.

* I of course disagree with your analysis of Westbrook's defense. I of course agree he is leaps and bounds ahead of Harden, but in my mind it's more of a case of a D+ or C- vs. an F-, while your analysis seems to paint Westbrook as more of a B/B+ish defender.

* I agree that Harden's supporting cast is better for the specific system he plays in, and compliments him better than Westbrook's does, but I think Westbrook's cast has better players in a vacuum. There is no one on Houston anywhere near as good as Adams, and perhaps not as good as Oladipo. That shouldn't much factor into the MVP conversation except in Westbrook's favor (he'd still be better off with Harden's more cohesive teammates), but I think it's a worthwhile distinction.

* I expect both OKC and HOU to fall off somewhat as the season progresses (neither is well-positioned to weather injuries), and if that happens I suspect a third or fourth candidate (not Lebron, sadly) to emerge.

 
At Friday, January 13, 2017 2:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a bit confused why you think +/- means so much in certain situations, but you usually dismiss it almost entirely when it doesn't fit your narrative. If HOU is better with Harden on the bench as you suggest, I'd be interested to hear who you think HOU's best player is or players better than Harden? And why D'antoni plays Harden so many minutes? Harden's +/- is still fantastic, btw. And if you do think Harden is HOU's best player, then explain the +/- commment and how relevant/irrelevant it is.

Harden's off. rebounds have only increased by 0.5 from last year. If Harden's off. rebounds remained the same as last year, he'd be averaging 7.8rpg, which would still be a 1.7rpg increase from last year, so his 2.2rpb increase this year has a lot more to do with just because his team shoots more 3's. Given Harden's def. rebounding increase, I'd expect to see his current rate of off. rebounding increase. RW is rebounding amazingly well, but Harden's rebounding this season would be RW's 2nd best rebounding season before this season. For reference, Harden probably isn't a better rebounder than James, but he averages more rebounds than him.

RW has been riding Durant's coattails for awhile now. Harden hasn't had the luxury of a teammate or cast like RW's in HOU yet, big differences. In 2015, when KD only played 27 games, OKC misses the playoffs, whereas when Howard, who's much worse than KD, only played 41 games, HOU makes the WCF.

RW/Harden are both putting up MVP seasons. RW still has the edge, but barely. But, his historic season still only looks barely better than Harden's season. Factor in shooting efficiency as well, Harden is killing RW in that regard. They both commit way too many TOs.

Harden/D'antoni are 2 guys you criticize a lot. Harden's cast is nowhere near championship contender level, but HOU's chemistry looks phenomenal so far. They both deserve lots of credit. Who's HOU's 2nd best player? Beverley? Gordon? That should tell us something. Nick's probably right when he says Adams/Oladipo are better than any teammate Harden has, though Harden does have a better cast than RW. He's making Harrell/Capela look like extremely valuable big men this season, and they were nobodies before. Harden was still putting up big numbers before this season, too, while shooting efficiently.

James is probably a more complete player than RW/Harden, but there's a lot more to it than that. He also plays in a weaker conference and with a much better cast, too. Currently, HOU has a better record than CLE, though I'd expect CLE to finish with a better record in the end given their easier schedule and better cast. The question we have to ask is about impact. It looks pretty obvious halfway through the season that RW/Harden have had bigger impacts than James has had. Take away each from their respective teams, OKC is terrible, HOU is a lottery team for sure, but CLE's still probably a top 4 team in the East.

 
At Saturday, January 14, 2017 11:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

While it is reasonable to prefer LeBron James in "chill mode" over both players, I would select Westbrook this season for the reasons I provided in my article.

I agree about taking '09-'10 Bryant over Westbrook and Harden. I would take '09-'10 Bryant over '17 James, who is not as dominant and consistent as '09-'10 James (who, of course, may very well turn things up in the '17 playoffs).

We will likely never agree about Westbrook's defense, so I have nothing to add in that regard.

I agree to some extent with the distinction that you made regarding the supporting casts of Westbrook and Harden but I did not make this distinction in my article because, as you suggest, it is not relevant to the MVP discussion this season. What is relevant, as I pointed out, is that Harden has the benefit of being surrounded by a supporting cast that has been constructed over the past four years to mesh with his skill set/attitude, while Westbrook is trying to pick up the pieces after Durant's unexpected departure.

I am not sure if OKC and/or Hou will fall off as the season progresses but that is certainly a plausible expectation for a variety of reasons. However, at this point I have seen enough of Houston to concede that the Rockets will have a better regular season record than I expected (barring significant injuries). I will be very interested to see if the Rockets can parlay that into something other than their fourth first round exit in the five season Harden era. It is worth remembering that I have always stipulated that my regular season preview predictions are based on how far I expect a team to advance in the playoffs, not necessarily the regular season record (although, obviously, those two criteria are often for all practical purposes the same or very similar). I picked OKC and Hou to be seventh and eighth, meaning that I expected both to lose in the first round. If they finish third and sixth, for instance, but both lose in the first round then my predictions were accurate based on the criteria that I established at the time that I made them, though--again--I freely admit that I expected the Rockets to have a worse record than they currently do.

 
At Saturday, January 14, 2017 12:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I use +/- as one of many tools to evaluate players. I prefer to use it in conjunction with the eye test, as opposed to just trusting it blindly. The only context in which I "dismiss it almost entirely" is when "stat gurus" churn out a list of +/- numbers and definitively state that such a list in and of itself represents an accurate player ranking system. I do not believe that the player with the best +/- number in the NBA is necessarily the best player in the league.

Regarding this specific article and my use of +/-, I applied it to the three OKC/Hou games because I watched those games and the eye test confirms what the +/- numbers show--namely, that when Westbrook and Harden were on the court Westbrook outperformed Harden and OKC outscored Hou. I understand the two players rarely guarded each other but the point is that the media tends to make much out of these head to head matchups when the time comes to vote for MVP, particularly in a race that, to this point, apparently is considered to be close. I would not necessarily base an 82 game award on a sample size of three games but my point is that if the voters are going to do that then they must acknowledge what really happened in those games and not apply a paint by numbers narrative such as "Houston won the season series 2-1 because Harden trusted his teammates while Westbrook played 'hero ball.'"

If you look at my Team USA FIBA game recaps in the right hand sidebar of the main page, you will note that I made extensive use of +/- but that I explained the numbers in the context of what I actually observed (I observed that Carmelo Anthony's impact was not nearly as meaningful as the media accounts suggested but that is a subject for another thread). So, your oft-repeated contention that I use +/- selectively or that I only use it against Harden is unfounded.

The last time I had checked Harden's off. rebs his numbers had nearly doubled, from .8 to 1.4 (a nearly 80% increase) but I don't want to argue about .1 offensive rebounds per game. Houston is playing small ball at a fast tempo and that creates more rebounding opportunities. Harden has always been a good rebounder for his size/position but his numbers this season are a bit inflated by D'Antoni's system. This one factor did not materially affect my evaluation of Westbrook versus Harden.

I disagree about Westbrook "riding Durant's coattails" but whether or not you are right this is irrelevant in a discussion of who should win the 2016-17 NBA MVP. It is odd, though, that you are so obsessed with Westbrook's performance in a season during which he missed 15 games (OKC went 5-10 in those contests, if I recall correctly) and yet the Thunder still tied for the eighth playoff spot with 45 wins (good enough to make the playoffs in most seasons), only to lose out on a tiebreak. Houston made the WCF with Howard having a significant impact during the playoffs. We will see how far Houston advances in this year's playoffs without Howard.

 
At Saturday, January 14, 2017 12:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

One last point: I did not "suggest" that Hou is better with Harden on the bench. I proved, based on the numbers, that--during the 2015 WCF and during the three head to head Westbrook-Harden matchups this season--Harden did not have the impact that the media driven narratives suggest that he did. Those are facts, not suggestions.

You often bring up strawman arguments that I never asserted. I never said that Harden is not Houston's best player. I never said anything about the playing time that D'Antoni gives Harden. I did not address Harden's overall +/-, which by the way is inflated to some extent by playing garbage time minutes in blowouts of weak teams (which is a major reason to not trust +/- numbers for games that one has not actually watched).

This article is about comparing Westbrook's skill set with Harden's and about comparing my criteria for MVP selection with the criteria used by the media voters. It is not a referendum on +/- or who is Houston's best player or what the optimal amount of playing time for Harden would be.

 
At Saturday, January 14, 2017 3:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never put much weight into +/-. Harden currently has a better cast than RW, but I don't think the talent difference is that big, and nobody expected HOU to do this well, even if Harden played like the best player in the league. HOU is just meshing a lot better, and Harden/D'antoni are the 2 primary reasons for that. It's hard to draw any conclusions from +/-. Sometimes, the best player in a particular game might have a bad +/-. Anyway, Harden's 2nd unit or guys 4-8 are better than RW's and some other teams, so it isn't a suprrise some all of these guys might have tremendous +/- at times. If it was HOU's 1-5 vs OKC's 1-5 for 48 minutes, that's pretty much a toss-up, even if we say RW/Harden are equal for argument's sake. Adams/Oladipo are a lot better than Capela/Beverley. Ariza has the edge on Roberson offensively, but Roberson is better defensively. Anderson is clearly better than Sabonis, but maybe not as good as Kanter.

You might be slightly right about Harden's increase in off. rebounds, but given his huge increase in def. rebounds, a lot of this would be expected. Maybe he has a 0.2-0.3 increase he normally wouldn't, but he'd still be right about 8.0rpb. And HOU really doesn't play that fast. Their pace is 98.4, while the league average is 96.2. OKC's at 97.3. For reference, pace in the nba when Oscar averaged a triple double was around 125. Teams averaged over 70rpb, while the league average today is 43.6. There isn't a magical formula to translate pace over the years, we need to realize the big differences here.

David, what is odd, is that you blame Harden for losing in the first round every chance you get, while you basically praise RW for missing the playoffs. Yes, RW missed 15 games, but why should he get a pass for that, when other players are playing full seasons, and Durant still played 27 games? RW/Durant were lucky to have each other, a luxury Harden has never had in HOU. If you can't see the difference, then let's move on. One thing about Durant is that he's never advanced past the 2nd round without at least one other MVP-type/big-time player alongside him, and that's with RW getting hurt in 1st round in 2013. If he didn't have RW for the entire 2013 season, OKC finishes no higher than 5th, probably plays MEM in 1st round and loses, which they did in the 2nd round as it turned out.

I never said you said that Harden isn't HOU's best player. But, your +/- comments about him suggest you don't think he is. If that isn't true, then you need to explain it better. You said HOU performed better with Harden on the bench during that 21-game span. That sure sounds like HOU is better off without Harden and that he isn't HOU's best player to me. The 'facts' you brought up are stats, and as we both know, there's a lot more to it than just stats. RW should have better offensive stats, as his team needs him to do more offensively than HOU needs Harden to do, that doesn't mean RW is necessarily better. He probably is, but there's a lot more to it than just that.

 
At Saturday, January 14, 2017 8:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Plus/minus is meaningful if provided in the context of other data, which is how I used it when I wrote my Team USA FIBA game recaps. I watched every minute of those games, so I knew exactly what the numbers meant and I knew which numbers had been inflated by garbage time performances versus which numbers had been compiled in critical situations.

Morey called Harden a "foundational player." I disagreed when he first said it and I am still not convinced now (based on Harden's attitude and defense, not his obvious abilities to score/pass, which I never have questioned). The point is not that Harden keeps losing in the first round but rather that he performs poorly (at least relative to how he plays in the regular season). This is the best supporting cast that Harden has had since he arrived in Houston but I still am not convinced that the Rockets will advance past the first round--and I suspect that if they do advance it will be against a hobbled opponent and/or Houston will win despite Harden, not because of him. We'll see. If I am wrong about this then I will admit it. If Harden is sitting on the bench down the stretch in game seven while Gordon is leading the charge, then that is a different story.

My point about Houston's 19-2 streak is that the real story is at least as much about D'Antoni's system, Houston's depth and the unexpected benefit of Gordon and Anderson staying healthy. This can be distinguished from what Westbrook is accomplishing with OKC, a team that is borderline elite when he is on the court and is awful when he is not in the game.

Show me a passage that I wrote that can accurately be depicted as "praising (Westbrook) for missing the playoffs" and I will respond to that comment. I don't recall ever writing anything resembling that. I recall praising Westbrook's skill set and predicting that he would be Kobe's heir as the best guard in the NBA. Those comments have proven prophetic. Regarding OKC missing the playoffs, I only recall pointing out the difference between OKC's record when Westbrook played and when he did not play. So, if you can prove that I wrote what you keep claiming I wrote, then we can have a conversation about it. Maybe I wrote it and just forgot but I doubt it.

 
At Monday, January 16, 2017 4:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know what foundational is exactly supposed to mean. But, based on the eye test, Harden's #'s/accolades, and how the vast majority of the league (commentators, coaches, players, etc.) talks about him, Morey was spot on. Unless something strange happens, Harden will be making his 5th consecutive AS game(only 7 players in the league have a chance to do that: James, Wade, Melo, KD, Paul, and Aldridge are the others-and Melo/Wade shouldn't have made each of the previous 4 either). He will also be leading HOU to their 3rd 50-win season in 5 years, and on pace to break HOU's regular season record in wins (and without another teammate even coming close to AS status). Olajuwon was certainly better than Harden, but he only managed 5 50-win seasons for his career. That's saying something. Harden will finish top 10 in MVP for 5 straight seasons (3 in top 5) and probably a 3rd 1st team all-nba if he stays healthy. I'm not sure what you're looking for. You have to have a great cast to be able to go deep into the playoffs today, no matter how good you are, and Harden maybe has had that for 2 seasons out of 5 in HOU. Look at what RW/KD have done without each other, virtually nothing. Obviously, KD plays on an AS team in GS. I would hope he could get the job done now.

Harden's shooting has declined in the playoffs overall, but I don't think his overall play is down that much, and he was brilliant overall during their 2015 run. He's often been a high-variance player, which can actually be a good thing for a fringe contender, which is the best we could say about HOU ever since Harden arrived there, as they're fighting an uphill battle against star-studded teams like SA, GS, and OKC (in the past), and need some great performances from him even if they're paired with some big stinkers. The West's top 7 teams are emerging now and each looks like tough outs. I'm not convinced anyone but GS making it to the 2nd round in the West.

HOU certainly has some more depth than OKC, though I wouldn't say it's not great, but their talent level isn't even close to teams like SA, GS, or CLE; and rotations are shortened in the playoffs, and the only reason I would take HOU's 1-5 over OKC's 1-5 is because they mesh better. I'm not surprised you're giving very little credit to Harden for HOU's great start, and somehow oft-criticized D'antoni is doing a phenomenal job.

It should be obvious by now you talk about RW in a much better light than Harden, even when Harden does better (RW missing 2015 playoffs being the prime example). How come Harden doesn't get any excuses for losing in the 1st round without a good cast (2013 being prime example)? I totally agree with your assessment about RW in 2015, btw. But, when Harden is criticized for doing better and/or RW isn't, that makes no sense to me. Like I said before, RW/KD have each been top 5ish players in the league for awhile now, and each has done very little without at least one other MVP/big-time player playing alongside them.

While HOU doesn't really have another true playmaker outside of Harden, they are more apt to do better when Harden sits than OKC when RW sits. But, I think things even out quite a bit when both are in the game as far as each teams' top 5-6 players. RW will be playing 40mpg in the playoffs at least probably, which should be expected of him. I doubt OKC has a chance vs GS, but I could see them beating any other West team.

 
At Monday, January 16, 2017 9:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Based on the context in which Morey uttered the phrase, I understand "foundational player" to mean "This player can be the best player on a championship team if he has the right supporting cast." Harden's individual numbers and the accolades he has achieved do not alter my opinion that he is not a "foundational player." My reasoning, as I have explained numerous times, is that he does not possess all of the necessary traits to fill that role. This is about more than just points and assists. This is about being a leader, being committed to giving forth effort on defense and being able to be effective in clutch situations against elite teams during the playoffs. From my perspective, Harden falls short in those areas.

I have written many articles with in depth, specific analysis of Harden's play and I am not going to cover all of that ground again. This article analyzes why Harden's 2015 playoff performance is not nearly as good as you suggest.

Your criticisms of Westbrook are bizarre. When OKC won, Durant received the credit. When OKC lost, Westbrook received the blame. They grew up together as young stars and eventually it became a nearly annual tradition to advance at least as far as the WCF. Westbrook and to a lesser extent Durant have displayed a willingness to mesh with another star. Harden wants everything to focus on him. Would Harden be willing to be #2 or 1b like Westbrook was for so many years? Would Harden be willing to blend his talents with GS like Durant has? Morey has built the only kind of team that you can build around a guy like Harden but we already saw in PHX that D'Antoni is a very good coach who can only take a team so far.

 
At Tuesday, January 17, 2017 3:00:00 AM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Here’s my two cents. Harden is much more of an MVP candidate than Steve Nash ever was, as he is the ultimate version of Nash. He’s bigger, stronger, gets to the line, and can be counted on to not only create everything for everyone, but also get his own when needed. Nash was far cleaner with the ball, but he could never be counted on to get a bucket in those “need a bucket” moments. Harden does a much better job of that. While Nash actually tried at defense, Harden’s gambles lead to turnovers and the fact he’s decently sturdy against post-ups, means he can’t be exploited like Nash often was. So, Harden is a better version of Nash (not nearly as fun to watch though).

He’s averaging a brilliant 28.6 points and accounting for another 28.6 points via his assists. He’s still gimmicky, and will, as David and Nick point out, most likely struggle again in the playoffs versus stiffer competition/defense, but his regular season has been amazing. He’ll probably become the fourth player in NBA history to tally 20 triple doubles in one season, and has an outside shot of averaging one himself.

Given all that, I don’t think he’s a top 10 player. Personally, I struggle to put him in my top 15. Those top 10: Lebron, Kawhi, Russ, AD, Giannis, Marc, Butler, KD, Steph, and one of a handful of other players that include: George, Boogie, Blake, Wall, CP3, Lowry...and a bunch of equally talented players who couldn’t carry a team in the traditional sense: Milsap, Draymond, Horford, Jordan, Gobert…

If D’Antoni has taught us anything, it’s that he can greatly enhance the value of the lead guards who play for him. Nash went from a fringe all-star to a two-time MVP and a lock for the HOF. Jeremy Lin went from undrafted to Linsanity. Raymond Felton became a legitimate starting point guard. Harden has gone from fringe MVP candidate to historic statistical anomaly and MVP frontrunner.

But, the question is, how many players could do what Harden is doing…even at 80-85% of the offensive output, but with higher efficiency (CP3), or far better defense (Wall/Lowry/Conley…dare I say Dragic)? To Nick’s point about Dragic, he won 49 games with a team far less talented than Harden has now. Spread the floor for John Wall with Houston’s players? He could average 15 assists. Lowry could average 25 and 12. Etc.

And, Anonymous, I get it that Harden doesn’t play with another all-star, but to say that he doesn’t have another playmaker is not true. Eric Gordon has been a revelation for the team this year. He and Beverley have allowed the Rockets to not only tread water, but often take leads when Harden sits. Gordon is having the best season he’s had in half a decade 18, 3, 3 on 46/40/83 percentages. If you like per minute numbers, this is his finest season. I mean, five years ago, there was an argument of who was the better prospect between Harden and Gordon. @Nick, I’m not so sure that Oladipo is better than Gordon. Better upside of course, but this season?

 
At Tuesday, January 17, 2017 1:25:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Jordan-

Re: Oladipo and Gordon

Gordon is definitely a better offensive player, but he's a total zero on D, and Oladipo's a very good defender. I care a lot about defense so that's a no-brainer for me.

Re: Harden and Nash

I strongly disagree that Nash couldn't be counted on in the "need a bucket" moments. Those Suns teams killed in close games (at least, so long as they weren't against Pop), and Nash was a wizard at getting crunch time buckets both for himself and his teammates. I remember one specific game where he scored ten points in the final minute of the fourth quarter to force OT against Dallas.

I'd also absolutely take him over Harden. Harden scores and rebounds more, but Nash was more efficient, got more out of his teammates, and took much better care of the ball. He also played great in the playoffs, instead of Harden's habit of jacking up his turnovers and losing all his efficiency. There were no weird anomalies where PHX had their crucial runs with him on the bench, either.

Defensively both are/were awful, but Nash at least tried to be in the right place, and could occasionally come up with a big steal or taken charge. Nash's problem was athleticism, while Harden's is apathy. That means Harden's problem is more fixable, but it also means it matters a lot more often.

As good as Harden's been, he's never captained a league-best offense. Nash did it for, if memory serves, 9 straight seasons or so despite being traded in the middle of it. You put prime Steve Nash on a team, you're an instant WCF contender. You put Harden on a team, as David likes to point out, you're probably first round fodder.

Heck, Nash made the WCF (and almost beat a stellar Dallas team) playing on a 7 man roster with Boris Diaw starting at center and Raja Bell starting on one leg. Nash made guys like Quentin Richardson and Tim Thomas look like viable starters. That may not show up in the box score as clearly as Harden's big nights, but it certainly means more in terms of wins and losses. Also worth noting is that the West was deeper then; it took about 48 wins to make the playoffs in that era, nowadays the eighth place team is 7 games below .500 and we're only halfway through the season.

We're talking a lot about how impressive it is that Harden/Westbrook are winning with iffy supporting casts, but I'd take either of those rosters over the '06 Suns, and I'd feel better about both of those rosters' chances if you replaced their lead guard with Steve Nash. You'd lose some points and rebounds, but you'd gain them back in increased efficiency and output from the entire rest of the roster. Heck, Steven Adams could probably average 20 a game as Nash's pick partner. Capela could probably average 18.

TL;DR: Nash over Harden in a cocaine heartbeat.

 
At Tuesday, January 17, 2017 5:26:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick, ok. I was just trying to make a case for Harden as I have been a huge Harden “hater” for a long time and Steve Nash is one of my all-time favorite players. Your points about league-leading offenses, efficiency, and weird anomalies are well-received and I completely agree with them.

Perhaps I went too far in playing the devil’s advocate. But, to continue advocating along those lines…The 06 Suns had Shawn Marion who I maintain was of Nashian importance to the SSOL Suns teams. In fact, you could argue (and we may have before) that he was the MVP of the team in 06.

He led the team in games played, points, rebounds, steals, blocks, field goal percentage (tied with Diaw), VORP, Win Shares, and defensive rating. He was some weird hybrid of Kawhi, Gerald Wallace, and Draymond. Like you, I value defense nearly equally with offense, and Marion was the defensive anchor, as well as the leading scorer on the 06 Suns. Harden has no one on his team even close to as good as Marion (though his team is far and away deeper than that 06 Suns team, which makes his coasting on defense that much more inexcusable).

Speaking of Draymond, 06 Diaw was the French version. Not nearly the bark or bite (defender, rebounder), but a lot more finesse (way better post player, and a craftier passer). Diaw could guard 1-5 (though like Green, was limited against 1s and 2s), the offense could be and was often run through him, and he spread the floor. Hell, he still does all of those things, just at 50 pounds heavier and 15 less minutes per game.

Toss in a Beep Beep here (a guy who carried the Brazil national team as the offensive focal point), ring in a Bell there (who shot a Korver-esque 44% from 3 while guarding like a bigger Beverley), bring down the House (mini-microwave) along with a couple of Thomases—one hybrid, one traditional defensive rock—and, the 06 Suns weren’t all that terrible (one of my absolute favorite teams so I may be biased).

That roster matches up well with OKC’s current roster (which is maybe more talented, but such a mess in terms of how the pieces actually fit) and Houston’s which is offensively productive as crack cocaine.

I agree that subbing Nash for Harden in Houston would make them a better team (my point about how many guards could take Harden’s team and do what Harden is doing, definitely applies to Nash). Nash would average something like 22 and 15 on 50/40/90 percentages and cut Harden’s turnovers down by a third. That said, place Harden on the 06 Suns, and the offense might not be historically great, but it would still be top 5 and the Suns (based on how easy their path was), may have still made it to the WCF.

 
At Tuesday, January 17, 2017 5:29:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

But, replacing Westbrook with Nash would not work nearly as well. Nash and Adams would be brilliant like you said, but Nash isn’t the scoring threat (consistent anyway) that Westbrook is. And without shooters surrounding him to open up the floor, Nash just wouldn’t be able to do all those delicious Nash things. Westbrook makes the team work by sheer will. He is unstoppable to the hoop. Nash had to weave his way through. Battering rams work better against defenses in the playoffs than locksmiths—no matter how skillful. So, no. You put Nash on this OKC roster, or on the current Bulls, or any team that lacks outside shooting, and you aren’t instantly a Conference Finals contender.

Let's not gloss over this factoid: Nash played with a collection of all-star level players from Dirk and Fins, to Amare and Marion. So, while that 9-year streak is impressive, it’s not like he carried Dwight Howard or Lamar Odom or Larry Hughes.

One last note (again, I must emphasize that I love Nash)… Nash got the rock to Q and Tim Thomas, but those guys made shots. D’Antoni’s system had as much to do with their viability as starters as Nash’s wizardry. Also, both of those guys were talented players that just never got their heads straight. Thomas especially had all the physical gifts/tools to become an elite player. He just took Harden’s approach to defense as his career path.

In short, I'd take Nash in cocaine heartbeat. But, in terms of what he was able to produce results-wise (with the talent he had), I'd say Harden is a good comp. I don't think Nash or Harden (or CP3 for that matter) can be the best player on a championship contender. Nash proved that right. CP3 and Harden have thus far as well.

Now, if Harden suddenly starts playing defense like he did when he first entered the league, while maintaining 25 and 11, my tune will change.

 
At Tuesday, January 17, 2017 6:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two years ago, the Rockets were the No. 2 seed in the West, with Harden and Dwight as the only all-star caliber players. And Dwight missed half the season.

This year, they're on pace to win 60 games. And, as has been pointed out in this thread, other than Harden, there is not a single all-star level player on the roster (nor, I think, anyone who's *ever* been an all-star).

I would tend to give Westbrook (who's an amazing player having an astonishing season) the MVP. But I'm continually amazed by the contortions that David and many commenters on this board go through to discount Harden's very clear, and very high value as a player.

I am glad, at least, that David is finally acknowledging that Harden is a good passer, a subject he has studiously avoided for years, during which he painted Harden as a one-dimensional player (scorer) who could only shoot threes or "fling himself at the basket" hoping for a foul (which also was and is a gross mischaracterization of Harden's offensive skills).

 
At Tuesday, January 17, 2017 7:02:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

The hole in the "Marion is just as important" argument is that they got back to the WCF without him. They turned him/Bell/Diaw effectively into Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley and remained threatening. The only constant through that era was Nash.

Eddie House was not a major contributor for the '06 Suns, and while I like all those players, Diaw, Barbosa, and Tim Thomas were all defensive zeroes at that point in their careers. Only Marion and Bell had any skill on that end, which is great, but not much help in a world full of Dirks and Duncans.

I don't wanna get into a Nash vs. Westbrook debate, but your point is mostly well-taken that OKC lacks the shooters Nash is best with. That said, guys tend to shoot much better with Nash around than without.

Nash did usually have an AS level cohort, no argument there. You're a bit higher on Marion than I am (I think, especially offensively, much of what he did was a byproduct of what Nash allowed him to do), but Amare was an offensive killing machine. Thing was, ANYBODY you put with Nash during that run put up stellar offensive numbers, including guys like Bell and Barbosa who've never come close since. Steven Adams isn't an AS right now (rightly or wrongly) but playing alongside Nash he probably would be, IMO.

The title-contender issue is an interesting one. I think you could have built a title team around Nash, but PHX's philosophy there was skewed. Those teams pretty much punted on rim protection and rebounding, and I think you absolutely need those things to win a title*. Let's say Nash had, say, Serge Ibaka or Deandre Jordan instead of Robin Lopez or Boris Diaw, I think he's got a ring. But he's certainly someone you'd have to customize a team to (I'd put Westbrook in that same category, incidentally, and for similar reasons: he can make you good enough offensively on his own, but you still need to stop the other guys), as opposed to somebody like Hakeem or Duncan or Doc where if you put decent talent of any skill set around them, they're going to seriously compete for a title.

*Mostly. I truly believe the '07 Suns win the title without the suspensions/the Donaghy game.

Overall, I think we agree. I just did a double-take at the idea of Harden as super-Nash. Nash didn't score as much as Harden because he didn't need to, but if a given game called for it he absolutely could, and his leadership was lightyears beyond, as was his "clutch" play.

 
At Tuesday, January 17, 2017 7:25:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Nick, two last points. Let me clarify the "need the bucket" ability comment. It's not about being clutch (which Nash showed he could be), but it's more about skillset. CP3 and Nash can hit clutch baskets, set up their teammates, and orchestrate efficient offenses in crunch time. What I mean is that, because they are both smallish, have no post game, and rely on their teammates' offensive movement (screens, cuts), their own deceptive ability to juke, fake out, misdirect, and the defensive mistakes of their opponents, their "need the bucket" buckets are a function of the game and not something that stands outside of the game. Harden, by no means, is great at this, but he's definitely better at orchestrating his own bucket and getting it off (or fouled) than Nash. I mean, the foundation of his entire offensive game, is the ability to get fouled.

Jordan, Kobe, Lebron...could generate and get off shots for themselves out of nothing but sheer willpower. Russ has this ability. Now, whether he makes it or not is another story. But that ability to do so...I believe...is crucial for any championship team. Curry is able to do this only because of how far out he needs to be guarded. But, even he can't impose sheer willpower on an opposing defense and get a shot off.

As for Oladipo vs. Gordon...at least for the regular season, I believe the importance of defensive ability has become grossly degraded throughout the NBA. Harden, Isaiah Thomas, McCollum, Kyrie, etc. prove this by being successful at winning despite not playing any defense. I also don't think Gordon is a "zero" defensively. He's not a great defender by any means, but he's no Derrick Rose.

Gordon's ability to get to the hoop, while also being able to stretch the floor, allows him to carry a second unit offense. That is far more valuable than any "one-on-one" defensive plus Oladipo has over him, seeing as Oladipo can only get to the hoop.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2017 1:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan/Anonymous/Nick:

Interesting discussion. I have previously expressed my views on most of these matters, so I will not repeat myself. I will, however, provide a few thoughts/observations/facts regarding the most recent comments in this thread (this comment will be divided into at least two parts due to its size):

1) Both Harden and Nash are only "MVP candidates" in the loosest sense of that phrase. At his peak it could be argued that Nash was a top 5-10 player but I never found it credible to argue that he was the best player in the league in any particular season. I don't want to revisit the season by season arguments at this point; that is my take and the reasoning behind this take can be found by reading what I posted during Nash's prime. Similarly, even if we buy the premise that Harden is a top 5-10 player now, Westbrook is putting up superior numbers this season and is having a more direct impact on his team's success (i.e., OKC is terrible when Westbrook is not in the game but Houston can at least tread water when Harden sits). We all know that LeBron is still the best player in the league, despite his periodic forays into self-described "chill mode." It is hard to accept any argument that Harden is better than a 7-foot two way player who is the best player on the team with the league's best record, so--giving Harden as much credit as is possible and more than I would give him--he cannot possibly be ranked higher than fourth. Does that make him an "MVP candidate"? There might be some seasons when the fourth best player is a legit MVP candidate but I cannot make a credible argument for Harden over the three players listed above.

2) I would take Nash over Harden all day, every day, largely for the reasons that Nick mentioned, though I still think that Nick overstates Nash's case. If Kobe or post-2011 LeBron (the version that less frequently quit during playoff series against elite teams) had Nash's mid-2000s supporting casts they would win multiple championships. So, I would take Nash over Harden but I am not buying the idea that Nash can elevate chicken bleep into chicken salad. Nash is a better leader than Harden and more reliable in the clutch. Nash actually tried to play defense, at times, but he had size and strength limitations.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2017 1:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

3) Regarding Harden's impact on winning/Howard's impact, OKC's regular season winning percentage in the first two post-Harden seasons was .732 and .720 (Westbrook missed 36 games recovering from knee surgery or the latter percentage would have been even higher). Westbrook's knee injury doomed the Thunder's 2013 playoff chances but in 2014 they advanced to the WCF.

Meanwhile, in Harden's first season in Houston, the Rockets' winning percentage increased from .515 to .549. The big jump came in 2013-14, when the Rockets improved their winning percentage to .659 after adding Howard. I am less than impressed by what Houston did in one 40 game stretch without Howard and no matter how many times Anonymous reflexively mentions this one stat I will still be less than impressed by it. There is a much larger sample size of data, cited above, demonstrating that Harden's departure from one team and addition to another team did not have a huge impact on winning.

Now, we are five years down the road. Both OKC and Hou have almost completely retooled their rosters. The idea that Harden has had a "foundational" impact on Hou's record is far from proven. Gordon is the best sixth man in the NBA this season and he is playing at an All-Star level, though he probably won't make the All-Star team in the guard-heavy West. Beverly is a defensive stud who can also make some plays offensively. Ariza is a reliable "D and 3" wing with championship level experience. Houston's bigs are not "name" players but they are effective. Houston's roster is being wrongly discounted in a similar way that LeBron's Cleveland rosters were wrongly discounted during his first tour of duty there.

Gordon and Anderson are excellent players, whose only negatives are being injury-prone. Part of why I did not expect Hou to be very good this season is that I expected Gordon and/or Anderson to get hurt. I certainly don't want them to get hurt, but this was a reasonable supposition on my part. I would have picked Hou for 50+ wins if I had known that those guys would be healthy (60+, if it happens, would still surprise me).

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2017 1:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

4) As always, I could do without Anonymous' revisionist versions of what I wrote. Here are three quoted passages from various articles that I have written. I never said that Harden was a bad player or a bad passer. I simply disputed the notion that he is an elite player.

"He is a good player; he just is not an elite or 'foundational' player. If Manu Ginobili had left the Spurs early in his career he probably could have scored 25 ppg, made several All-Star teams and received some All-NBA selections--but Ginobili never was an elite player and neither is Harden. Ginobili elected to take less money, stay in San Antonio and fill a major role on a championship team behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker; Harden chose to seek more money and, in his opinion, more glory. It will be interesting to see how that works out for Harden, Morey and the Rockets."

"In 2013, I gave Harden serious All-NBA consideration before tapping Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Stephen Curry as my choices for the league's six best guards. Last season, injuries decimated the ranks of the league's elite guards (including Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo), paving the way for Harden to ascend to All-NBA First Team status."

"Yes, Harden is leading the Rockets in scoring versus the Clippers (24.5 ppg) but he is shooting just .408 from the field and he has committed a series-high 28 turnovers. The Rockets have been outscored by 16 points when he is on the court. During Houston's do or die game six road win, the Rockets fell behind by 19 points with Harden in the game. Then, Coach Kevin McHale benched Harden for the fourth quarter and the Rockets made a highly improbable comeback to post a 119-107 victory. Harden scored 23 points on 5-20 field goal shooting and had a plus/minus number of -21, while every other Houston starter had a plus/minus number of +11 or better."

So, I have made it clear for years that I view Harden as a multiple All-Star/All-NBA caliber player (a la Ginobili) but not a player who is ideally suited to be the best player on a championship team. The evidence, objectively considered after Harden’s four-plus seasons in Houston, supports my original hypothesis.

Did I foresee that Harden would be coached by D'Antoni? No, but when that happened I predicted (in my 2016-17 season preview) that Harden "may very well post career-high numbers across the board. Harden may even fool the media into voting him onto the All-NBA Team. What Harden won't do is advance past the first round of the playoffs." Other than one fluky playoff run in four seasons, Harden's Houston tenure has gone the way that I predicted it would. If Harden plays a major role in Houston advancing past the first round of the playoffs this season, that will be an interesting development--but, despite Anonymous' attempts to predict what I will write, I am not going to speculate now about what I will say if some as yet to transpire future events take place.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2017 1:16:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Anonymous, I don’t think anyone is discounting Harden’s value as a player. I think the rest of us are trying to balance out how overstated it is.

Nick, the hole in your “hole in the ‘Marion is just as important argument’” counterargument is that they didn’t turn Marion/Bell/Diaw into Richardson/Dudley. They in fact turned Marion/Bell/Diaw into Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley, and Grant Hill…and Channing Frye…and Goran Dragic…and Robin Lopez. Oh…and you know, Amare. So, they got a lot deeper and effectively used 3 (4?) guys to fill Marion’s role(s). And for the record, I’m not high on Marion’s scoring ability. He got a lot of garbage man buckets and was the beneficiary of a ton of Nash dimes. But in 06 he still led the team in scoring. That’s a fact. He also covered for Nash defensively. This is also a fact.

Quick note on Barbosa and Bell. While Barbosa did share the court with Nash at times, he primarily came off the bench, so Nash’s impact on his overall success is not as clear-cut as you make it out to be. Barbosa averaged 16 a game for the 2012 Brazilian Olympic team (in 25 minutes) and averaged 20 when he played back in Brazil. He’s also been very good for the Warriors and is having a fine season in Phoenix. It’s more about opportunity than lack of ability. His per-36 numbers are very consistent throughout his career and he’s shooting a career high in 3s this season. Bell’s story is similar. He got opportunity in Phoenix in his prime. When he left, he was past his prime.

Steven Adams is not an ideal fit for Nash, because he can’t space the floor. Think about the bigs that Nash played with throughout his career. Think of who he was successful with…Dirk and Amare. And who he was not successful with…Shaq and Gasol/Howard. Now, the Shaq/Howard thing has explanations outside of basketball fit. Still, basketball-wise Shaq (post-Heat) and Gasol weren’t great rim runners, preferring to play in the post with their back to the basket. And while he can stroke it from 18-feet, Gasol isn’t an elite outside threat, functioning best as a rhythm outside shooter. So, when Nash and Gasol/Shaq did share the floor, it wasn’t all that smooth.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2017 1:16:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

(cont.)

Howard could have worked better if he would have just done what he was born to do and pick-and-rolled, but the Suns offense would never have been historically great because Howard can’t shoot freethrows. Empty trip after empty trip (or half empty trips) is tough to combat, even if the defense was significantly better due to Howard’s presence. Amare punished teams by either physically dunking on them, or hitting 80+ percent from the charity stripe when they fouled him. This meant that the offense was always churning, even when the threes weren’t falling. There would be a significant give if subbing Howard or DeAndre Jordan for Amare.

Adams has added some running floaters in the key and some hook shots to his offensive repertoire, and has suddenly become a really good freethrow shooter, but he has not added a J. Floor spacing is vital for Nash/D’Antoni offenses.

And I agree, if Nash had Amare, Marion, and DeAndre Jordan…the Suns probably could have won it all. But, you’re basically saying if Nash had a collection of talent comparable to the current Warriors he could have won it all. No argument there.

Anyway, Nash didn’t win. (Sadly). So, there’s no point in what ifs.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2017 6:57:00 PM, Blogger themerovingian said...

No, David, you didn't say Harden was a bad passer, you just ignored the fact that he's a good passer (which is exactly what I said in my post), because it didn't fit your narrative. None of the quotes you listed mention passing, a notable pattern in your writing about Harden.

It's always been true, but was particularly notable during Houston's run to the WCF, when you showed an astonishing blindness to Harden's impact through passing--several times when Harden posted bad single-game shooting percentages and high assist numbers (supporting what one saw watching the games, which was his excellent passing), you utterly ignored the passing and focused laser-like on shooting percentage. (When he shot well, you focused on plus-minus if it was bad that game; if neither helped your argument, you tended not to write about the game.)

Now it's impossible to ignore, I suppose, as he's leading the league in assists.

In many ways, I very much respect your analysis, David. It's why I read your blog. But IMO, you also dig in on various positions and on a few of them display truly enormous cognitive bias. It's kind of amazing to me that the whole conceit of your original post is narratives vs. analysis. You are as guilty of narrative where Harden is concerned as any sports writer. You just don't see it.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2017 7:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I accurately described Harden's "impact"--high turnovers and low FG%, which is why McHale benched him with the series up for grabs. When was the last time that a healthy great player who was not in foul trouble was on the bench in such a situation?

I have nothing against accurate narratives. I made specific predictions about Harden and the Rockets and, thus far, I have been correct. Maybe I will be proven wrong in the 2017 playoffs and beyond but thus far I have been right.

It is so lame to say that I did not praise Harden's passing. No matter how many millions of words I write there will always be something that I did not write about someone's favorite player.

By the way, leading the league in assists does not necessarily mean that you are the best passer in the NBA. Assists are a somewhat subjective stat and they can also be a product of certain coaching styles/offensive systems. I have never evaluated passing based purely on assists.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2017 8:30:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

@themerovingian,

While, I think it may appear that David “digs in on various positions” I’ve been reading him long enough to know that positions that seem biased in the moment, often turn out to be validated as the years go by. Steve Nash’s two MVPs and Derrick Rose’s MVP look sillier and sillier as time moves away from them. But, everyone was caught up in the narrative at the moment. Right now, everyone is caught up in how awesome James Harden is. MVP-material. But, if in 5 years, he’s only made it out of the first round once or twice in a decade, how foundational of a player is he really? So, we’ll all just have to wait and see how history validates our opinions. Thus far, David is mostly right to defend his initial position. Nothing Harden has done up to this point invalidates what he's written.

Harden is certainly a creative passer, but leading the league in assists doesn’t a good passer make. Especially when you’re also leading the league in turnovers. Stockton, Nash, Paul, all led the league in assists and never came close to leading the league in turnovers per game. Nash and Stockton matched or exceeded Harden’s assist output, but never breached 4 turnovers a game.

5.8 turnovers a game is…awful. What makes this even worse is that Harden has the floor spread nearly the entire time with shooters all over. Westbrook’s 5.4 is equally awful, but he’s working with a lot less space and a disjointed team. Context is important when discussing the MVP credentials of candidates.

Regarding the 2015 playoffs. Harden’s assists made zero difference in the Clippers series. He lost every game he had double digit assists, save his triple double in game 5 (and game one against the Mavs). He had a couple of impressive games in the WCF (near triple doubles), but I don’t believe anyone was criticizing him for losing to the Warriors. And, the games they were close, he was dropping 38-45 points. So…not sure why he should be praised for his passing. He had 12 turnovers in game 5 of the WCF.

I still feel he’s a bigger, sturdier, more athletic version of Steve Nash, with the potential to be better if for no other reason than those facts (but also because he’s a better shot creator and has an uncanny knack for getting to the line). As Nick and David both pointed out, Harden's nowhere near the leader he needs to be. But, others figured things out from a mental perspective later in their careers. Harden is only 27 years old.

That said, he’s very much still gimmicky. Part of maturity is growth as a player. And while Harden's assists have grown, not much else about his game has. In fact, D'Antoni and Morey have only enabled Harden's worst bad habits. They've gone all in on his gimmicks. And gimmicks get exposed in the playoffs, where, he has been…well, exposed…up to this point in his career.

 
At Thursday, January 19, 2017 9:09:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

*sees All-Star starters, buys popcorn, eagerly watches David's blog*

 
At Friday, January 20, 2017 11:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jordan, I think you're getting caught up too much in David's writing and are failing to understand what the MVP means. The MVP is each season is for that regular season only, not past seasons/postseasons or future seasons/postseasons. While I probably would've taken James before the 2011 playoffs started and certainly would've after the ECF, Rose still had the better regular season and certainly deserved the MVP that season for leading his team to a #1 seed over James star-studded MIA team. If we rewarded the 2011 MVP after the Finals, then Dirk deserved it, not James. And what Harden did in 2015 was special(almost everyone could see that), and what he's doing this season is even more special. If you want to slight him, that's fine, that's your choice. I would take Durant or James for the playoffs, too, over Harden and probably RW, but that's different. Durant, RW, and Harden are all outplaying James so far this regular season. If so James is clearly the best, then he should play like the best, which he isn't. On paper, yes, it's James, but games aren't played on paper. David often doesn't get this. His skill-set reports are usually right on, except with Harden, but in the end that's all they are, just skill-set reports.

Nash is different since he not only won one MVP, but two. Also, he was only the 2nd or 3rd best player on a 2004 DAL team who lost badly in the 1st round to SAC, and had never been anywhere close to winning an MVP. Then, at age 30 (an age where players usually start to decline-Nash didn't but his improvement was very slight if any and greatly overexaggerated by his supporters), Nash wins MVP. Even in D'antoni's system, Nash's stats barely improved that year. I can see the case Nash deserved to be in the conversation for MVP, but he certainly didn't have more of an impact than many players in the league.

If you think Harden only is top 15 maybe, that's your opinion. His career speaks otherwise, though. He's never been close to having a star-studded team in HOU, and HOU has had quite a bit of success so far. If David thinks Harden losing in 1st round to elite contenders like OKC in 2013 and GS in 2016 with minimal help are examples to prove Harden isn't nearly as valuable as people think he has, then that's his opinion. Doesn't make a lot of sense, but he can still think that.

Harden's played a big role on 3 WCF teams, including leading one without another AS and playing without 2 starters for the entire postseason. RW always had Durant until and in 2015(when he missed the playoffs) and Harden for a few seasons(one which resulted in his only Finals trip when he stunk in the 2012 WCF). Durant flamed out badly in the 2nd in 2013 when RW went down. It's odd that Harden can't have even a little help, but I hear so many excuses for other players when someone else on their teams misses even 1-2 games.

 
At Sunday, January 22, 2017 6:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I just noticed about HOU's offensive rebounding that David was so quick to dismiss an additional whopping 0.2-0.3 offensive rpg for Harden, is that HOU is averaging fewer offensive rpg in 2017 than in 2016. So, the perceived 9 extra 3's/game in 2017 from 2016 for HOU resulting in more offensive rebounds isn't actually happening. Harden's offensive rebounding rate has slightly increased more than defensive rebounding rate from 2016. But, comparing his 2015 offensive rebounding rate to 2017, it's the same increase as his defensive rebounding rate from 2016 to 2017. His defensive rebounding rate has actually increased more than his offensive rebounding rate if comparing 2015 to 2017.

 
At Sunday, January 22, 2017 6:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

It is amusing that you so heavily praise Harden's one fluky WCF appearance while simultaneously dismissing Westbrook's four WCF appearances as option 1b.

Cite a specific example of "excuses" that I made for Westbrook or Durant. Until you can, don't expect to post any more comments containing that allegation.

Regarding offensive rebounds, I never said anything about Houston's team totals. I said that Houston's style of play creates more offensive rebound opportunities for guards (long shots typically=long rebounds).

 

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