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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Defining Impact on Winning and Evaluating Great One on One Scorers

Here are some recent NBA headlines: "Harden's 47 points lead Rockets over Jazz 102-97," "Harden has 2nd straight triple-double, Rockets top Grizzlies," "Harden's 50-point triple-double leads Rockets over Lakers," and "Harden scores 29 to lead Rockets past Blazers 111-104." Those headlines would lead one to believe that James Harden is the primary, if not only, reason that the Houston Rockets are enjoying a four game winning streak. There is no doubt that Harden has posted impressive individual numbers during these four games--but does that mean there is a connection between his numbers and the team's success?

I have often said that Harden is an updated version of Stephon Marbury, meaning that he puts up numbers that are not really impacting winning. I have been asked/challenged at times to explain or justify that assertion.

So, let's look at some other numbers from that winning streak, during which Houston beat Utah 102-97, Memphis 105-97, the L.A. Lakers 126-111 and the Portland Trail Blazers 111-104. Harden's plus/minus numbers from those games are -1, +3, +14 and -15 respectively. Thus, the Rockets outscored their opponents by 35 points but they only outscored them by one point while Harden was in the game.

Plus/minus numbers can be noisy for a variety of reasons but they are not completely meaningless, particularly when they are used in conjunction with the eye test. The eye test tells us that Harden is flashy, that Harden scores a lot, and that Harden holds onto the ball for most of the shot clock such that it is highly likely that if Houston scores while he is in the game he will either be making the shot or delivering the assist. The eye test also tells us that he is, at best, a lazy and indifferent defender, though his attention seems to pick up at least momentarily if someone posts him up.

Take away the offensive sizzle and the defensive fizzle and what do you have? Sound and fury signifying, if not nothing, then very little in regards to winning basketball.

Why are the Rockets winning now? Collectively, they are defending better. Their bench is playing much better and is killing the other team's bench on many nights. Also, at the end of the Lakers' game, Harden did take over by hitting several clutch shots. Not surprisingly, that is the one game out of this four game sample size during which his plus/minus numbers were significantly positive.

If you believe in basketball karma (or just karma in general), you also have to think that the way Harden is allowed to repeatedly commit fouls and violations on offense is going to come back to haunt him, as it has throughout his postseason career when he is awarded bogus calls much less frequently. His step back, step back move last night versus Utah--which in old school terminology is known more simply as a traveling violation--is just the latest, most egregious example of how Harden is permitted to blatantly break the rules. The media narrative is that he is a foul-drawing genius. Some people call him the greatest one on one player in the game today, if not all-time. I get sick to my stomach when I hear that.

Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had fundamentally complete skill sets in all areas of the court, plus supreme athleticism. Julius Erving did not have as great or consistent of a jump shot as those guys, but during his prime it was impossible to guard him one on one. George Gervin, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Bernard King and Mark Aguirre did not have the all-around games that Erving, Jordan and Bryant did, but as pure one on one scorers they take a back seat to no one. Don't forget Jerry West and Pete Maravich as well. George Gervin was smooth and efficient. Adrian Dantley was an undersized post up technician with deceptive quickness and power. Alex English was a poet and he was poetry in motion. Bernard King was a scientific and explosive scorer who repeatedly practiced certain shots from various areas of the floor and then made sure that those were the shots he took during games. Mark Aguirre could teach a master class on post up play and he could also beat you off the dribble. Jerry West and Pete Maravich could shoot (and connect) from anywhere on the court at any time.

To put Harden in that group is an insult to the way that those players developed their craft so that they could score within the rules. Harden's points count in the record books, much like the home runs hit by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and the other PED cheaters, but just like Bonds, McGwire and the others did not truly surpass Hank Aaron, Harden has not truly surpassed his great predecessors. James Harden is regularly permitted to (1) travel, (2) lock his arms into the defender's, flail and be awarded two free throws, (3) jump into a stationary defender while shooting a three pointer and be awarded free throws, and (4) bulldoze into the lane, commit an offensive foul but instead be awarded free throws. These things do not happen once in a while; they are a regular part of Harden's repertoire. I am not convinced that he could score much more than 20 ppg if he were officiated correctly.

Most conspiracy theories regarding the NBA are nonsense but one has to wonder if the NBA is for some reason invested in Harden's success and/or invested in promoting offense in general to the point that defense becomes an afterthought (at least until the playoffs, when some semblance of sanity returns). During the Lakers' game, the Lakers resorted to keeping their hands down or completely away from Harden so that they could not possibly be called for a foul. Of course, that just lets Harden shoot uncontested shots that any competent NBA player can make. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich figured out several years ago that Harden must be defended with "high hands" (which makes a lot more sense than no hands, which the Lakers tried), because if a defender moves his hands anywhere near Harden then Harden is going to be awarded free throws.

If you are too young to remember Adrian Dantley, then find some old footage and watch how he drew fouls. He used impeccable footwork, fakes and body positioning. He made basketball moves to score and if he got fouled he earned it. He did not bulldoze opponents, he did not travel and he did not flail.

The way that James Harden plays is not great one on one offense and the way that the NBA officials let him get away with blatant fouls/violations makes Harden almost unwatchable for any basketball purist.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:21 PM



At Thursday, December 20, 2018 4:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is very irritating to hear people refer to Harden's step back three as "unguardable". Lenient travel non-calls aside, it certainly is a high difficulty shot that can be impossible to defend when it's working but it doesn't have the necessary consistency to rightfully be considered unguardable. Kareem's skyhook, Nowitzki's step back fadeaway and Durant's version of it are legitimately unguardable shots because they consistently resulted in a basket in any situation from the beginning of the regular season to key moments in the NBA Finals. Harden's step back three has too frequently been defanged by the pressure of playoff basketball and does not display the consistency to be legitimately considered "unguardable".

At Thursday, December 20, 2018 4:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that Harden’s step back three is not in the same category as the iconic shots you referenced.

Unfortunately, Harden’s shot cannot be contested when he is permitted to take several steps without a dribble prior to shooting. Of course, the impact of this is mitigated in the playoffs, as you indicated, because Harden tends to choke then even when his shots are not contested.

At Saturday, December 22, 2018 2:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's unreal how people call this guy the greatest offensive player ever and dare to put him in the same sentence as Bryant and MJ. There are a handful of players with a more complete offensive game that I would put ahead of him before we even get into the Bryant and Jordan stratosphere. If his step back 3 doesn't fall and the refs doesn't give him those touchy fouls he's ineffective just like we saw in 2015 against the Clippers and Warriors and Game 6 against Spurs in 2017.

Just on the top of my mind I would put these players above him: McGrady, Durant, Arenas, Iverson, Irving, Westbrook, Brandon Roy, Pierce.

At Monday, December 24, 2018 11:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Harden is not nearly as good as advertised. He's similar to Arenas (who was also overrated) but you are correct that McGrady, Durant, Iverson, Irving, Westbrook, Roy and Pierce are superior offensive threats (and the list does not end there).


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