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Saturday, December 29, 2018

James Harden's Scoring Streak and His Motivation

James Harden has scored at least 35 points in six straight games, tying Carmelo Anthony (2012-13) for the third longest such streak in the past 20 seasons. Kobe Bryant scored at least 35 points in 13 straight games (2002-03) and LeBron James accomplished the feat in nine straight games (2005-06). Harden's scoring exploits have, according to some accounts, vaulted him back into MVP contention.

It seems like winning a second consecutive MVP is a major motivation for Harden. Harden said, "I mean, yeah. Of course I should be in the conversation. I mean, I receive a lot of hate, but it won't stop me from killing every single night, being that dog that I am. You can name a few other people that should be in the conversation. But realistically? It's coming back."

Harden's Houston Rockets won a league-best 65 regular season games in 2017-18 but began this season in embarrassing fashion, at one point ranking as low as 14th in the 15 team Western Conference. It is no secret that Harden began the season in less than stellar shape. One would think that the eighth highest paid player in the NBA this season ($30,570,000) should begin the season in top condition and that he would be criticized for not doing so. Instead, Harden is being praised for his recent commitment to training, which apparently did not begin until Harden got motivated by "hate" and by not being mentioned as an MVP candidate.

How does Harden's scoring streak compare to Bryant's 2003 streak?

During Bryant's 13 game streak in 2002-03, he averaged 42.4 ppg, with two 50-point games and a streak of nine straight games during which he scored at least 40 points. That 40-point scoring streak tied Michael Jordan for the fourth longest ever (not just the past 20 years), surpassed only by three Wilt Chamberlain streaks of 14, 14 and 10 games. Bryant put together seven 40-point scoring streaks of at least three games (the January 2012 streak referenced in that article lasted one more game to reach four before being snapped) and his teams went 25-9 (a .735 winning percentage equivalent to a full season record of 60-22) during the games in those various streaks.

Bryant's L.A. Lakers went 11-2 during his 2013 streak. They had a scoring differential of +90. Bryant's plus/minus total during those games was +127, meaning that the Lakers were outscored by 37 points when he was on the bench. Essentially, the Lakers played like one of the most dominant teams of all-time while he was on the court during that stretch, and they played like a Lottery team when he was not on the court. Bryant shot .487 from the field in those 13 games, including .455 from three point range.

During Harden's ongoing six game streak, he has averaged 40.3 ppg. The Rockets have gone 5-1 in those games, with a scoring differential of +46. Harden's plus/minus total during those games is +38, which means that the Rockets have outscored their opponents even when Harden has been on the bench. Harden has shot just .413 from the field overall, including .411 from three point range. Harden is averaging 15 three point field goal attempts per game during his streak, while Bryant attempted five three point field goals per game during his streak.

So, at this point Harden's streak is not even half as long as Bryant's, Harden is scoring slightly less with a much worse shooting percentage and Harden's team success is much less directly linked to his on court time than Bryant's team success was linked to his on court time.

Bryant often received criticism for shooting too much but that complaint is rarely if ever uttered about Harden, who shoots a lower percentage than Bryant and whose performance is less directly connected to his team's performance.

All that being said, it would not be shocking to see Harden join the two MVP club, even though Bryant finished third in the 2013 balloting and only won one regular season MVP (2008) despite being the best all-around player in the league for several years.

NBA regular season MVP voting started to go off the rails in the 1990s, when the media voters decided that it was boring to keep giving the award to Michael Jordan and thus they started to find reasons/excuses to give MVPs to other players based on the premise that while Jordan may be the league's best player he was not the best performer in a given season. Thus, Charles Barkley (1993) and Karl Malone (1997) won MVPs when Jordan was near the height of his powers as an individual performer and at his peak as the driving force (along with Scottie Pippen) of one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

At least Jordan won five regular season MVPs, tied with Bill Russell for second on the all-time list behind Kareem Abdul Jabbar's six. Shaquille O'Neal was the most dominant force in the league for years, yet he only received one regular season MVP (2000). Allen Iverson and Steve Nash each received MVPs that should have gone to O'Neal (2001 for Iverson, 2005 for Nash; Nash's 2006 MVP should have gone to Bryant). While Tim Duncan was a worthy MVP winner in 2001 and 2002, it could be argued that O'Neal should have won one or both of those MVPs as well.

James Harden is a very talented offensive player but awarding him one MVP--let alone two (if he wins this year)--while LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis are better all-around players defies logic.

Making this argument seems to be a losing battle, because the pro-Harden narrative is so deeply entrenched that it probably will not be seriously reexamined during this era. Nevertheless, it is still important to point out the flaws in that narrative.

If Harden does win his second MVP, it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to get into shape next season. Will he wait until January? Or will two MVPs satisfy his personal goals, so that he can just collect his guaranteed money for the duration of his contract without bothering to get into peak condition at all?

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:55 PM

14 comments

14 Comments:

At Saturday, December 29, 2018 7:59:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree that Harden winning two MVPs, let alone two consecutive ones, would be a borderline travesty. Very few players have won back to back MVPs:

Steph Curry ('15-'16)
LeBron James ('09-10, again in '12-'13 and he likely would have won five straight with '11 if he had not pissed off the entire voting base by going to Miami)
Steve Nash ('05-'06)
Tim Duncan ('02-'03)
Michael Jordan ('91-'92)
Magic Johnson ('89-'90)
Larry Bird ('84-'86)
Moses Malone ('82-'83)
Julius Erving ('74-'76, though in '75 he was co-MVP with George McGinnis)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ('71-72, '76-'77)
Wilt Chamberlain ('66-'68)
Bill Russell ('61-'63)

Looking at that list of twelve names, 11 of them have a strong claim to being a Top 20 all-time player. Ten of them have a defensible Top 10 case and Curry may well make it 11 depending how the rest of his career goes. Eight of them were Top 5 guys on both ends of the court during their apexes (and of the four who weren't, Curry is/was above average if unremarkable defensively, Russell was average to above average on offense, and Magic was below average but not abysmal on defense. Nash was a famously poor individual defender but a motivated/engaged team defender and annually a league-leader in charges taken). The weakest player on that list is Steve Nash.

Now, there's some kicking and screaming about Nash's MVPs, but he won them for two fairly common/accepted MVP reasons: in '05 he was the best player on the league's best team, and in '06 he carried a dramatically under-manned team missing its second best player to a 60+ win season.

Nash was also a better shooter than Harden, a better passer than Harden, and much more strongly correlated to his team's success than Harden.

I don't personally think James Harden-- a one-way player of variable efficiency who needs to be protected on defense and catered to on offense--has ever deserved an MVP but can swallow him winning it last year under the "best player on the best team" justification. Given that his team this year will end up at best upper mid tier, possesses another star, and plays well without him, I cannot conceive of a justification for him to win it this year unless perhaps he keeps that scoring streak going until April.

Whether or not you believe Nash deserves to be on that list (I'm largely ambivalent and can see the case on both sides; more specifically, I think whether or not he deserved either largely hinges on how much you think a team's overall performance should factor into the award), it is hard to see Harden in the same light as Doc/Kareem/Jordan/Duncan (my picks for the four greatest players of all time).

As an aside, I would also amend that I do think there are a few players who *should* be on that list but aren't, namely Hakeem ('94-'95) and Shaq ('00-'01). There is probably also a case for Rick Barry ('75-'76) who received none, but that case would need to be predicated on different factors in '75 vs. in '76, which is a bit cherry-picking.

Before I get accused of bashing, I think Kobe at least arguably deserved 2 or 3 MVPs, but I don't think they would/should have been back to back.

You could add any of those four guys to that list and I wouldn't blink. Add Harden, though, and I'd not only blink, I'd... well, David's policy about the profane prevents me from being particularly specific about what I'd do with that list, but you catch my meaning.

1/2

 
At Saturday, December 29, 2018 8:01:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

Moving on from historical precedent...

"James Harden is a very talented offensive player but awarding him one MVP--let alone two (if he wins this year)--while LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis are better all-around players defies logic."

I agree and would add at bare minimum Giannis, Kawhi, Embiid, Butler, and Jokic to that list this season, with another half-dozen guys you could make a strong case for if you were so inclined. I am not even sure James Harden is one of the best five* guards in the league, never mind one of the best five players, and ESPECIALLY never mind the best one.

*I personally would rather have Curry, Westbrook, Thompson (though he's semi-slumping right this second), Irving, and Holiday, and I wouldn't laugh out of the room anyone who added Lowry, Walker, DeRozan, or Chris Paul to that list.

 
At Saturday, December 29, 2018 8:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Peak Nash was without question an All-NBA First Team caliber player and an MVP candidate, but I did not think that he should have won the award either time. He was not as absurd a selection as Harden but I never thought that Nash was the best player in the NBA.

I limited my list of players this season who have a better all-around skill set than Harden to five but, as you note, one could easily expand that list with many other names. The widespread notion that Harden is an MVP-caliber player--which is accepted even by some analysts who I respect--is just baffling to me. It seems like it is some kind of "stat guru"-induced collective delusion.

 
At Saturday, December 29, 2018 9:19:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree that Nash was never the best player in the league, but I don't think that Most Valuable always necessarily translates to "best." Everyone has their own alchemy for what constitutes "most valuable", but I do believe that team success should matter some (which is why I don't love some of Kareem and Moses' MVPs, and why I probably wouldn't have taken Kobe in '06 personally) and that quality of supporting cast matters; I think this season, given Lebron's apathy on defense at this point in his career, that Steph Curry is probably the best regular season player in the league, but I would not pick Curry for MVP over someone like Giannis if they ended up with similar team records, as Steph has KD/Klay/Draymond and Giannis... doesn't.

For certain value sets--those predicated primarily on either team record and/or quality of support-- I think either of Nash's MVPs are valid; I do however think it is difficult (although perhaps not impossible) to thread the needle with a value set where both are legitimate and understand the backlash against them.

For me personally, if I were to try and lay out rules, I'd say that I want the MVP to be a Top overall 5 player in terms of talent/skillset, and be the best player on a team with a Top 4 overall record. From there I may slide a guy up or down my ballot slightly if there are significant differences between supporting casts or if a player's team does especially well even when he is injured/sitting.

I also have a very hard time picking someone for MVP who is not at least the best player at his position, but I would be willing to make an exception in a case like that if that player was clearly the second best player in the league (regardless of position) and the better player's team had a significantly weaker record, though I can't off the top of my head think of a time that's happened.

 
At Saturday, December 29, 2018 9:35:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

As soon as I typed that I found a hole in my own rules; Top 4 team is not really what I mean so much as "meaningfully contending" team. That was a bas way of expressing it.

For instance, I think Hakeem probably should have won in '95, as he was the best player by IMO a wide margin--and with no disrespect meant to Shaq or Robinson, I think the ensuing playoffs back me up on that--was the same position as the guy who did win (and was better than him), and led his team to... a sixth seed. However, the Rockets were defending (and soon to be repeating) champions so I don't think of them as the usual road kill you can expect from a sixth seed. Additionally, they were largely only a sixth seed because of how miserable the team was when Hakeem was out (3-7).

There's a fine line between that and not picking Kobe in '06 (where I believe his team was either a 6 or 7 seed), I know, but for me the finicky difference there is that the Rockets were obviously a title threat and I don't believe that Lakers squad was. No fault of Kobe's, but if the goal of the league is to win championships, I think that the "Most Valuable" player in a given season must have a realistic chance of doing so.

 
At Saturday, December 29, 2018 10:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree that team success matters but I look at the MVP as an individual award and I prefer that it goes to the best player in the league, even if that player is stuck on a non-contending team. That does not often happen but when it does I think that individual brilliance should be honored.

 
At Saturday, December 29, 2018 10:41:00 PM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I can respect that take and these kind of distinctions are why there's never much of a consensus.

That said, if it only ever went to the best player about half as many guys would have won it, if that. Lebron and maybe Curry would have all of them since 2008 or so. Russell/Wilt would have had all of the 60s, Doc and Kareem all of the 70s (maybe Barry or Moses sneaks out with one), and early 80s. Magic and Bird would have the rest of the 80s, Jordan and Hakeem would have the 90s, then Shaq/Duncan/Kobe would eat up the first nine years of the 2000s before Lebron took over.

 
At Sunday, December 30, 2018 1:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A below-average defender who relies heavily on cheat code gimmickry to get his points and has been lackluster in the postseason throughout his career shouldn't be celebrated as Harden is being. I'm aware of how bitter that sounds but there is definitely a "The Emperor's New Clothes" theme with Harden and the media's perception of him. Every year they get so distracted and mesmerized by his glittering regular season numbers and then they conveniently go silent right after his annual playoff dud. Is it possible that Harden is only "unstoppable" and "the best iso player in the game" because the other team's defense is so paranoid about fouling him that they essentially don't even try to defend him? Trying to guard Harden is so maddening it literally instigated a brawl. Just as Brandon Ingram shouldn't have taken his frustration out on Harden, it doesn't make sense to blame Harden for getting the calls that he does but hopefully the officiating that greatly enhances his game stays in the regular season. It would be a real shame if Harden magicianed his way to a championship.

 
At Sunday, December 30, 2018 7:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I would be OK with the scenario you described or something similar to it, as opposed to handing out MVPs to other players based on one season narratives.

 
At Sunday, December 30, 2018 7:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I completely agree.

 
At Sunday, December 30, 2018 11:17:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I would also prefer that list to narrative-driven MVPs like Harden's but I do not believe all other "narrative" MVPS were fraudulent in the same way, and am ok with certain breeds of them. For instance, Dirk in '07 and RWB in '17 do not especially bother me, but I would be hard-pressed to argue that Dirk was better than the fourth best player in the league in '07 or that RWB was a better basketball player than Lebron, Curry, Kawhi, or Durant in '17. KG in '04 is another one I'd throw on that list, off the top of my head; he wasn't a better player than Shaq/Kobe/Duncan, but I don't consider him a fraudulent MVP.

I think all those guys were more "valuable" to their teams than the better players I listed in those seasons, for a variety of reasons.

 
At Monday, December 31, 2018 8:43:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

David:

Do you consider Davis to be a better player than Kawhi and Giannis?

 
At Monday, December 31, 2018 9:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

Some of the narrative driven MVPs may not have been "fraudulent" but in general I prefer that the award go to the best player.

 
At Monday, December 31, 2018 9:35:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I consider all three to be better than Harden, and by a good margin, which is the point of this article. When I wrote this piece I was not thinking in terms of ranking those players against each other, but just compiling an (incomplete) list of players who should clearly be ranked ahead of Harden, who has convinced himself that he should win a second MVP.

 

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