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Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Is James Harden the Greatest NBA Scorer of This Era?

It is fitting that the night after Kirk Goldsberry asserted that James Harden "is the greatest scorer of this NBA era" Harden scored 50 points on 11-38 field goal shooting in Houston's 135-133 double overtime loss to San Antonio. Harden set an NBA regular season single game record for most free throws made without a miss (24), but he missed 16 of his 20 three point field goal attempts, and no matter how you crunch/twist/torture the points per shot/points per possession numbers, this is not efficient basketball, it is not winning basketball, and it is not entertaining basketball. Based on the data available at BasketballReference.com, Harden's .289 field goal percentage is by far the worst ever posted by a player who scored at least 50 points in an NBA game, and--by a smaller margin--it is also the worst ever posted by a player who scored at least 40 points in an NBA game. Harden capped his bricklaying by committing an offensive foul on Houston's last possession of double overtime with the Rockets trailing by two points.

Goldsberry's ESPN.com article declared that Harden is "regularly inventing new fundamentals," that he has brought back "hero ball," and that he is "reforming the conventional wisdom of the modern NBA in real time." Goldsberry praises Harden's record-setting foul drawing, but it is disingenuous to do so without acknowledging the plentiful video evidence that Harden often benefits from calls that are flat out wrong: Harden travels, he initiates contact in an illegal manner but fools the referees into thinking that the defender has fouled him, and Harden has convinced referees to carve out a "landing space" for him that essentially makes it impossible to challenge Harden's shot without being whistled for a foul (which is why some frustrated defenders have resorted to guarding Harden with their hands behind their backs so that there is no way that a foul will be called against them, but of course that also enables Harden to shoot uncontested shots that any competent NBA player can make).

Goldsberry is not the first observer to make outlandish claims about Harden's greatness, and I have expressed skepticism about Harden's impact on winning and incredulity at the notion that Harden is as good of a scorer as Michael Jordan was.

Before examining yet again the flaws in Harden's game that giddy commentators ignore or do not understand, it is worth reviewing why Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were not only better scorers than Harden but also far superior all-around players. Both Jordan and Bryant had fundamentally sound and complete offensive repertoires: they could score in the post, they could finish at the hoop with either hand, they had impeccable footwork, they could score from midrange, they were excellent free throw shooters, and they could draw fouls without resorting to gimmicks and/or tricking the referees. They were both adequate three point shooters in eras during which the three point shot was not a primary offensive weapon for most teams and most players. They were also both elite defenders, and they both consistently demonstrated the ability to elevate their play--and the play of their teams--against elite competition during the playoffs. Jordan's teams went 6-0 in the NBA Finals, while Bryant's teams went 5-2 in the NBA Finals. Put Jordan or Bryant in any era, under any set of rules and/or playing conditions, and they both would have excelled; put Jordan or Bryant in this era--with no perimeter hand checking, small lineups bereft of rim protection, and an emphasis on offense over defense--and both would easily average 35-40 ppg for several years in a row.

Harden is a good three point shooter, and an excellent free throw shooter. He finishes well at the hoop. The rest of his scoring repertoire is limited. His footwork is not fundamentally sound, he is unwilling or unable to post up, and he does not have much of a midrange game. As a result of these deficiencies, Harden has to--as Charles Barkley puts it--"dribble, dribble, dribble" in order to score. While Harden is dribbling, his teammates are frozen out and the shot clock is winding down. A truly great perimeter scorer can generate a good shot by taking one or two dribbles and then either elevating directly into his shot, or else using footwork and shot fakes to get open. Harden is praised for his ability to create space, and his ability to draw fouls, but--as noted above--it is not correct to state or imply that Harden is better at drawing legitimate fouls than legends such as Jerry West, Adrian Dantley, Nate Archibald and other players who attempted a large number of free throws: Harden creates space by traveling, and a large percentage of the fouls he draws involve him pushing off, or hooking the defender's arm and then acting like the defender hooked him, or using an exaggerated follow through on his three point shots to make it appear that the defender has violated his landing space (one great meme that I saw a while back depicted Harden's landing space as being the same size as the area used by an Olympic long jumper, because Harden will jump forward, backward or sideways depending on the situation--no one can seriously argue that Harden's follow through is a legitimate or normal basketball move, or that the landing space that referees protect for him makes sense within the letter or spirit of the rule).

From a statistical and analytical/strategic standpoint, what Harden is doing is eliminating virtually any shot from his repertoire other than point blank field goal attempts (layups/dunks), free throw attempts, and three point attempts. By playing this way, Harden's numbers are "efficient" even when he shoots a horrible field goal percentage, because his points per possession average will always be boosted by his free throws and three pointers. The downsides of Harden's "efficiency" are not so easy to quantify or prove, but they include (1) shutting his teammates out of the offense for extended stretches (rendering the team easier to guard, and those players less ready to produce when called upon to do so), (2) generating a lot of empty possessions when Harden misses from the field or turns the ball over, and (3) overly relying on one player to the extent that if he slumps or gets hurt the team may be unable to adapt. Those downsides have not caused too many problems during the past few regular seasons, but they have been major issues during the playoffs. It is fair to question whether this supposedly revolutionary style of play is ever likely to result in Houston winning a championship. Championship teams are usually very good defensively, and they usually feature a player who can be relied upon not only to carry a heavy scoring load but also to score crucial points down the stretch in the playoffs against elite defenses.

When Harden forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he wanted to be the number one option and not the number three option, I compared him to Manu Ginobili and suggested that if Harden valued winning over individual glory then he would have accepted a Ginobili role as opposed to trying to lead a team. I did not think that Harden had the skill set or durability to score more than 25-28 ppg, and I did not think that he could be the best player on a championship team. I would never have imagined that Harden would score as prolifically as he has for the past few seasons, but I also would never have imagined that the league would let anyone get away with the traveling and offensive fouls that Harden is permitted to commit. I give Harden credit for being physically stronger and more durable than I anticipated, but he has yet to refute my contention that he is not well suited to being the best player on a championship team; Harden's playoff meltdowns are as legendary and dramatic as his regular season scoring extravaganzas.

The big problem with Harden's game is that many of his tactics that work, or seem to work, or are permitted by lax officiating to work, during the regular season do not work during the playoffs. In the playoffs, the officiating is better and stricter, so Harden cannot camouflage his poor shooting nights by generating a parade to the free throw line. Also, the value of each playoff game is much higher than the value of each regular season game; six months from now, no one is going to remember or care that Harden's charge cost the Rockets a chance to tie the game versus the Spurs, but a gaffe like that during a seven game playoff series could be the difference between advancing and being eliminated.

By the way, it is worth noting that it is not a coincidence that Harden's video game numbers have surged this season while playing alongside Russell Westbrook. Last season, Westbrook's teammate Paul George had the best season of his career and finished third in MVP voting after only receiving  MVP votes once before (2013-14, when he finished ninth in the balloting). Kevin Durant won his only regular season MVP playing alongside Westbrook. Westbrook has demonstrated throughout his career that he is willing to be the second option on offense, and that he can adapt his game to enable his teammates to shine. The Rockets would be unstoppable offensively if they properly leveraged Westbrook's ability to attack the hoop in transition with Harden's half court game, but the Rockets seem determined to sink or swim with Harden as the focal point.

This season, Harden may very well average more points per game than any player other that Wilt Chamberlain ever has. Harden may put up numbers that will be deemed "efficient." Harden may be praised as the greatest drawer of fouls ever, despite of reels of video evidence that Harden is cheating the game with his extra steps, his push offs, his arm hooks, and his exaggerated landing space.

However, if Harden continues to play this way--and there is no reason to believe that he is willing or able to change at this point--his team will once again go down in flames during the playoffs, and Harden will once again be the primary culprit.

The analytics that Houston loves do not account for all aspects of the game of basketball; they do not account for the fact that Harden's style of play freezes out his teammates, so that his teammates do not know when/if they will be expected to shoot. As Barkley and Kenny Smith discussed during the most recent Inside the NBA episode on TNT, it is a lot of pressure for a role player to go long stretches without touching the ball and then be expected to nail a shot with the shot clock about to expire. Smith said that the ability to do this is what made Robert Horry special and great as a role player who thrived in clutch situations, but that Houston's style of play forces Harden's teammates to have an Horry mentality every game, which is a large burden to carry.

There is a myth floating around that Harden's Rockets did better against the dynasty Golden State Warriors than any other team, but of course that contention is false because (1) Cleveland beat the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals and (2) Toronto beat the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals. Maybe no one could have predicted that Houston would miss 27 straight three pointers in an elimination game, but I have often pointed out that shooting a large number of three pointers is a high risk/high variance choice, and that even if the overall percentage turns out well the percentage in a key game could be atrocious, with a disastrous result on the game's outcome; prior to Houston's 2018 playoff matchup with Golden State, I predicted that Houston could very well beat Golden State by more than 20 points in one game and still end up losing the series. Houston won by 22 points on the road in game two, took a 3-2 series lead--and then fell apart when it mattered most in game seven with 7-44 three point shooting, including the aforementioned 27 straight misses. Harden shot 12-29 from the field in game seven, including 2-13 from three point range. The supposedly consummate drawer of fouls shot 6-8 from the free throw line. When it mattered most, Harden could not buy a three point basket, could not draw many fouls, and was unwilling/unable to utilize any other offensive skill. Jordan and Bryant had some playoff games during which they did not shoot well, but they had the ability to impact the game in other ways, and they did not monopolize the ball by dribbling to the extent that they froze out their teammates.

Harden is a talented and durable player, and he would be a prolific--but not record-setting--scorer without the gimmicks, but he is not as great as his fans suggest that he is, and, more importantly, his playing style does not maximize his team's opportunity to win a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM

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Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Carmelo Anthony Wins Western Conference Player of the Week Honors

Carmelo Anthony just earned the Western Conference Player of the Week award after averaging 22.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 2.7 apg as his Portland Trail Blazers went 3-0 last week. This is Anthony's 19th Player of the Week award, but his first since March 10, 2014.

Anthony had a shaky season debut after being out of the league for over a year, and in his first three games with the team he averaged just 13.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 1.7 apg while shooting .441 from the field (including .313 from three point range) and .667 from the free throw line as Portland went 0-3. Anthony's improved performance in the next three games pushed his overall six game averages to 17.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 2.2 apg in 30.7 mpg.

Each of Anthony's first three games took place on the road, while Portland played two of the next three games at home as Anthony found his stride and the team won three games in a row for the first time since April 2019, when the Trail Blazers won the final three games of the regular season and then captured the first two games of their first round playoff series versus Oklahoma City.

It will be interesting to see if Anthony and the Trail Blazers can maintain anything close to the level of play from the last three games for the rest of the season. The three wins accompanied by gaudy statistics came at the expense of Oklahoma City and Chicago (twice). Portland faces a big challenge tonight on the road versus the L.A. Clippers, but then the Trail Blazers have a four game homestand during which they play Sacramento, the L.A. Lakers, Oklahoma City, and the New York Knicks; the L.A. teams will be tough to beat, but the other games should be very winnable, particularly at home.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:11 PM

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